Sustainability in mining automation
By Marc Poualion, Industry Marketing Lead, Metals and Mining, Aspen Technology

Sustainability is the hallmark of all great industries today, and mining is no exception.

More than a decade ago, the range of sustainability applications in advanced technologies for mining was relatively limited. Mining companies can now make meaningful improvements in almost every aspect of their operations by implementing an integrated solution that can increase revenue, decrease cost, and make operations safer and more sustainable; however, companies must ensure that they have the right expertise onboard and can thoroughly understand the fundamental root causes behind any given issue, and how that plays in the context of the wider organisation. It is also necessary to comparatively assess the various solutions available – with the required skill set and commitment to maintain adopted solutions on an ongoing basis.

With all great industries today, technology is mission critical to achieving operational excellence. The mining industry has expanded to become an extremely competitive sector in areas pertaining to revenue, as well as social and environmental factors. Mining companies that have developed strong partnerships with their relevant technology providers are among the most competitive and profitable firms in this highly volatile global marketplace.

Prioritising ethical business practices in automation

Thanks to the implementation of advanced safety systems, more detailed safety processes, better prevention education and the introduction of technology, it’s been decades since mining has been considered one of the world’s most dangerous industries. Automation of certain parts of the value chain remove the human element and unpredictability from potentially hazardous environments. Technology has made safety events more manageable. The narrative has evolved in that the industry now refutes the notion that mining is expected to be dangerous, especially because the technology to enable safer operations worldwide is now available, and the range of available solutions continues to grow.

As a common practice, mining companies are committed to ethical business practices and doing the right thing by all their stakeholders – from shareholders and employees, to the environment. Unfortunately, at times those goals can work against each other, which leads to a challenging balancing act. Evolving world markets and economies behind the mining industry amplify this effect. Investment in technological solutions that affect a mining operation’s degree of sustainability often improves productivity and profitability, as well. As such, digital solutions that can affect those factors at scale will continue to be in high demand.

Besides having to thrive in a highly volatile marketplace, mining companies need to remain competitive and be accountable to shareholders. Companies will need to consider the deployment of any competitive edge they can find to lead in the industry today, and this includes any mission-critical elements that can help a mine achieve operational excellence quickly and effectively. Indeed, the rate of digitisation has accelerated tremendously in the face of great market competition and massive industry demand. Furthermore, the number of mining operations is set to increase substantially, as the demand for metal(s) is well-driven by trends, such as the onset of electric vehicles, global 2050 net zero carbon emission targets, and the global push to develop renewable energy resources. Based on the current trajectory alone, the existing market supply of metals will be completely utilised by surging market demand over time.

With the onset of new mines, hesitancy to adopt technology will dissipate, especially compared to existing operations. Mining companies with the ability to showcase corporate principles focused on safety, sustainability and profitability, while protecting the licence to operate, will be more attractive for debt and equity financing, as it is more suggestive of their potential for return on investment. Today’s lenders are gravitating towards companies with sustainable operations. They have even introduced policies not to finance projects perceived to be relatively damaging to the environment, or risky to the societies in which they operate.

Recognising the skills evolution

While implementing technology can breed opportunity, automating parts of the mining value chain can impact areas, such as the existing workforce and skill sets required. It is also necessary to review internal processes and make them more conducive to adopting new technologies. Current software selection and implementation cycles require between three months and two years – contingent on how committed a given mining company is to its profitability, safety and sustainability goals. For true business impact, companies will prioritise scaling technology solutions as quickly as possible beyond initial implementation in order to demonstrate progress in these areas and along the technology adoption curve.

With the plethora of mining technology available in the market today, companies need to capitalise on existing knowledge to expand, retain talent, and partner with their technology providers. Indeed, the mining industry is increasingly more competitive with robust demand, underwritten by green economies of the future. 

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