Sand Processing

Report warns automation could kill off labour

A study by the International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) and the Columbia Center on Sustainable Investment has warned that OECD countries such as Australia and developing countries are increasingly at risk of reduced socioeconomic benefits from mining with the rollout and expansion of existing new technologies.

According to the report – Mining a mirage? Reassessing the shared-value paradigm in light of the technological advances in the mining sector – the impacts will be most felt via “lost local employment and personal income tax revenue” and “reduced employment-related local procurement”.

An assessment of the current technologies being piloted today – eg driverless haul trucks and loaders, semi-autonomous crushers and rock breakers (including an acknowledgement of the cost savings delivered by the Metso Lokotrack LT160 at Boral’s Peppertree Quarry), automated drilling systems, GIS and GPS systems, autonomous equipment monitoring, PLCs and off-site control systems – led the report’s writers to conclude that the mining industry’s current drive to protect profit margins, cut labour costs and boost efficiency will lead to a surge in the development of labour-saving technologies that are likely to “reach their peak rates of deployment in the next 10 to 15 years”. This will mean fewer workers, as automation eliminates traditional jobs in drill and blast, and load and haul – areas that traditionally represent more than 70 per cent of mining employment.

Extracting better outcomes

The authors concluded that governments worldwide will need to extract better outcomes from mining companies in return for the lease of the minerals of which they are the custodians. They recommended a re-weighting of the shared-value proposition (eg through possible downstream, horizontal, knowledge and spatial linkages), revised fiscal regimes (eg more progressive tax regimes such as resource rent taxes or return-based sliding scale sharing arrangements; the report acknowledges a rent resource tax was tried and repealed in Australia), or a fundamental change to the relationship between states and mining companies (which advocates either increased government ownership of mines or private/public partnerships on mine projects).

However, equipment suppliers such as Komatsu and Caterpillar, which are at the forefront of developing automated technologies in their earthmoving equipment, have argued that while traditional roles will change in the extractive industry, the introduction of driverless vehicles is likely to result in other employment opportunities.

Caterpillar USA’s mining technology commercial manager Craig Watkins recently told Bloomberg that because mines are located in remote areas far from population centres, the technology makes it possible to attract a wider range of operator talent. This implied that driverless vehicles are capable of being operated from urban-based, off-site control centres, as both BHP and Rio Tinto have introduced in Perth to manage their operations in the Pilbara.

The research paper can be viewed at the IISD website.

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