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Anglo American pushing hard for productivity gains

Anglo American Plc has witnessed a substantial increase in productivity over the past few years through the implementation of new technologies, but the mining heavyweight believes it still has further to go.

"Over the last four or five years, the company's productivity has gone up 70%," Technical Director Tony O'Neill told reporters Aug. 7 on the sidelines of the Diggers & Dealers Mining Forum in Kalgoorlie, Australia.

"Half of that is basically portfolio, the other half is actually operating practice. The innovation stuff that we are looking at, we want to get plus-50%. It's disruptive. So the operating model, the normal best practice, is driving this initial wave and then we want to basically bring this over the top and change the whole game again."

"So if we couldn't double productivities with these in time then I think we haven't got it right again."

O'Neill said that while Anglo American has always been good at technology development, it has in the past not been so good at applying that technology to its own operations.

"Some of the developments that you see around the industry have actually come out of Anglo," he said. "In 2013/2014 we looked around the company and came to the decision that we needed to change the technical skills, did a really detailed review of our workforce and came to the conclusion that the technical core two out of three people couldn't do their work."

According to O'Neill, innovation goes beyond just automation and includes things like microwave and plasma pre-conditioning of rock, "explosive-less" breakage of rock, machine learning, instrumentation, 3-D and 4-D printing, and medical imaging applications on minerals.

"We believe that a truly innovative mindset requires an entirely new paradigm, one that integrates existing mine technologies with new disruptive digital and energy technologies to benefit the entire system, not just parts of it," he told delegates at Diggers & Dealers.

O'Neill disputed the view that the mining sector has run out of innovative ideas.

"I have seen articles that said the industry has almost run out of ideas and innovation had died off, I think it's quite the opposite," he said.

"Some of this will be around in five years. It's not as far away as people think. The industry will start to really disrupt very quickly."

Anglo, meanwhile, is aiming to outpace the rest of the mining sector when it comes to innovation.

"For us it's really about speed, we've got a broader program than certainly all the other majors," O'Neill said. "So how do we get three to five years of advantage before everyone else catches up and then how do we keep rolling the change? It will provide opportunities for us, both in our exploration side and in our portfolio."

Anglo has already started examining new technologies on the exploration front.

"We've got what we call a squid technology, it's an airborne aeromagnetic thing that we've developed," O'Neill told reporters. "We're quite active at the moment in the globe, particularly around copper, and the main areas that we are currently working in are PNG, Zambia, Brazil and Chile."

Anglo is also looking at artificial intelligence and data systems and how these can be pulled together into an integrated system starting with exploration and moving right through to processing.

While Anglo is committed to its innovation push, it is not costing the company billions of dollars as some might expect. O'Neill said much of the technology push has been co-funded by others.

"We invest tens of millions a year, but the reality is the open forum has brought other industries to us because they want a pathway to market," he said.

"So it's not destroying the balance sheet. For the scale of what we're doing it's actually surprisingly cheap."

However, there is still a barrier to implementing some technologies, according to O'Neill.

"We could put developments today in some of our businesses that would significantly save water, but we're not allowed to because we can't get the permits in an expedient fashion," he said.

"Some of our permitting processes take three to five years. We're developing … on 90-day cycles. So how we change this regulation piece is really quite critical."