Multinational mining company BHP has revealed it has been using its Pilbara iron ore mine Eastern Ridge as a test bed for innovations that, if deemed successful, will be rolled out across its wider operations.
The firm’s first ‘innovation mine’ has been covered in sensors and monitoring equipment to gather data about its operations.
“When it comes to innovation and technology at Eastern Ridge, our focus is on data,” said Jamie Bennet, who oversees the various projects at the mine.
“We are deep diving into our operations to find out what data we can create, record, monitor, understand and manipulate to help us work smarter, safer and more efficiently,” he explained.
Data collection and trials of new technology have been ongoing for around 12 months.
“Before we can initiate physical changes on site, we need to have real-time information about our processes. Our teams are hard at work developing systems to capture and read this data so we are able to use it to improve our daily routines and make operations safer,” Bennet said.
The data, much of it analysed in real-time, is being used to improve work scheduling and monitor pay load distribution on trucks, the firm revealed in an internal newsletter today.
“We see these innovations as the first steps – akin to the first mobile phone – which will set us on a course where technology plays a major role in how we operate,” Bennet added.
The company is rolling out autonomous drills across its Western Australia iron ore mines, controlled remotely from its Integrated Remote Operations Centre in Perth.
Its Jimblebar mine is close to fully autonomous, with ore hauled by driverless Caterpillar trucks. The trucks are “amongst our safest and most productive” and will be rolled out across other BHP mines in the region said BHP CEO, Andrew Mackenzie during a February results presentation. Two of the trucks were involved in a collision in March.
The miner is on a “path to rail automation” having rolled out 4G connectivity and automated signalling along most of its railway lines. In this area it is slightly behind rival Rio Tinto whose fully autonomous train completed its first delivery of iron ore between the miner’s Mount Tom Price mine and the port of Cape Lambertwhich last year.
Hundreds of BHP’s trucks drivers also wear ‘smart caps’ which measures fatigue by analysing brain waves, following a 2017 trial at its Escondida mine in Chile.
“Our first ‘innovation mine’… tests new solutions and mining innovations, and develops workforce capability so that our people are ready to respond to the technological changes ahead. And when our trials are successful they’re designed to be quickly replicated across our other operations,” Mackenzie said at a conference in May.
The work at Eastern Ridge has been happening in tandem with the company’s transformation office, which launched last year. The office “will help us simplify the way we work, take work away, lift the capability of our workforce and establish strategic and innovative partnerships,” Mackenzie said.
“The combination of these transformation and technology initiatives will create more stable and predictable operations and could unlock value worth tens of billions of dollars,” he added.
“Eastern Ridge is our proving ground for new technology,” said BHP general manager Newman operations Scott Barber.
Skills of the future
As traditional mining roles at the company are automated and staff moved into technology focused jobs, the firm says it is coming up against a shortfall in STEM qualified candidates.
“Our people will be the ones to make technological changes happen. This means the skills required to work in the mining industry will change too – and the skills people think they need to have to work in mining today may be very different to the skills needed in the future,” said Barber.
The BHP Foundation in 2016 committed $55 million over five years to various STEM skills related projects in Australia. It is also working with students at Newman Senior High School to introduce them to the mining roles of the future.
“Innovation through advancements in technology will undoubtedly bring change, as well as new and exciting opportunities for the mining industry and for the people who make it happen…This is why we are committed to working with our current and future workforce as well as the community in Newman to bring them along this innovative journey,” Barber said.
Nevertheless, the miner is reportedly reducing the headcount of its technology group.
According to The Australian, the company’s chief financial officer Peter Beaven revealed plans last month to cut more than 700 white collar jobs as part of a restructure.
BHP hired more than 1000 people into the technology function in 2017 – including more than 700 in Australia.