Mipac

Enabling technology to empower the workforce and combat inexperience

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The skill shortage along with investing the time and resources into developing an inexperienced workforce, particularly within the mining industry is an evolving trend that has the potential to significantly impact the performance of your operation. So, if our workforce lacks experience, what can we do about it?

In this article we are going to discuss how:

  • the experience shortage is here and here to stay
  • to apply technology to enable people and combat inexperience

Introduction

I left Mount Isa Mines (MIM) in 2010 after three-and-a-half years as a metallurgist. Mount Isa is like a second home to me. I’m pretty sure that I have visited Mount Isa every year since I first left in 2010. When I walk through the MIM copper smelter pedestrian gate, I instantly smile when one of my old colleagues and friends shakes my hand and tells me that I can’t stay away from the place. Over the 10+ years I have been visiting Mount Isa since I left, I’ve noticed a trend whereby the production teams (operators, maintainers, supervisors, metallurgists, and engineers) are getting younger. This is not a criticism of MIM, nor isolated to MIM, but also the other operations that I visit.

There are several factors at play, encompassing changing educational requirements and shortening of trade requirements to changing societal expectations. Additionally, the mining sector itself contributes to the situation. Whether that be transitioning out grey-haired wisdom during a downturn or promoting exceptional employees to progressively more senior roles at a progressively younger age. Whichever the case, the outcome is a less experienced person, supported by less experienced people in roles that directly contribute to the bottom line. So, what is the impact of this trend? According to a study by McKinsey, ‘Has global mining productivity reversed?’, despite recent improvements (mainly due to improved capital expenditure), mining sector productivity is down 25% compared with the mid-2000s.

McKinsey & Company - Mining productivity trend

A more recent report from the Sydney Morning Herald ‘Critical shortage’: Miners face talent crunch as metals demand fires up‘, describes that Australia’s mining sector experience shortage is not abating any time soon.

Key findings

22,000

Australian mining job numbers grew by 22,000 in the last 12-months

5%

BHP tells investors temporary rail labour shortages contributed to a 5% drop in iron ore output in September quarter

40,00

Western Australia alone might need up to 40,000 more workers by mid-2023

300

A recent KPMG survey shows nearly 300 execs nominate finding and retaining talent as their overwhelming concern over the next 3-5 years

One thing that surprises me on my travels to different countries and sites is that we all seem to have the same problems whether they be technical, personal or societal. Attracting and retaining talent to battle inexperience is no different.

What can we do to combat inexperience?

Despite improvements in technology, it seems that the mining sector has not been able to fully deploy innovation effectively to enhance productivity. Take machine learning for example. It is the author’s opinion that the mining sector has been promised the world from machine learning only for it not to deliver. The author has heard countless stories of large consulting houses promising AU$20M in improvements only to reforecast down to AU$2M two-years later, having already spent $4M to make the conclusion, thereby destroying value rather than creating it. Similarly, start-ups with no processing experience finding obvious and meaningless correlations between set-value and process-value or collector addition and recovery. Even when relevant problems are uncovered from top-down advanced analytics, they are often already known by operations personnel who are too stretched to do anything about it. The result is cynicism from the sector and a demand for real solutions and results.

What makes someone experienced?

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines experience as ‘practical knowledge, skill or practice derived from direct observation of, or participation in events, or in a particular activity’. As my first Superintendent at MIM used to call it – ‘the school of hard knocks’. Being able to quickly identify a problem or opportunity because you have seen it or something similar before and knowing what to do about it because you remember what worked AND didn’t work last time. Not to be confused with ‘we have always done it that way’ or ‘we tried that 10 years ago and it didn’t work that time either’. So, if our workforce lacks experience, what can we do about it?

Enabling people with the power of technology

How can we use technology to empower decision making? By combining what technology is good at with what humans are good at. So, what are humans good at?

  • Critical thinking and complex reasoning
  • Strategic thinking
  • Creativity and imagination
  • Communication
  • Empathy
  • Physical skills, fine motor skills, dexterity.

 

While robots and machine learning are rapidly closing the gap on the above, technology’s current strengths are:

  • Efficiency – being always ‘on’ (at least until it is not)
  • Rapid complex simultaneous equations
  • Data storage and rapid database queries
  • Scalability, size, precision, speed.

 

The key is finding synergies between technological strengths and human strengths to create opportunities that fill some of the experience gap. For example, combining the above strengths offers the opportunity to digitise critical training material and/or troubleshooting guides that can be queried and presented to operators and maintainers when a problem or opportunity is detected by technology. Similarly, digital trigger action response plans (TARP) can be automatically activated when a variability event is detected. With the right digital tools, stakeholders can:

  • Be alerted and engaged to leverage their collective wisdom
  • Be connected to multiple disparate data sources
  • Be empowered to analyse, interrogate and compare past variability events to accelerate decision making and mitigation actions
  • Communicate across organisational layers and elevate observations and ideas from the frontline to management and back again to enhance visibility and transparency.

 

In doing so, an inexperienced frontline manager can be supported with response plans built on the ‘hard knocks’ of current and past experienced leaders. Similarly, by creating analytics that monitor process parameters against the right critical control standards, within control limits defined by experience, the right levers can be pulled in response to process variability.

Mipac’s philosophy for enabling people with the power of technology

Mipac’s approach to enabling people with the power of technology has been described in our article ‘enabling predictive operations’.

The approach combines people, science and operational excellence with the automation pyramid to augment the decision-making process and combat inexperience.

Empower your workforce with Mipac and MPA

The experience shortage won’t be ending anytime soon. Digital tools are one option to empower your workforce to maximise productivity. Mipac has specifically designed MPA to complement your existing technology to fill the real-time operational system void required to augment the decision-making process, overcome the experience shortage and maximise productivity. Find out more here: https://www.mipac.com.au/products/mpa.

We would love to hear from you!

What experiences have you had enabling people with the power of technology? What human and technological strengths have we missed?

Is your organisation facing challenges due to an experience shortage? If so, could it benefit from the application of digital tools?

Meet the experts

Dominic Stoll

Solutions Manager, Mipac

Dominic is an experienced minerals process engineer with more than 14 years’ practical experience across a variety of plant, project, commissioning, consulting education, management and commercialisation roles. Dominic has significant experience integrating people, business, and technological leadership across the mining value chain, delivering end-to-end solutions that unlock client value.

Drew Clements

Senior Process Engineer, Mipac

Drew is a senior process engineer with over 20 years’ experience in mineral processing across multiple commodities, including Iron ore, Gold, Diamonds, Copper, Nickel etc. He has come from an operator background and holds a degree in Extractive Metallurgy. Drew is also an avid problem solver keen to apply his expertise in leveraging innovation and technology to unlock value in the processing chain.

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