Digitalization will affect every industry – and revolutionize the primaries & metals industry, says mining expert Michelle Ash. In a joint interview with CEO Matthias Altendorf, she discusses what this means for partnerships and the ability to collaborate.
Ms Ash, how good is the mining industry when it comes to technical progress?
Ash: The industry has changed only slowly in the past. It has always been difficult for innovations to find their way into the mining industry. Today it is probably the least digitized industry in the world. But digital disruption will also reach our industry. I am confident that we will be able to adopt this change more quickly in the future. A number of companies in the industry are moving forward with digitalization and are undergoing transformation.
What are the challenges the mining industry is facing today – and what are the main drivers?
Ash: There’s a number of drivers, both within the mining industry and from outside. Most of the mining companies are digging deeper, exploiting orebodies further away from processing centers and mining lower grade material. Community expectations and government demands are getting more refined. There are greater environmental and safety expectations. Investors require higher returns and better risk management. Finally, we are challenged by companies like Apple that have started recycling their smartphones with ambitious goals in terms of recovering raw materials and saving energy. Together, this puts a lot of pressure on our industry.
Mr Altendorf, do you feel a similar pressure to change in your business?
Altendorf: Megatrends such as globalization, digitalization, demographic change and volatile markets are driving our customers’ businesses and thus also our business. And we are realizing that technological change has accelerated as a result of digitalization. We ourselves face similar challenges, perhaps in a different context. But digitalization affects us comprehensively, too – in our offering, in our own operations and in the way we do business with our customers.
“We need both openness and flexibility at the same time. In a digitized world, things have to be much more agile than we are used to. We have to try things out and, if something doesn’t work, learn quickly. This requires a change in corporate culture.”Matthias Altendorf, CEO Endress+Hauser
Ms Ash, what could the digital mine of the future look like?
Ash: There are three main phases. The initial phase of digitalization starts with connectivity. We strive for complete transparency about people, operations and processes. New sensors, more automation, robots, machine learning, big data and artificial intelligence will lead to much more efficiency, a higher yield, less impact on the environment and better safety. In a second phase, we will take people out of the mine. Everything will be automated, robotized and remotely controlled. The third phase is around electrification of mines and carbon neutrality. With solar energy and renewables and batteries for storage, we will move away from traditional diesel for driving mines and generating power.
Mr Altendorf, how can a process and laboratory instrumentation and automation supplier like Endress+Hauser support the mining industry in shaping the future?
Altendorf: It takes a lot of sensors to gather all the information about what’s happening in a mine. We have a comprehensive portfolio of products, solutions and services that we are constantly developing. With technologies such as Heartbeat and Memosens, we contribute to operational efficiency and plant availability. We can also support the industry with regards to digitalization. With Netilion, we offer an IIoT ecosystem that provides connectivity and enables digital services.
Ms Ash, what do mining companies expect from suppliers like Endress+Hauser? And what significance do partnerships have for your industry in times of change?
Ash: Historically, the mining industry hasn’t been great in partnerships. In future, we have to be a lot more collaborative and form strong and genuine partnerships with our suppliers. One of the things the new technology will drive and already has driven in recent years is an acceptance that we as mining companies can’t know and develop everything – and we can’t expect our suppliers to do all these things on their own either. We have to work together to achieve good results, including with other mining companies. That´s in our own best interest!
“For employees, mining hasn’t been the industry of choice for a couple of years. But the new technologies will make us more attractive to Generation Z and also to women.”Michelle Ash, Chair of the Global Mining Guidelines Group
What matters in such a phase of change, both for manufacturing companies and their suppliers?
Altendorf: We need both openness and flexibility at the same time. In a digitized world, things have to be much more agile than we are used to. We have to try things out and, if something doesn’t work, learn quickly. This requires a change in corporate culture. At the same time, this culture must offer stability. That’s why companies need to learn organizational ambidexterity.
Ash: Absolutely; this is no different in mining. Especially with agile approaches, we don’t always know the outcome at the beginning. This is why transparency becomes so important during any time of radical and rapid change. In our industry, older people fear automation because they are afraid it will take their jobs. But automation can also enhance jobs or make them safer. But these fears must be addressed. After all, we can’t forget that this is still all about people – how we treat and lead them, how we get them comfortable with the accelerating rate of change.
How can we succeed in taking people with us on this road into the future?
Altendorf: Every solution must always be tailored to people, because they are the focus of our actions. But we must provide our people with the tools and the environment for digitalization.
Ash: For employees, mining hasn’t been the industry of choice for a couple of years. But the new technologies will make us more attractive to Generation Z and also to women. If we were operating machinery remotely, if we could take away some of the manual handling, these roles might be more interesting for women even if they have family obligations.