Big miners have trouble joining technology revolution | Reuters

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By Barbara Lewis and Zandi Shabalala
| SANTIAGO/LONDON

SANTIAGO/LONDON Mining companies chasing the kind of technological breakthroughs made long ago in the manufacture of cars and mobile phones have unveiled eye-catching innovations ranging from vast drills and remote-controlled trucks to second-by-second data analysis.

Behind the scenes, however, there has so far been limited progress towards a transformation the companies say is more and more vital to their survival.

They are being jolted into action by volatile commodity prices and the increasing difficulty and danger of accessing remaining reserves in hot, narrow seams several kilometers below ground.

“There’a a big awakening in mining. The time is ripe for things to begin to change,” Anglo American’s head of technology development Donovan Waller said by telephone.

A major obstacle is the massive upfront cost for innovation that firms such as Anglo, BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto <RIO.AX must pay off over the life of a mine in contrast to incremental upgrades common to mobile phones.

Sandvik, one of the world’s biggest suppliers of mining equipment, told Reuters it had doubled its installation of automation systems between 2015 and 2016.

But, asked what proportion of the loaders and trucks it sells are fully automated, it gave an estimate of 5 percent.

While automation represents a potential threat to jobs the world over, it is particularly sensitive in an industry employing hundreds of thousands of blue-collar workers in nations where mining represents a major chunk of GDP.

Extreme environments and logistical barriers to transferring technology from other industries were other issues experienced by three big mining companies, in South Africa,…

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