Top tech miners facing up to a downturn

Paul Boughton

The Western Australian economy is diversifying but mining and oil still dominate. Maurice Jones reports

Everything about Western Australia and its mining industry is big including its importance to the whole of Australia, its widespread, largely unpopulated desert, the 15-mine Pilbara complex,

The history of mining in Western Australia (WA) is long, from the discovery of gold at Fly Flat in 1892 and Kalgoorlie the following year, but it was the demand for steel from the industrialisation of Asia, first Japan and then China and India, that promoted the exploitation of iron ore deposits that were thought to be limited until development of the Pilbara Craton and elsewhere from the 1960s.

In 2013 minerals and energy exports accounted for 91% of all the state’s merchandise exports by value. Minerals output was valued at AU$ 89 082M (US$ 81064.6M) of which AU$ 68 071M  (US$ 61 944.6M) was for iron ore and AU$ 8710M (US$ 7926.1M) for gold. Mining composed 37% of WA’s Gross State Product.

Despite political wrangling the importance of mining is recognised to the extent that, in an annual study by the Fraser Institute of Canada, Western Australia is the most favourably regarded administrations for investment attractiveness to the mining industry, and in the top ten in the Policy Perception Index. This was based on a survey of 4100 senior mining executives.

Other mineral commodities produced in Western Australia include, in approximate order or importance alumina from bauxite (AUD4117M), nickel (AUD3398M), copper, lead, salt (evaporated), cobalt, diamonds and coal, plus mineral sands and, later, uranium.

The industry is supported, in academic and research terms, by the Western Australia School of Mines at Curtin University, based in the state Capital of Perth on the coast and the established inland mining city of Kalgoorlie.

The importance of extractive industries to Western Australia, and Australia as a whole, has attracted frequent attention, often unwelcome, in terms of politics, taxation, environmental campaigning and social engineering. With reduced demand from China the industry is now faced with how it can keep going at a profit. Some smaller mining operations have already given up and closed down, and even the State is selling some assets to retain its credit rating in the downturn.

So what does this all mean in mining engineering terms? Most, and particularly the larger operators, appear to have decided that the only way is to invest in improved efficiency. If investment is not available, as is often the case with smaller projects, then the only path is the tried and tested one of cutbacks and making capital plant last longer, such as with improved maintenance regimes.

Investment projects, as undertaken by BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto, and Roy Hill Resources are featuring widespread use of remote control at many levels, both in underground and surface mining, including the total removal of operators from the work-site. Even the operational centres are not at the mines but at control rooms at Perth airports. Far remote-control of plant is another matter of intensive social comment, especially with regard to whether the main reason is to improve safety, as is usually stated, or just to reduce costs. Even without the mine social infrastructure avoided by fly-in, fly-out (FIFO) operations, the savings achievable by eliminating many operators are very significant (around $150 000 a year per head plus overheads we understand).

Other benefits of remote control of trucks and similar vehicles, and also drill-rigs, include consistent operational cycles, reducing the number of unpredictable incidents due to human error and other behaviour such as fatigue.

Another frequent theme about plant investment, particularly in trucks and some other vehicles, is the replacement of diesel drives with electric. This gains environmental care kudos but also has the potential for reduced maintenance and fuel delivery costs.

Video:  Good overview of Western Australian mining industry but produced before the recent downturn in demand. By John Digispyeu


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