Recent declines in commodities prices, a slow Chinese economy and pressure from environmental factors has caused a downward slide which some fear will never end.
According to the TSX Global Mining Index, worldwide mining company equities have fallen by 65% over the last five years. In response, miners have made significant in-roads to cut costs and increase capital. The ‘quick wins’ such as installing lean processes and streamlining staff needs have been ticked off, but now the hard work starts. The industry needs to look to its supply chain to identify a more holistic approach to staying afloat, including fostering innovation at all levels.
Austmine, the Australian industry body for the mining equipment, technology and services (METS) sector, has hitched its wagon to the Australian Government’s pledge of providing A$1bn over four years to support innovation, starting in December 2015. In the same month, it announced the Innovation Mentoring programme, which will use the connections and knowledge built up over its 25-year history to encourage new ideas and technologies throughout the sector.
"There is a very real need for an improved commercial approach to innovation in the Australian mining and METS industry," says Austmine CEO Christine Gibbs Stewart. "Many innovations do not make it into existence due to a lack of understanding about what is really required in mining operations, or the ability to communicate the tangible benefits or impacts of an innovation on productivity."
The mining equipment, technology and services (METS) sector in Australia alone contributes over A$90bn in gross annual revenue to the economy, according to Austmine analysis. It also exports more than A$15bn of products annually.
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Innovate or bust
Austmine says that the Innovation Mentoring programme is intended to cultivate innovative thinking amongst individuals, teaching them the skills they need to champion their ideas in today’s market.
The programme, launched in January and includes a minimum of ten hours one-to-one mentoring by an industry expert over six months. These face-to-face sessions are backed up with online support. Austmine hopes these sessions will give participants an understanding of pioneering practices such as strategy development, commercialisation, and ideation.
"I hope participants will gain a deeper understanding of the importance of innovation for sustaining business over the long-term," says innovation mentor and consulting partner, natural resources at Wipro Technologies Kirby Johnson. "I also hope that participants will gain some clear and very practical actions that will help enhance their business."
Austmine has drawn on its extensive membership to provide an illustrious list of mentors for participants. These include John McGagh, ex-head of innovation at Rio Tinto, Ric Gros, managing director of METSol and Bill Withers, founder of acQuire Technology solutions.
"The primary role of the mentor is to ask probing questions and to be a sounding board… it is good to bounce ideas off someone that is outside their business, very well informed about the mining sector, and impartial," says Johnson.
The first participants have been selected and matched with appropriate mentors, according to their area of interest and region. The progress of this first batch of participants will be the litmus test for whether this type of programme can successfully improve innovation and commercialisation in Australia.
There will be a cost of A$1,000 for participants. The project is in partnership with METS Ignited, a government-funded growth centre for the sector. Its CEO Daniel Sullivan says Australia’s strong position in mining innovation is led by SMEs, but this start-up culture needs help to commercialise their ideas.
"The innovation and technology is there, firms need to be able to improve commercialisation of mining innovation and demonstrate their value-add to the supply chain by collaborating on pilot projects, virtual mines or experimental test mines," he says.
Collaboration: sharing through the hard times
A criticism that could be levelled at the programme is whether it will work in a climate of secrecy surrounding innovation. Companies are rarely willing to share innovations, especially in today’s testing economic times, unless it involves safety.
Sullivan argues that closer collaboration between miners, METS companies and academics is essential to the success of innovation in the sector. Not only this, but it could be lucrative. "Australia has some world-leading clusters of research and industry capability and is ranked highly for its research in mining technology, but we rank 32nd out of 33 in the OECD [Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development] for commercialisation," Sullivan explains. "There is still room for improvement for firms, researchers and the global supply chain to collaborate better."
Johnson agrees that the industry needs to keep working together, saying that "A new generation faces a new and different set of challenges, but what remains the same is the importance of building on and integrating ideas from all quarters."
That isn’t to say that persuading all parties to ‘play nicely’ will be easy. "Part of our challenge is to change the culture in the global mining supply chain and to foster a collaborative, entrepreneurial and innovative Australian METS industry," Sullivan adds.
According to Deloitte, amongst others, the key to mining’s future is innovation. "Commodity prices are taking much longer to recover than anticipated. To my mind, this makes innovation even more imperative," says Deloitte Canada’s Americas mining leader Glenn Ives in the Tracking Trends 2016 report."Rather than being optional, being bold may be the prerequisite to survival."
If this is the case, all parts of the mining community need to start working together to pull the industry out of its current slump. The Australian Government has made a good start by pledging funds to promote this change in culture, and Austmine’s programme aims to produce a generation of innovation leaders to enact it. If it works, other mining nations and industries may follow suit.