The three iron ore heavyweights in the Pilbara have launched into the new world of automated mining, where the people are leaving the dirty work to the mechanical monsters in the pit.
With the decade-long mining boom pushing up wages and costs to unrealistic heights and ongoing scrutiny of safety in the mines, it is not hard to see why.
Tim Day has been in charge of rolling out BHP’s automation program at its brand new Jimblebar mine in the Pilbara.
He says there are several drivers for the change.
“The single biggest reason is safety,” Mr Day said.
“On a mine site, one of the issues we have is that we expose operators to machinery for long periods of time. We have fatigue issues, so it takes our people away from the front line.”
The dangers of mining are all too real.
A recent Department of Mines study analysed the deaths of 52 miners over the past 12 years, finding worker fatigue and inexperience with mining risks to be the biggest cause of accidents.
However, while miners are keen to sell the technology as a ticket to safer mine sites, it is also a ticket to cutting costs.
“It should also actually introduce a lot more hours onto the machines, so you can actually use the machinery more because you don’t need lunch breaks, you don’t need crib times or shift changes,” Mr Day said.
And what productivity and efficiency gains essentially boils down to is lower costs for producers and greater returns for investors.
With reduced costs on accommodation, flights and site penalties, some estimate each autonomous truck saves a million dollars per year.
The saving, Mr Kirchlechner says, is essential to remaining cost competitive on the world stage.
“As the world is becoming more global, capital is mobile, so we are always competing for capital,” he said.
“And because the industry is becoming so capital intensive, and because capital costs have risen so quickly, it’s really putting pressure on companies to become more productive.”
For the full article, and background of the automation technology, click here.