Mine development is a large, long-term investment carrying enormous financial risk and uncertainty. The ability to bring construction schedules forward and increase development efficiency provides huge return on investment opportunities for operators.
There is a plethora of new technologies, mainly born out of the construction industry, which are helping mining companies reduce the risks associated with large asset developments. Such innovations focus on ensuring projects are built at a faster pace, with leaner costs and far higher safety performance. New technology approaches predominantly fall under three broad categories:
- Pre-fabricated and modularised construction materials and processes for cheaper, safer and more efficient on-site assembly.
- Building information modelling (BIM) systems allowing for real-time 3D site visualisation, virtual design and virtual construct by multiple stakeholders for efficient knowledge transfer and coordination.
- Automated equipment such as rovers and drones gathering jobsite information and monitoring construction progress autonomously.
Core to each of these technologies are advances in the way data is optimised to improve planning, sequencing and asset design. Whilst some of these are relatively new to mining, they are well established in other industries and the use cases are readily transferrable. The 1,000 bed Wuhan hospital, built by the Chinese government in 10 days, is a great example of how off-site assembly, advanced planning and stakeholder mobilisation can radically increase development efficiency.
The development stage of new mines bears a considerable proportion of the capital risk experienced by the mining industry as a whole. As a result, the appetite and capacity of studies and design teams to take risks on new technologies has traditionally been relatively low. As a result, the core process mine design applied by studies teams has remained much the same for decades. The application of new technologies throughout the design and construction phases of mine development has the capacity to shift this design philosophy enormously – it does, however, require a cultural and mindset change within the studies teams.
The most likely catalyst for such change is the contractor. Whilst mining may be lagging in some areas of innovation, the contracting of innovative third parties (from outside the industry) to be a part of the development process provides a clear avenue for innovation transfer and technology adoption. Adoption could simply be in the form of moving from a 2D design to a digital 3D mine construction plan, which could then provide a platform for other stakeholders to have access to this design and the capability to show updated changes and adjustments in real-time. Further advancements could be utilise ‘digital twin’ software to simulate many different construction sequences. Whilst it sounds simple for this innovation transfer to occur, it requires a concerted effort from mining companies. Contractors will seldom implement these sorts of innovations unless the mining company demands it. Ultimately, the responsibility always falls back on the mining company to drive demand and show a willingness to capture efficiency through the application of new technology. With so much value at stake, it seems that virtual design and construct makes a lot of sense, and we anticipate seeing a greater rate of adoption of technologies of this kind in mining in the near future.