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Eltirus are looking into the future

Eltirus Founder Steve Franklin was recently asked what key technologies and issues that the quarrying industry would face in the future. He penned his thoughts on it for Quarry

Decarbonisation is an important issue for the quarrying sector. 2030 is not that far away. What may be, is Australians pledge to reduce carbon emissions by 43 per cent.

To give some sense of the scale of what is required, take this example. According to Federal Climate Change and Energy Minister Chris Bowen, it’s estimated Australia must install 22,000 500-watt solar panels every day for eight years along with 40, seven-megawatt wind turbines every month – backed by at least 10,000 kilometres of additional transmission lines. These are big numbers in anyone’s books.

Many quarries struggle for sufficient power capacity. How would your site cope with the need to double the amount of energy you currently use (and a very ‘peaky’ demand at that) to run electric mobile equipment.

New energy infrastructure, electrical haul trucks and loading tools replacing diesel-powered ones, and new skill sets to maintain them are a star high goal with a seven-year time horizon.

If we look at business capital cycles and the time it takes to build new major infrastructure, we have to plan for these changes now.

Artificial intelligence

There is a lot of discussion about artificial intelligence (AI) and what it will mean for our jobs, our businesses and even mankind. While only early days, the initial results are quite remarkable. A colleague of mine noted that he had asked ChatGPT to write an article for him for submission to an overseas industry magazine and that he had been quite stunned by how good an article it was.

In contrast, you might recently have seen the picture of a building construction site with the hoarding carrying the message “Hey ChatGPT, finish this building…”.

While we may be a while off from the latter, there is no doubt whatsoever that AI will provide the smarts to make robotics for other than routine ‘assembly line’ actions viable.

New energy infrastructure, electrical haultrucks and loading tools are replacing diesel powered ones.

What we do know is that any AI works best on large datasets of relevant, clean information. Put simply, to learn it needs to have a lot of experience to draw on to be able to form useful conclusions. One of the foremost proponents of this in Australia explained it to me this way – if you know a song very well, even if parts of it are blanked out by silence, our minds allow us to ‘fill in the gaps’.

But what if we don’t know the ‘song’ (or its business equivalent)? While we tend to have large financial datasets, how many businesses collect and maintain large operational ones? One of the key issues that the mining industry is working on now are a common set of operational definitions and data taxonomy – why? So that they will be better able to compare data and make valid comparisons (whether with AI or not). By way of just one simple example – one truck manufacturer considers the time a haul truck cycle occurred at the start of the cycle, while another considers it at the end of the cycle – doesn’t sound like much until you have a multi-brand fleet and longer haul cycles.

We see that the collection of operational data into clean, consistent, and accurate data as a key business enabler.

Skills shortage

While there is a significant (and valuable) discussion in the industry about diversity and inclusion, we will need to address the fact that quarrying will become a much more technical business than it currently is. If nothing else, the regulators will increasingly expect us to meet similar standards in terms of survey, geology, and mining engineering as the rest of the extractive industries.

Having accurate surveys, effective geological information, engineering-based geotechnical analysis and strong engineering foundations are critical in ensuring safe, effective, and profitable operations.

The question is, “where will these technical professionals come from?”

To give some sense of why I would pose this question, take note of a recent statement by BHP Australia boss Geraldine Slattery, who noted in the Australian Financial Review that “…the country’s talent pipeline was drying up, with the number of mining engineering graduates falling by 74 per cent between 2015 and 2022… Meanwhile, labour productivity had declined by 8 per cent, while labour costs had doubled.”

We already know there is an increasing shortage of quarry managers and supervisors, and anything done to address this lack and work to bring new people into the industry and train the ones who are there is very necessary and a credit to all concerned. But is it also time for us to look a little further into the future and make sure that we are working to create the technical professionals that we will also need? Do our industry bodies and leading companies need to offer scholarships? Do we need to rely on immigration and hire overseas? Whatever our choice, we need to do something.

Understanding the need for and creating the technical professionals (not just management trainees) of the future is critical.

Autonomous operation

There is no doubt that autonomous operation will come, though interestingly I think it will now come after decarbonisation (I previously thought it would come first) and ride in parallel with advances in AI and on the back of increased site bandwidth.

As I have mentioned previously, the autonomous haultrucks we can expect to see in our industry are going to be very different to the trucks that the mining industry is currently using, not only in size but in how they are controlled.

By way of example, most autonomous mining trucks are ‘dumb’ – yes, they have a lot of sensors and can operate without a driver, but in reality, they are controlled from a central control room with the majority of the decisions made there, rather than on the machine. A new generation of technology is going to see that decision making pushed out to the truck in a so called ‘edge computing’ approach.

A combination of AI and new skills are going to change how we view autonomous operation.

Remote working

Another change for us to consider is the use of remote operations centres such as the one that Rio Tinto operates in Perth. Completed in 2010, Rio Tinto staff control autonomous rail operations and mining equipment over thirteen hundred kilometres away from the actual operations.

Why not for the quarrying industry, particularly on the larger sites? With the enabling technologies of autonomy, AI and sufficient bandwidth in place, we could see a transformative shift in our industry that will reduce costs, provide a better (and safer) working environment for our people and reduced environmental impacts.

We could also better position ourselves to attract the talent we are going to need to make these transformative changes – who would you rather work for, a large mining company who provides remote working and a better quality of life or a quarry company who doesn’t, irrespective of the remuneration.

Remotely operating our quarries will help us improve the quality of our employees lives and help us to attract and retain the talent we need. •

For more information, visit eltirus.com

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