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Walking through the Association of Mining and Exploration Companies Convention in Perth with prominent mining figure Dr Erica Smyth, it is impossible to ignore her significance to the industry.

Investors, industry leaders and fellow stalwarts stop her in the halls to pick her brain and remind her of the time they spoke at a conference back in the day.

Straight from giving the Sir Arvi Parbo Oration at the conference, Dr Smyth agreed to discuss the industry further with the National Mining Chronicle.
Her take on the current state of play in the Australian mining sector? Just another downturn, of which she has seen many during her four decades in the industry.
“I’ve seen it happen about three times before,” Dr Smyth said. “The market will turn; I’m not sure at what, it might be slower than what we expect, but it will turn.
“Demand will catch up with supply.”
Dr Smyth began her resources journey in 1974 as a geologist at BHP Billiton at Newman in the Pilbara.
As well as a tenure at BHP, Ms Smyth spent time at Woodside Petroleum, Toro Energy and has held positions on a number of boards, including ScreenWest and Scitech.
Dr Smyth said it was important for companies to use this time to ready themselves for when the market did pick up.
Smart leadership and fiscal responsibility were of utmost importance.
Dr Smyth’s former company where she served as chairwoman, Toro Energy, is currently readying itself for an uptick in the demand for uranium.
The company’s female leadership duo includes Chairwoman Fiona Harris and Managing Director Vanessa Guthrie.
Toro is currently in investment talks with different parties in regards to a deal that would see an equity stake of the Wiluna uranium project being sliced off for funding for the $315 million project.
“Toro is a good example because it is ready to go as soon as the market turns. The company is using this time quite effectively and there are others in the uranium space like Camico that have continued to invest,” she said.
Dr Smyth said companies needed to look at how technology could revolutionise the industry.
“Companies have to keep changing,” she said.
“In 1988 we had a new building at BHP in Melbourne that had a whole air-conditioned room for the data room full of computers and nowadays that whole computing grunt could fit on a normal laptop.”
Dr Smyth added that collaboration was essential in an industry that was too reliant on “silo work” (when certain departments or sectors do not share information with others in the same company, a type of mentality which may reduce efficiency in the overall operation, reduce morale and contribute to the demise of a productive company culture).
“What Woodside is doing with its innovation and technology part is a great example,” she said. “It is bringing people from across departments; they are not technical but they are people who are in finance and accounting who are brought in to make the data into a usable form to sort out issues that may be there.”
In her oration Dr Smyth gave a run-down of the technological advances that had propelled the industry.
She added that companies should look for what was coming next and how that could help productivity, particularly where the workforce was concerned. “What are the next things and how do you keep changing and how do you make use of that? There should be crossfunctional teams that are working in the data space,” Dr Smyth said.
“A lot of the companies are backing away from spending only because they haven’t got the money and this is the trouble in the downturn.
“I think we could get a lot cleverer about looking at the waste streams. There might be different ways of looking at a waste resource – can we use it for roads or construction material rather than thinking of it as waste?”
Dr Smyth said the workforce needed to join with companies on the journey; the days of paying any price just to get people up to the site were a thing of the past.
“The workforce has to be part of the solution,” she said.
“They’re going to be the smart people driving the trucks and responding to the productivity increase.
“In every level of organisations we’ve got to bring the experienced workforce with us and that means the workforce has got to be retrained.
“We’ve moved from old styles of how we move dirt, to new styles of how we use dirt. You can simulate the lot now and
it means you can get really experienced, really quickly.”
Dr Smyth called on the industry to remember that it was still possible to make money in the current market and that many people were.
“We’re mining an enormous amount of iron ore, coal and oil and gas, we’ve just got to get cleverer at doing that.
“We have suffered from very high costs and when you have very high costs it gets inefficient.
“I think in mining itself we will see much greater productivity as we start using the smarts embedded in vehicles and excavators and those smarts may be fully automated or it might be the vehicles giving the operator information about its usage.
“It’s about getting more tonnes out of a haul and that means least wear on tyres and brakes and highest fuel efficiency.
“The productivity gain has to be made first. There are always the true believers and those people will hang in there for as long as they possibly can.”


Erica’s achievements

- Bachelor of Science The University of Western Australia (UWA)
- Applied Master of Science McGill University, Canada
- Honorary Doctor of Letters UWA
- Elected Fellow of the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences and Engineering
- Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation Deputy Chairwoman
- Toro Energy former Chairwoman
- Diabetes Research Foundation of WA Chairwoman
- Royal Flying Doctor Service Non-Executive Director
- Emeco Holdings Non-Executive Director
- Deep Exploration Technologies CRC Non-Executive Director
- Harry Perkins Institute of Medical Research Director
- Chamber of Mines and Energy WA Women in Resources Lifetime Achievement Award Winner (2010)
- Women in Mining UK 100 Inspirational Women in Mining (2013)
- Member of Chief Executive Women

Image: The West Australian.