Technological advancements are crucial to ensure Australia’s minerals industry continues to increase productivity and meet the global appetite for minerals and metals. Achieving net zero and securing a clean energy future will depend on both the application of technologies across the value chain, and a workforce with the skills to realise the benefits.
McKinsey & Company estimated Australia’s automation opportunity could add $1.1 trillion to $4 trillion to the economy over the next 15 years, providing every Australian with $4000 to $15,000 in additional income per year by 2030.
In a report commissioned by the Minerals Council of Australia, EY confirmed up to 23 per cent in potential productivity improvements for the mining industry by 2030 through digital transformation.
This will require investment of up to $35.2 billion in new technologies, and up to $12.8 billion in upskilling workers.
The minerals industry works with, and supports, research and development in an innovation ecosystem that accelerates the adoption of emerging technologies.
Technology-driven improvements are being realised through the mining life cycle – from exploration, development and operations, to closure and rehabilitation.
Autonomous machines, such as trucks, drones and drill rigs, remove humans from potentially hazardous situations. Leveraging big data, artificial intelligence (AI) and digital twins, performance and operations are optimised through reduced maintenance and fuel costs, increased accuracy and greater control.
Australia’s minerals industry is considered a global leader in mining innovation.
One of the most technologically advanced autonomous operations, Rio Tinto’s Gudai-Darri iron ore mine in the Pilbara, features the world’s first autonomous water trucks and a robotic ore sampling laboratory.
In another world-first, Newmont introduced an autonomous truck fleet at its Boddington open pit gold mine in 2021.
With centralised control hubs overseeing and controlling all aspects of a mining operation remotely, the need for workers on site in hazardous settings is reduced as they can perform their tasks in safer settings.
Known as integrated remote operating centres (IROCs), these hubs promote cross-functioning teams, system-wide data integration and increased intra-organisational workplace mobility.
Common across the mining industry, these IROCs are complex digital operations supported by production, downtime management, telecommunication systems, networks and CCTV cameras. Roy Hill, Newmont, BHP and Rio Tinto all have state-of-the-art IROCs operating across Australia.
At a site-by-site level, electrification and fuel switching are reducing emissions in support of the industry’s ambition to achieve net zero emissions by 2050.
Anglo American, in partnership with Aurizon, is exploring how it can apply its hydrogen fuel cell and battery hybrid power units in heavy haul freight operations. The goal is green hydrogen-powered trains for bulk freight at its Queensland operations.
The digital transformation is also driving a shift in the composition of the workforce, and the skills needed in the mines of today – and of the future.
In the midst of pursuing and securing the advantages of digital transformation, the importance of the workforce remains.
Since 2018, more than 43,400 jobs have been added to the Australian mining workforce, with projections of another 16,000 to be added by November 2026.
The mining industry’s high-tech operations will require more technology-focused skills and expertise. Leading-edge skills in advanced engineering, mathematics, AI and robotics will be in demand.
The workforce will also need enhanced cognitive skills – critical thinking, collaboration, problem-solving, communication and complex stakeholder management – to balance technology-enhanced workplaces.
Change management, advanced system development and integration, data science, and digital literacy skills will likewise be essential for industry to maximise these technologies.
Skilling the workforce now and into the future is more important than ever, and the digital transformation can help. It is changing the way people learn. Virtual reality (VR) and simulation technologies open the door for safer, more flexible and immersive training options – bringing the world of mining into the classroom setting.
New Hope’s Bengalla coal mine in the Hunter Valley uses advanced VR simulators to train employees to drive and navigate a 500-tonne truck without setting foot on a mine site.
The use of wearable technologies for health diagnostics is ensuring workers’ wellbeing on the job, and it can also be used for longer-term health management, such as predicting increased risk of heart disease.
Caterpillar’s smart band, similar to a fitness band, captures sleeping data and predicts worker fatigue.
On another level, higher education institutions are changing their approach and curriculum to adopt to contemporary industry practices, the technology evolution, and future of work.
Curtin University, Central Queensland University and the University of Southern Queensland updated their minerals-related curriculum – working in collaboration with industry to capture these changes. Curtin University also partnered with The University of Queensland to develop the Foundations of Modern Mining micro-credentials to upskill existing workers, and provide foundational knowledge of modern mining for new workers.
Industry, too, is driving programs to retain the existing and attract the future workforce.
Employees at South32 are helping to develop the next generation of scientists, engineers and coders. Through workshops and hands-on activities targeted at school-aged students, South32 demonstrates the role that STEM plays in the minerals and energy sectors.
Technological advancements complement the work humans do through augmentation, increased safety, and productivity gains.
In the mining industry, digital and innovative technologies help enhance efforts in exploration, and make mining operations, processing, transportation and trade more efficient and safer. They open opportunities for more complex and complementary work, and are bringing high-pay and high-skill jobs closer to where people live.
Australia’s minerals workforce is central to innovating the future through specialist technologies and digital transformation. Ongoing investment in the workforce will be central to the continued digital transformation of the industry, and will position it to capture the opportunities and associated benefits.
Learn more about Australia’s mining innovation ecosystem in the Minerals Council of Australia’s The Digital Mine: A review of Australia’s mining innovation ecosystem.