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Why automation shouldn’t be feared in quarrying

As the mining boom moves into a production/export phase and we adjust to a post-manufacturing reality, attention has turned to how Australia raises its productivity. 
Indeed, as our population ages, there’s the possibility, raised by Reserve Bank of Australia governor Glenn Stevens, that Australia won’t run out of jobs but out of skilled workers in the years ahead!

As a result, the scarcity of workers has led different sectors of industry to explore the viability of robotics and automation. Rio Tinto and BHP-Billiton manage automated operations in the Pilbara from remote control facilities in Perth, 1500km away. Driverless trucks and trains compensate for skilled workers in the northwest cape. 

More recently, Atlas Copco collaborated with Rio Tinto to achieve fully automated production bench drilling without operator intervention at a test quarry in the west. Transmin has also pioneered a control system for an automated rock breaker.

Even in quarrying, it is easy to take for granted how automated plant and equipment already is. Crushers and screens rely on a single operator to press options on a console. On pugmills you can choose from programmed “recipes” on a monitor. If there is pegging in a crusher, the monitor will indicate exactly where the problem is and there will be safer means of removing the obstruction. 

If you’re driving a loader or a dump truck, on-board sensors and cameras will warn you if a person or vehicle is in your blind spot. Furthermore, simulators make it possible to train on these vehicles without even setting foot in one. All these automated marvels are integral to the way the industry operates and make it more productive as a result.

The reliance in the minerals sector on advanced automation and robotics has led to fears that the humble miner and quarryman will be superseded. These fears are unfounded but it doesn’t help that the likes of Rio Tinto and the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) scaremonger about the “robotisation” of mining.

Rio Tinto CEO Sam Walsh recently attracted the CFMEU’s ire when he stated that Rio had pursued automation because of the massive wages the company has to pay in Australia and because robotics could be implemented to save on labour costs. 

Predictably, CFMEU national vice president Andrew Vickers fired a broadside at Rio, adding that robotics and automation would not necessarily enable Rio to reduce its workforce with the ease that it thinks.

And that is the nub of the argument. The minerals sector is still some way off from being fully automated. Indeed, researchers at the CSIRO have stated that the next phase of automation – called “assistive robotics” – should enhance workers’ capabilities. CSIRO has identified the retention and passing down of skilled knowledge between workers as a big problem area for businesses. 

To that end, an assistive robot can transmit information about how a new worker is performing tasks back to an experienced worker in a remote location. The experienced worker can then advise the new one accordingly. Far from phasing out workers, assistive robotics can “augment” them with the support they need and has the potential to lower business costs, increase productivity, retain work and retrain workers more quickly.

I’m no fan of the CFMEU but have to agree with Vickers’ point that humans will still have to service and maintain automated equipment – and that it may require a larger maintenance workforce. A robot can’t change the oil on a truck or change the tyres, Vickers argued. And he added that while it might be easy to navigate driverless trucks with a joystick, the “hard human labour on the ground doing the maintenance work” is irreplaceable.

As this issue of Quarry focuses on maintenance, you’ll see how the industry has wholeheartedly embraced automation across its operations. What is interesting in the long term is how the quarry worker’s role will be redefined by the automation of quarry sites in the future. There will still be quarry workers, they just won’t necessarily work the same way as you do today.

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Monday, 26 August, 2019 3:31pm
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