Metals and Mining has reached a global tipping point. So how does it navigate its next phase?

Tim Smith, CEO of HardHat, talks about navigating a volatile market and the need for mining to act now.


contact-Joe Carr

Joe Carr

Mining Innovation Director, Axora

This year, we’ve heard a lot about ‘unprecedented’ times. Every corner of society has been touched by them, every economy, every political decision. This has not been more apparent than in the (unprecedented) acceleration of accessibility to technology around the world, and the deep behavioural shifts that have come as a result of it.

The demand for change is clear. The key to unlocking it is digital transformation.

The impacts of this acceleration are far-reaching. Arguably, though, they have not been felt more keenly than in the Metals and Mining industry, where such a spike in demand has led to what many commentators believe to be a tipping point – another situation brought into sharp focus by the natural uncertainty that COVID-19 brings with it.

As the industry reels from the effects of an unexpected global pandemic, other, more familiar external forces also continue to pile on the pressure. Regulatory bodies, themselves in the crosshairs of public and media opinion, are beginning to turn the screw in forcing more sustainable business models to be adopted (not to mention the necessity to do so from a compliance perspective). The demand for change is clear. The key to unlocking it is digital transformation.

Tim Smith, as CEO of HardHat – industry experts in enabling data-driven productivity, collaboration and compliance through the HardHat platform – is very much on the frontline when it comes to driving through these changes. As finding and extracting natural resources becomes inherently more difficult, there is a growing emphasis on the need to develop automation and information integration capabilities to help navigate the volatility of the market. For Smith, the sense of urgency is unavoidable.

“Over the last few years, we’ve seen an increase in cautious investment strategies, centred around projects that prioritise efficiencies, productivities and safety. The reality is that many of these do not pass the trial phase. As a result, widespread adoption is still a long way off."

“There is reason for optimism, though; the journey to transition and digitalisation is bright. The mindset across the industry has changed – digitalisation is now a major priority. Not only are organisations looking to increase their investment in this area, but they’re feeling positive about the value this brings to their operations, too.”

Ask people in any major industry what the biggest challenge around digitalisation is and they’ll all say the same thing: winning over hearts and minds. So, if mindsets are beginning to shift, attention can be turned to the more tangible, and the challenges that the industry is facing on the ground.

Concerns around the speed of adoption touch almost every aspect of the transition. The legacy systems currently in place are rarely primed to collect and understand new streams of data, as well as being ill-equipped in terms of both connectivity and cyber-security. These areas, combined with significant skill- and knowledge-based issues across the workforce, all cause efficiencies to suffer, too.

“The biggest challenges around efficiency definitely centre around collaboration. At the moment, we aren’t seeing the culture of collaboration needed for these changes to be driven through – teams are siloed, rather than integrated, making the task even more difficult.”

That isn’t to say quantifiable progress isn’t being made, however. There are 400 autonomous vehicles in Western Australia alone. That is 75% of all autonomous vehicles worldwide – something in itself that further highlights the scale of the digital transformation journey the Resources sector is prepared to embark on. Smith believes many sectors – like Junior Miners, Mining Services, Mining Contractors – are poised to make a change. They want to work ‘smarter’ to understand how they can do more with less. They want to move away from manual, disconnected, paper-based operations and simplify information collaboration.

The next 12 months, then, are crucial. The efficiency targets set by the industry are sizeable, but not insurmountable. “The landscape has changed”, says Smith, “and miners need to strengthen their license to operate in order to build trust within both their internal and external communities”. From this solid platform comes a more transparent way of working, with information governance brought to the fore and in turn making centralisation and automation a much more achievable goal.

Government legislation, as well as cultural challenges, have also impacted the industry’s ability to collaborate. Health and safety measures have impacted working conditions, disrupting the way staff and teams operate. A casualty of this has been the sharing of information, with productivity also taking a hit as new ways of working continue to be carved out.

“As operations become more complex, the need for a solution that will enable distributed, remote teams to work productively and safely becomes an imperative”, Smith says. “The current health crisis has heightened the need for the technology and infrastructure that drives mining operations – from corporate headquarters to field sites – to be redesigned.”

This redesign can only occur if businesses define what digital adoption truly means for the industry. As things stand, the perceptions and expectations between tech vendors and industrial companies can be wildly different – as can the needs from larger mining operations to smaller-scale ones.

“The larger mining and metals companies, just because of their scale, invest in very point solutions to solve specific problems – like reporting systems, safety systems. Because there is a demarcation across different departments and business units in bigger organisations, these solutions are often siloed – meaning data and information are not streamlined and managed properly.”

With better control and visibility of their operations, Professional Services can now understand how every hour of their day is being billed. Mining services can learn a lot from this.

So where can we look for inspiration? Despite its unique set of challenges, Metals and Mining can draw parallels with a number of different industries, all of which have undergone, or are undergoing, root-and-branch reforms when it comes to their approach to digital strategy. For example, Oil and Gas, and banking and financial services are leveraging technology to enhance their licence to operate and stakeholder management, and Telecommunications and Retail Consumer Goods industries are finding new ways of working via e-commerce and direct fulfillment. As well as these, Smith believes, professional services like accounting and legal have reformed to such a degree they are now streaks ahead of where they were just a decade ago.

“With better control and visibility of their operations, Professional Services can now understand how every hour of their day is being billed. Mining services can learn a lot from this. Managing resources, team collaboration, operations and project management – the opportunities here are tangible, quantifiable goals that we should be aiming for as the pace of change increases”

As these other sectors realised years ago, the overhaul required demands cross-industry buy-in. Global demand for raw materials is continuing to surge as the mobility revolution gains momentum alongside consumer tech adoption. For an industry like Metals and Mining, the scale of the task is unprecedented.

After all, these are unprecedented times.

This article is a part of our Innovation Leaders in efficiency series. To view the report and further interviews and insights into efficiency solutions, visit our Innovation Leaders page here.

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