Australian mining sits at a crossroads when it comes to innovation and efficiency improvement, according to Schneider Electric Pacific Zone President and Managing Director Gareth O’Reilly.

Schneider, whose software technology enables staff on projects like Hancock Prospecting’s Roy Hill iron ore mine in Western Australia’s Pilbara region to operate with industry-leading efficiency, has long been an advocate for innovation in the Australian mining space.

Historically slow to adapt, real strides had been made in terms of embracing and adapting to technology in recent years, as attention turned away from output at all costs

and towards productivity, Mr O’Reilly told National Mining Chronicle, but there was still a risk the industry was moving too slow in a globalised competitive environment.

“Today, and particularly over the last 24 months, we’ve seen a number of companies overcome the inertia that existed to change to look at digitalisation, automation, industry 4.0 in the mine supply chain in extraction, transport and processing – it’s very different to how it has been,” he said.

“I think the conversation and the thinking has changed and there’s certainly an appetite and desire in the industry to look at production yields, supply chain optimisation and mine-to-market optimisation.

“What concerns me now is that if the inertia isn’t overcome quick enough, we will be left behind. There’s a balance to be found between making sure you keep your mines operating, but also making sure you build a mine for the future and not just for today.

“I’m concerned the industry’s not moving fast enough.”

The perceived threats to Australian mining’s prosperity are extrapolated not only to the speed of innovation uptake from players within the industry, but the increasingly globalised landscape in which our companies compete.

One only needs to look at the cross-country jostling for prime position in the emergent lithium space, where producers are not only developing mines but value-adding through significant investment in processing capabilities to meet the rapidly evolving needs of the fledgling battery market.

With larger companies and off-take buyers able to go where the money goes, Mr O’Reilly said Australian industry needed to move quicker to ensure it wasn’t left behind when it came to market share.

“In a global marketplace, the money will go where the best and most productive orebodies are,” he said.

“Those who move quicker on digitalisation and automation will succeed, but those who don’t, wont.

“The possible consequences of moving too slow for Australian mining are two-fold – either the capital will go elsewhere or the returns on investment will be less.”

As previously covered in the February/March edition of National Mining Chronicle, the rare opportunity Roy Hill had in opening later than the majority of its Pilbara competitors was the ability to get its systems and value chain right from the outset.

Rather than having to spend to adapt existing operations to integrate new technologies, Roy Hill was able to spend on working smarter from the very beginning.

With a number of lithium plays setting up and coming online in Australia over the past few years, and downstream processing also in its sights, Mr O’Reilly said Schneider saw a similar opportunity for these miners to get ahead early.

“The very apt discussion I’ve had with most the players in this space is two-scale,” he said.

“For those who have been here a while, what they need to do now is move rapidly to more state-of-the-art operations and maintenance systems. The greenfield operators have the same bene t of learning from other operators.

“Lithium mining and refining is different to other mining processes and therefore there’s very deep demand for expertise – drawing on other industries will also be required.

“Lithium miners and refiners in other parts of the world are quite manual and less automated, and that’s something that’s not going to scale here in Australia.

“We’re working with players in that space in terms of building a scalable, automated mine and refinery supply chain of the future – there is an opportunity to create something new and innovative in Western Australia.”

In all, Mr O’Reilly said Schneider was doing plenty to work with Australian miners in preparation for the next generation of industry challenges and opportunities.

“In mining we see the next phase of sustaining, creating additional capacity and yield and supply chain optimisation as key areas of focus,” he said.

“In emerging areas such as lithium and other technology metals, which are driven by big global shifts, we see a lead in the shift to a sustainable future through energy transition.

“Lithium and other specialty metals are a key part of that.”

Image: Gareth O’Reilly, The West Australian