In the second of our three-part series on the outlook for mining in 2021, we turn our attention to three major areas that are defining the future of the industry – the impact of digital; changing market demands around sustainability; and the focus of R&D and innovation efforts.
Global Head of R&D, Wayne Douglas, together with CDO, Mikko Tepponen, and Fleming Voetmann, Vice President, Sustainability, give their predictions and insights for the year ahead. And, yes, the robots are coming. . . but they might just be on your side!
DIGITAL TRENDS: Teamwork and deep expertise will underpin digital-driven decision making
Mikko Tepponen, Chief Digital Officer
Two things that, on the surface, might not look like the key digital trends for 2021, teamwork and expertise, will be at the forefront of mining’s digital progress in 2021.
With Covid-19 impacting mining in 2020, a lot of emphasis has been given to how we will collaborate in a world where travelling is restricted but operations need to be kept rolling without any hiccups. To accomplish this, teamwork will be more important than ever. But, already in 2021, you can expect your teams to start looking a bit different – instead of your regular human counterparts, you’ll end up working side by side with machines. And by machines I don’t mean the regular equipment used in production that uses human control, but software robots equipped with Artificial Intelligence that help you make all key decisions in your mining operation.
We are seeing an increased focus on capturing expert knowledge in what the industry calls “Digital Greybeards”.
We are continuing to see a significant blossoming in the capabilities of AI to support humans within the maintenance and operations spaces. This will lead to a greater collaborative effort between human and machine in the manner that we have already seen in other industries, especially in the military.
What about expertise then? Surely this is the core of a human capability, unmatched by computers and machines. Very true, but lately we are seeing an increased focus on capturing expert knowledge in what the industry calls “Digital Greybeards”. This is the capturing of knowledge not just from one individual but from as many experts as possible, each and every time an issue is solved. When this information is combined with the pure data-driven approach of Machine Learning, the result is not only a much-improved capacity to prevent and predicting failures and critical issues on mining sites, but also the ability to choose the correct response to those issues should they arise.
R&D AND INNOVATION TRENDS: Many paths towards producing “more with less”Wayne Douglas, Head of Mining R&D
A push for more sustainable mining solutions will continue in 2021, as miners continue to announce ambitious targets in this area, such as 30-40% reductions in GHG emissions over the next decade or strategies for future net-zero carbon ambitions. A large part of these reductions can be achieved through new energy efficient technologies that are relevant to our MissionZero portfolio and in our pipeline of R&D products. This is central to our focus again this year.
Governing bodies will continue to pressure producers and suppliers to meet increasingly stringent standards in water usage and emissions.
SUSTAINABILITY TRENDS: Sustainable sourcing and strategic alliances set to sprout
Fleming Voetmann, VP FLSmidth, Sustainability
Responsible sourcing will be a continuing trend in 2021. It now covers all major commodities and all major minors have made commitments and are gradually being certified. The OECD and LME are working on new sustainability criteria. This is a positive move no doubt – but now we need the customers, consumers and end users to begin purchasing copper certified from The Copper Mark™ and aluminium from the Aluminium Stewardship Initiative, and so forth. This has significant potential to be a game changer but it could take some time to gain traction.
Corporates will make their own strategic alliances to secure the minerals they need. Long-term contracts and dedicated supply chains will be order of the day.
The EU and the US have been hitting the snooze button too many times but have now finally woken up to how much more minerals will be needed for renewable energy, electric vehicles and the low-carbon future. 2021 needs to be a year of action with both US and EU likely to fast track permits for mine expansions and greenfield mines. The NIMBY (not in my backyard) factor will need to be overcome, while recycling efforts should also see an increased focus. We could also begin to see increased competition between EU, US and China over access to minerals from Chile, Peru, Zambia and so forth, meaning new strategic alliances could be on the cards.
Meanwhile, corporates will make their own strategic alliances to secure the minerals they need. Long-term contracts and dedicated supply chains will be order of the day for companies relying on cobalt, lithium and rare earths, for instance, rather than sourcing supply through the open market. Tesla and Volkswagen are two early movers in this area.
Finally, COP26 in Glasgow is likely to see commitments and partnerships emerge, with companies such as Vestas and Siemens likely to start forming alliances with manufacturers who can produce low-carbon steel. Several countries like France, Germany and Sweden will heavily subsidise the decarbonisation of steel – this could be accelerated with a carbon border mechanism (tax) on imported steel and aluminium into the EU. This would give EU producers of both steel and aluminium a strong incentive and the funding to decarbonise.