MINExpo panel highlights ongoing digital transformation of mining, need to recruit young talent

After a year-long delay, MINExpo 2021 – the mining industry’s first big in-person event since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic – […]
MINExpo 2021 opening panel in Las Vegas. Credi: MINExpo

After a year-long delay, MINExpo 2021 – the mining industry's first big in-person event since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic – kicked off yesterday in Las Vegas.

The massive three-day expo of the latest in mining equipment and technology usually takes place every four years, and was originally scheduled for September 2020.

With Covid travel restrictions still in place, attendance has been markedly lower this year. The organizer, the National Mining Association (NMA) says there are “thousands” of attendees from 30 countries at the convention, and 1,300 exhibitors from 30 countries. That compares with 44,000 delegates from 130 countries and 1,900 exhibitors in 2016.

Miners come to MINExpo looking for solutions aimed at improving productivity, safety and sustainability. This year's focus is on mining automation, electrification and digital transformation – all topics of an opening day panel moderated by A.B. Stoddard, associate editor and columnist with RealClearPolitics.

The livestreamed discussion included representation from miners Barrick Gold (president and CEO Mark Bristow), CONSOL Energy (president and CEO Jimmy Brock) and Arch Resources (president and CEO Paul Lang), as well as the two largest mining equipment manufacturers Caterpillar (resource industries group president Denise Johnson) and Komatsu Mining (president and CEO Jeffrey Dawes).

Information overload

While the panel noted that the mining sector has already seen huge advantages from the introduction of automation in safety and productivity, more progress is now needed in data analytics.

Barrick's Bristow said that although mining equipment already generates a lot of data, miners don't have the ability to process it and use it to gain insights.

“We know that airlines can monitor engines mid-flight across the Atlantic. Some of the equipment we use are already equipped to supply that sort of AI (artificial intelligence), but as miners we've got to invest in the proper platforms to be able to assimilate that.”

Bristow added that “AI is an abused term” in the industry “For us to get there, we have a little ways to go.”

Komatsu's Dawes noted that the pandemic has accelerated digital transformation, giving both miners and suppliers a “good shove” forward.

“For a year and a half, we couldn't get our technicians onto the mine sites – we pushed heavily into the remote health monitoring on the machines and developed our skills,” he said. As a result, both Komatsu and its mining clients have "gone up that curve very steeply" and realized the true value of remote monitoring and analytics. "We don't need so many people onsite anymore – we can do a lot of this analysis offsite.”

Investing in the future

While MINExpo is heavily focused on technology, the panel also discussed the need to attract smart young people to the industry.

Arch Resources' Lang says he's asked himself if he was 23 and just getting out of school now, would he would still choose to join the mining industry?

“It's a hard question to answer and it's not a pleasant question because the perception and the outlook are not what they were 40 years ago, and I find that a little sad,” he said.

The people piece is essential to solving the safety, sustainability and productivity challenges the mining, said Bristow.

“It's all about investment and we haven't invested in young people – and our own future. We're an industry that grasps at instant gratification and people and skills and communities require investment.”

He added that miners needed to step up recruitment of the best and brightest at universities, technical and training colleges.

“We've got to get to the front of the queue and get those really smart young people into our businesses so we can build those platforms that will give us the necessary information so can make the innovative breakthroughs that we need to make.”

MINExpo continues from Sept. 13-15.

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