Miners, suppliers dump business-as-usual approach as disruptive forces close in

The mining industry’s strategic approach to coal and “new energy” investments shows it is prepared, these days, to park some easy profits and play a longer game when it comes to pitching its ESG bona fides to investors and the workforce of the future. CEO of Auto-mate, Daniel Poller, says it is an encouraging sign for technology companies.

High energy-coal demand and prices have given those still in the market decent returns in the past year or so. However, the period has seen some miners listed on Western stock exchanges signal their exit from the sector and an increasing tendency towards commodity diversification. A number of companies are already ratcheting up investments in battery and new-energy minerals and metals.

Major funds and institutional investors also signaled they would be referencing environmentally and ethically sound value creation. One recent report said global sustainable investment now exceeds US$35 trillion globally.

“It does show that miners are more concerned today about investor pressures to be good corporate citizens as opposed to only being concerned about profits,” Poller says.

“To me this speaks positively to technology strategies and investment since the miners will be looking to technologies to be able to reduce carbon emissions and better care for the environment – even if the immediate profit might not be there.”

Access to resources, capital and people are all challenges for mining companies, we wrote in the first part of this series on disruption in the industry (https://auto-mate.net/disruption/). Auto-mate, a new company bringing to the market advanced technology from Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) and also partner Bis’ long-standing Australian resources logistics expertise, is on the front-line of bringing disruptive mobile autonomous solutions to the industry.

Auto-mate’s Solutions and Implementation Manager, Damien Williams, says mining the right commodities, the right way, and even supplying to the right customers, are all pieces of the same ESG picture.

“I agree with the view that the shift away from energy coal and into new-energy minerals is a positive strategic move for the industry,” Williams says.

“But I feel there’s also a link to the declining talent pool and those companies looking to retain as many people as possible by aligning to public values. Declining rates of entry for new personnel into the mining industry and skills pipeline ultimately puts more value on retaining those already there. With people more intrinsically linked to their job and the company they work for than ever before, ensuring that individual's social status or values are not impugned is one way to minimise turnover.

“Ultimately, I see this driving increased investment into technology strategy, deployment and development to ensure that people see these companies as actively progressing their ESG obligations as well as being leading or technology astute places to work.

“This is refreshing as it may lead to us being able to compete with the glitz and flash of the tech industry in terms of our recruitment prospects.

A stagnant if not receding labour pool and increasing ESG pressures are clearly “disruptive” challenges for miners.

Poller says technologies that have been tried and proven in other industries to mitigate these risks could also be attractive in mining as technology that can enhance productivity and safety, and environment outcomes, is increasingly sought.

“Labour shortages are going to focus the shift to autonomous solutions throughout the industry,” he says.

“We are already seeing this play out, but I expect it to just grow exponentially over the next five years. Greater use of new technologies such as AI is also playing out. The ESG journey is just starting to really impact how companies are thinking of the future.”

Williams expects the “reasonableness test” to also figure much more prominently in mining as the industry’s efforts to increase transparency converge with its social agenda and technology adoption.

“I would not be surprised if the miners of the future thought us unwise and possibly even irresponsible for having dozer operators subject to jolting and jarring in cabs for 12 hours a day when it is so reasonable to have a remote system in place,” he says.

“I think in industry generally we’ll see new approaches and technologies being adopted at an increasingly rapid pace, driving an increased need for the mining industry to keep up.

“It’s occurring in highly regulated markets now with other markets to play out over the next decade.”

Demands for faster change and an increasing appetite for technology solutions is also likely to lift rates of collaboration between suppliers of complementary products and services.

“Companies will need to determine where is the area they provide the most value, both between the mining companies and suppliers and between the various suppliers,” Poller says.

“At Auto-mate we are very clear where our technology has advantages and what is our main area of focus.

“In other areas we continue to look to partner and collaborate with other suppliers, including our competition, to end up providing the best and most cost efficient solution to our customers, the mining companies.

“We also see a lot of fairness with mining companies we are working with, looking to ensure that we get a fair return on our efforts that will allow us to continue to innovate and not only looking to see how they can squeeze down the price further.”

Williams says collaboration has become a catch-cry at mining conferences.

“But for collaboration to work you need two things – a framework and a mission,” he says.

“This doesn’t mean a 345-page non-disclosure, either.

“Suppliers are typically good at delivering things – in this case, leveraging that mission to be the catalyst to drive focus and resources from parties that would otherwise be ignorant of, or working against, each other. The framework is what allows solutions to be built without the fear of missing out or mistrust creeping in, both killers of innovation and efficiency.

“Clusters and co-lab facilities such as Robowest and the Australian Automation and Robotics Precinct [AARP] are often good sources of facilitators and frameworks for companies that are truthful about their capabilities to build solutions or advance markets that would not have been possible on their own.”


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