In fact, many were initially focused on protecting their intellectual property so they can maintain a cost advantage over their competitors. But now as this technology matures, it needs a sustainable marketplace to continue its ongoing development.
This is the problem METS Ignited is working to address. Short for Mining Equipment, Technology and Services, METS Ignited is one of several federal government industry growth centres. It works with Australian suppliers to the mining industry, global miners, research organisations and capital providers to improve the global competitiveness and productivity of the Australian METS sector.
The technology itself isn’t the challenge when it comes to commercialising the mining sector innovation. In fact, it’s a very mature technology sector with 20 to 30 years industry experience in applying the technology.
“But what hasn’t happened as much in the sector is, often, those innovations haven’t been developed with a partner organisation whose sole intent or purpose is to productise or commercialise those research outcomes,” Beer says.
“It’s the how do you build a commercial model around delivering the technology that has been involved in one mining organisation to make it available for the rest of the market or for other industries.”
Australia’s mining sector has world leading technology capability in four key, in demand sectors: data and analytics; robotics and automation; safety sustainability and social license technologies that manage environmental impact; and fourthly, energy, including remote, off-grid and micro-grid and energy storage technologies.
Not only are they in high demand for broader commercial applications, they are also technologies that many investors want to fund, says Beer.
A report commissioned by METS Ignited and National Energy Resources Australia, another government industry growth centre found there was a “tremendous opportunity” in commercialising these technologies.
Embracing the use of automation technologies in Australia’s resources industries could, if coordinated and well managed, add $74 billion in value to the Australian economy, in both regions and cities, and create more than 80,000 new jobs by 2030, the 2019 report titled Staying Ahead of the Game stated. With the impact of COVID on the sector, the projections of this report have been rapidly accelerated, with a massive increase in demand for interoperability across the sector.
Notably, the report only covers automation and data analytics – there are further opportunities in energy and sustainability technologies.
Sharna Glover, the co-founder of Imvelo, which helps companies commercialise their technology, says the mining sector is well-poised to develop widely-used technology.
Australian miners started innovating with autonomous vehicles in the 1990s and are now working on autonomous vehicles that can travel on roads. In many ways mining projects are like a proof of concept of the smart city, but in a much more controlled environment.
“It actually has an ability to accelerate technology quicker than what you can in smart cities where, obviously, you’ve got a lot of, we call them edge cases or complicated business use cases,” she says.
Many of the technologies used in mining could be applied more broadly. For instance, a robotic excavator has obvious applications in the mining sector, but could also be used in civil works, construction and agriculture.
“Robotics could be a new industry,” she says. “Why not talk about robotics and automation as an actual technology industry sector?”
The mining sector has already had some success in broadening and commercialising its technologies, says John McGagh, a technology entrepreneur and director and the former head of technology and innovation at global resources giant Rio Tinto.
The Mobius is a small, intelligent self-powered sensor with a machine learning capability that is placed on heavy mining equipment to provide operational data such as vibration, temperature and load to provide information on performance and potential failure of the equipment. It is now used much more broadly, such as in the petrochemical sector, says McGagh.
Likewise, some of the scanning technology developed to analyse mining core samples is being applied in the infrastructure sector to examine the structural soundness of buildings and to indicate how well they are ageing.
METS’ Beer says that much of Australia’s investment in technology has been solely focused on supporting primary industries’ contribution to the economy, without considering the role of the technology itself.
“It’s not just the abundance of natural resources that make us competitive and successful in the resources sector, it is that technology ecosystem that sits underneath the supply chains that enable them to sustain and develop,” he says. “We need to aggregate our technology capability as a defined segment of the economy in its own right not just an input to primary industry production.”