Million-dollar alliance: how BHP and Mitsubishi aim to fund innovation in Queensland

Scarlett Evans 19 August 2020 (Last Updated August 19th, 2020 02:42)

The town of Mackay in Queensland opened the doors of its newly built Resources Centre of Excellence at the end of July. We speak with Tony Caruso, Chair of the Centre, about the facility and how it is working to keep the state at the forefront of rapid technological changes.

Million-dollar alliance: how BHP and Mitsubishi aim to fund innovation in Queensland
Everything that we’re doing is about building the workforce of the future, and repurposing the talent that’s already here,” said Tony Caruso. Credit: RCOE

Created in a collaborative partnership between the Mackay Regional Council, Resources Industry Network, and the Queensland Government, the new Resources Centre of Excellence (RCOE) in Mackay is intended to provide a hub for mining industry research and training in the region. With construction now complete, the BHP Mitsubishi Alliance (BMA) has announced a pledge of A$2.3m to go towards setting up research roles at the facility. RCOE Chair Tony Caruso explains more.

Scarlett Evans (SE): How did the RCOE come about?

Tony Caruso (TC): The Resources Industry Network in Mackay identified that the region was lacking a hub – a facility that could act as a stake in the ground to bring together industry members with researchers and educators. Previously, everyone was sourcing their industry data from different places, and there was no way of connecting these stakeholders to do whatever they needed to do – whether it was understanding how Australian mines work, solving industry challenges, or just getting access to mining equipment, technology, and services (METS) companies. So recognising this need was the catalyst.

We also knew we needed to provide a revenue stream through the facility, which we achieved via its training gallery. This large, simulated underground coal mining operation has 220m of tunnels that are just like being underground in a coal mine in central Queensland. The idea is that third parties can come in to hire out the space to train employees, test products etc.

SE: What will the BMA investment be used for?

TC: The funding is to be used to set up the Chair of Automation role – a twin venture between the RCOE, Central Queensland University, and the BMA. These research roles will allow the university and RCOE to investigate the transition of roles in this region based on automation and tech. They will be looking at just what these roles of the future may look like, how we can position industry members correctly for this changing landscape, and how we can develop the skills that will be needed in the future.

SE: Why was the Mackay region chosen?

TC: Mackay was chosen because the project dovetailed into the METS hub we already have here. We probably have one of the biggest METS hubs on the east coast of Australia, so we have a lot of businesses that are already servicing the mining industry. In addition, there’s the Bowen Basin, one of the biggest coking coal mining regions in the world, sitting on our back door step.

SE: What do you hope to achieve through the Centre and these new research opportunities?

TC: We’re trying to change the culture in this region from simply being a leader in the METS sector, to making our research and development a stand-alone feature of the state.

Currently, Queensland is very good at supporting the extraction of resources, but we want to get to the stage where we aren’t just waiting for these new technologies to be built, we want to be at the front of that curve so we’re actually building the technology that will shape the way that the mines of the future will operate.

What we identified is if we can build the facility and change the culture, we will keep a lot of the jobs regional. So what it will do is it will keep our brightest minds in the state, which is great for our economy. As the mining landscape and the skillsets required to work within it are changing, we want to ensure our people here can fill these roles locally.

Everything that we’re doing is about building the workforce of the future, and repurposing the talent that’s already here. We want to become the melting pot where this novel technology is being created.

SE: Is there any particular innovation/technology that you think is going to be especially important in this future landscape?

TC: Without a doubt automation is that one technology. We’re already starting to see a big shift to autonomous trucks and dozers, as well as autonomous mining equipment underground. There’s thousands of other pieces of technology that are improving mining processes, but automation would be the greatest shift, and it also has the greatest impact on people. This is why we’re focusing on repurposing and transitioning people into new roles created as a result of automation. The people who drove the trucks aren’t needed any more, so we want to use them to calibrate the trucks, service them when they break down etc.

BHP is leading the way with automation in central Queensland, so it stands to reason they’re the early mover in this space and they recognised we need to begin transitioning these roles. For them, this is a very strategic investment to ensure they have a pipeline of people to fill these new roles.

SE: What else will this future landscape hold?

TC: There’s a major transition going on towards a greener industry, and believe it or not a lot of the coal sector is actually a major driver for getting a smaller carbon footprint. A lot of the new technology is actually about facilitating this green revolution, and having as green a coal mine as you can have. Really that’s what the industry is working towards.

Coal will be required for some time yet – perhaps a 20-30 year transition. So we need to make sure that as we’re extracting that resource, we’re doing it as sustainably and with the least impact to the environment as possible. Our sector is leading a lot of the green movement but that story gets lost. That’s why things like the RCOE have a critical role to play, it can be used to spread awareness, and to help people understand mining and get the message early on that you don’t have to be with coal or against coal – we have a path in between the two.

SE: How do you think the RCOE will address this problem?

TC: I think what will attract people to the sector is making sure they understand what kind of jobs there are. A lot of people still think of mining as dirty coal miners going underground, and that to me is a deterrent to young people these days. So through this facility we want to educate people about what the future of mining actually looks like, which is really going to be more about sitting in offices and operating equipment.

The number of mining engineering students has declined over the years, and it’s a definite challenge for the sector. It’s just not cool to be in mining any more because coal is being demonised globally; but really, coking coal is going to be around for a long time as we make the transition to cleaner energy sources. What we’ve got to do is reposition the coal sector and let these people see what the roles of the future look like and attract them back to the sector.