The Future of Platforms in the Global Mining Industry
A guest blog by Don Duval, CEO, NORCAT
The global mining industry continues to build momentum and prepare itself for what appears to be a remarkable transformation. Executives, now more than ever, are facing unprecedented pressure to find sustainable and creative methods to drive shareholder value, enhance productivity, and improve the safety of their workforce – all during a time of global instability not seen in over a hundred years.
Yet, for most mining companies, especially those with multiple, de-centralized, and geographically dispersed operations, it gets even more complicated. In many developed economies, mining companies are grappling with an aging workforce, pending labour shortages, and continued development in rural and Indigenous communities requiring careful provisions. In Canada alone, the Mining Industry Human Resources Council estimates that the Canadian mining industry will need >80,000 new workers over the next ten years – all during a time when interest and enrolment in mining-related post-secondary programs is at an all-time low in our country.
In contrast, in many emerging economies, other challenges exist including safety and security, reliability of utilities, political / social unrest, and sporadic access to educational programming that provides foundational knowledge and skills for prospective mine workers. When taken together, it is clear that the future of the mining industry is going to look very different than it does today.
Over the past three months, businesses around the world have gradually migrated from “react and respond” to the chaos of the COVID-19 pandemic to a tempered “recovery and re-start” strategy. With this optimism, mining companies now have to accelerate their thinking and move quickly to the next step which asks the question: how do we not just survive, but thrive in this new world?
The NORCAT Underground Centre
Located in the City of Greater Sudbury, NORCAT is the only innovation centre in the world that has an operating mine designed to enable start-ups, small / medium enterprises, and international companies to develop, test, and demonstrate innovative and emerging technologies in an operating mine environment. With this unique asset, our mandate is to become the global destination to “see and touch” emerging technologies that are poised to transform the mining industry.
In the context of my earlier question, how will mining companies thrive in the new world, I believe much of the answer will be rooted in these organizations making continued, yet prudent, investments in and adoption of technologies that enhance productivity, safety, and ultimately sustained value. But of course, this is easier said than done.
Beyond providing an “active laboratory” to develop new mining technology innovations, the Underground Centre also serves as a marketplace to connect and broker relationships between mining technology companies (the “builders” of innovation”) and global mining companies (the “buyers” of innovation) creating a vibrant ecosystem like no other in the world. Through first-hand experience, we have validated that providing mining industry officials the ability to “see and touch” technologies in an operating mine environment provides critical insights to inform and potentially expedite buying / adoption decisions.
Given this context, our engagement with mining executives from around the world has given us a unique perspective on understanding the emerging technology trends, needs, and priorities. For those in the industry, it should come as no surprise that there is strong interest in battery-electric vehicles, automation, robotics, big data / AI, continuous cutting / boring, tele-remote / autonomous vehicle systems, and communication infrastructure. That all said, one of the key themes that is at the forefront of many in the mining industry is better understanding the critical importance of platform and enabling technologies.
The Future of Platform Technologies
The process of selecting, implementing, and utilizing platform technologies can often mean the difference between winning and losing. Companies that anticipate industry trends and evolve their business model and platform strategy concurrently will be poised to have a sustained competitive advantage in the marketplace. But, beyond the direct benefits to a specific company, platform technologies have the capability to support and cultivate the commercialization of new products, services, and business models.
Recently, Nokia installed a private LTE network and the Nokia Digital Automation Cloud as a platform within the NORCAT Underground Centre. Within weeks of the implementation, the “chicken and egg” conundrum was seemingly resolved as we received countless requests from a diverse group of tech companies seeking to develop, test, and demonstrate their products using the Nokia platform. Beyond the diversity of clients (which included companies developing tele-remote / autonomous systems, proximity detection, bio-metrics, communication and location tracking technologies, and data gathering sensors, among others), it was intriguing to see that close to 50% of these tech companies had never sold anything into or been engaged in the mining industry. The Nokia communication platform seemingly unleashed a wave of new innovations for the mining industry.
Where do things go from here? First, given the current trends, there is going to be continued step-change advancements in artificial intelligence, machine learning, cloud computing, and industrial IoT. Quite frankly, we are only at the beginning of this transformation and software / hardware coming together with wireless communications systems such as 4G and 5G will create countless and unique opportunities to transform mining operations around the world. By no means am I suggesting that Wi-Fi or other communication platforms are dead, but the trending would suggest mining executives should be paying close attention to the platform opportunities associated with 4G and 5G networks and understand how they align and potentially integrate with their broader business strategy.
Next, the Canadian mining industry needs to continue its awareness campaign to overcome the preconceived, and somewhat misguided, negative perspectives that the younger generation has of the mining industry. The continued development and deployment of these platform technologies will not only improve the bottom line, but also, they will create new and exciting employment opportunities that enable workers to operate and maintain sophisticated technologies that interest them. Quite simply, mining companies that invest in the “automation transformation” will inspire a new generation of prospective workers and ultimately these companies will be well positioned to win the battle for talent.
Last, I believe the reliability and resiliency of platform technologies will provide the foundation for a different relationship between the builders and buyers of innovation. Historically, most supplier – buyer relationships in the mining industry have been transactional, but with platforms supporting access to more accurate, real-time, and reliable data, mining companies and tech companies will collectively have more insight and confidence to explore new ways of working together. How this will evolve is difficult to know, but we’ve already seen activity and opportunities for mining operations to migrate from traditional capital intensive / asset ownership models to ones based on creative subscription models.
This circular integration of platform technologies with new tech-based career opportunities and creative business models, will strongly contribute to the transformation of the global mining industry. It’s already happening in other sectors, so get ready.
For more information on NORCAT and Nokia’s collaboration, download the case study.
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