Appearing in the Australian Financial Review, 14 March 2016
Resource sector going through export surge on back of local technology
By Derek Parker
Mining has long been thought of as a business of shovels and sweat but in reality it is now driven by advanced technology and sophisticated software. Resources-linked technology is also one of the great unsung export success stories. At present, about 60 per cent of the mining software used around the world originates in Australia.
According to an Austrade report, “Mining Software and Related Technologies”, exploration and mining software (EMS) generates more than $600 million a year from mining-related revenues, more than $240 million of exports, and directly employs more than 2500 people.
The size and type of EMS firms varies, with 100 companies in the sector, ranging in size from less than $1 million to more than $100 million in annual sales. The sector is concentrated in Western Australia (45 per cent of businesses) and Queensland (30 per cent).
“Australia is seen as a world leader in this field,” says Simon Ratcliffe, product development director of Maptek, an Australian-based international company. “Australians have a can-do attitude and the capacity to think across traditional borders rather than in niches, and that is very important for global miners.”
Ratcliffe notes that Maptek was originally established to computerise a laborious manual task, with its first software package allowing geologists to create maps themselves rather than through expensive drafting offices and bureau firms.
Building on its early success, Maptek developed software which assisted in mine design and now includes scheduling, safety monitoring, design compliance and workflow optimisation. The software allows for the integration of information from various sources into a single package, without requiring complex retraining of mining specialists.
Ratcliffe nominates a software product, Vulcan Geological Modelling and Mine Planning, as a key advance.
“The crucial advantage of modelling is that you can explore multiple ‘what-if’ options,” he says. “If something doesn’t work in a model, nothing has been lost and maybe something has been learnt. If you make a mistake in the real mining world, it quickly gets expensive. Better to get it right at the start, in everything from drilling in the right place to taking account of occupational safety.”
A complementary direction for Maptek is the I-Site Laser Scanning System, which links a range of mining processes, including machinery control, with accurate 3D mapping.
Ratcliffe believes there is room for further growth in the resources sector in Australia and also points to global opportunities.
“We are doing well in the US, in metals as well as energy,” he says. “Copper and iron ore in South America. There are projects under way in Africa, and our new focus is Asia, including Indonesia and China. In some cases we can use existing products, in some cases we design something resource-specific, and sometimes we can adapt an existing tool to a new application. Operational efficiency, environmental compliance, operator safety and site rehabilitation are areas where demand is strong.”
The resources sector is looking more broadly at the use of advanced technology, with strong support for a new government-funded agency, National Energy Resources Australia (NERA), which is part of the Industry Growth Centre initiative. The new company is still getting up to speed but a number of significant industry figures have taken up board positions.
“NERA is focused on creating connections for growth,” says Ken Fitzpatrick, chairman of NERA. “The best companies use hardship as a catalyst for innovation and forming new partnerships. NERA will help create connections for growth across the sector to improve industry engagement, access, productivity and competitiveness. We want to enable growth through collaboration, innovation and knowledge sharing.
“Our aim is to provide a mechanism for greater industry collaboration and knowledge sharing. This means both collaboration between companies and the research sector as well as between companies themselves. This can take place on a case-by-case basis, joint industry programs or through licensing arrangements. Whatever works.”
Fitzpatrick believes the increased use of robotics, sensors and automation is likely to lead the next wave of productivity improvements, and algorithm-based business analytics are already starting to carve a role in the resources sector.
“Australia has the chance to seize a leadership role in several areas,” Fitzpatrick says. “When you look at operations maintenance in the LNG sector, we are already a major player. Expanding and consolidating that role will require a collaborative effort to be best in class in whatever we do.”
Looking to the future, Fitzpatrick sees an important area as the development of a skills base across the resources sector to ensure a stream of qualified people. He also points to industry support for another new resources-related growth centre, the Mining, Equipment and Technical Services Growth Centre (known as METSignited) as representing another avenue for interaction with resources sector.