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Technology serves as 'enabler,' not 'silver bullet' to success in mining sector

Central to mining executives' message at a recent conference was the notion that technology and innovation, if handled properly, could serve as a catalyst for improvements in the industry, including safety.

Several mining executives addressed attendees at the Future of Mining Americas conference in Denver earlier this week, offering a key message: Mining companies need a strategy for implementing new technology to improve operations.

Dean Gehring, executive vice president and chief technology officer at Newmont Goldcorp Corp., said in an interview that innovation in the industry must be targeted, or else companies will waste time and money as well as possibly interrupt their employees' workflow. Miners should only seek to innovate once they have maxed out all they can do in terms of positive operating practices, Gehring said.

Companies should be borderline "surgical" in implementing technology and innovation, the executive said.

"The innovation part and the technology part isn't the tough part," Gehring said. "The tough part is the change management process. It's operationalizing the innovation or the technology — that's where the challenge is. And that can't be underestimated."

Speaking on an Oct. 21 panel discussion, Theuns Roux, transformation director with Nutrien Ltd., said companies need to understand the value the technology will bring to the company as well as who will use it in the operations. Miners cannot only consider the capital required by innovation but must also consider new ways of thinking, Roux said.

It is also important to create a culture where failure is accepted, understanding that failure is essential to potential success, Roux said.

"Technology, at the end of the day, is an enabler," Roux said. "It is not going to be your silver bullet. It's not going to replace your operations. It is going to enable your operations to be better and more efficient."

Bertrand Odinet, chief information officer and chief innovation officer of Freeport-McMoRan Inc., told S&P Global Market Intelligence that technology has helped the company to better understand its systems and make more targeted investments to optimize those assets. It subsequently has received a better return on capital for those investments.

Many innovative ideas come from the workforce, Odinet said, so companies are tasked with ensuring those people understand their voices are being heard. With this understanding, employees are often more open to using new tools suggested by their peers.

While short-term problems likely cannot be solved by looking 10 years into the future, it can help guide companies to evaluate what technology might solve the problem while keeping long-term goals in mind, Odinet said on a panel.

"Too often, technologists can get enamored with the tools or the vendors, and too often, the operations guys can be shortsighted," Odinet said. "We really look at our job as trying to work with both those teams to both understand the long-term vision and the short-term vision and to compromise where necessary."

Focus on safety

The speakers also drove home the notion that technology can make operations safer and the value those investments offer a company. While industries often tend to focus on profits and productivity, safety needs to be just as valued, they said.

Roux noted that safety is often less prioritized than other financial or production metrics but said there is "a huge benefit in technology bringing safety higher." Technology can improve stability in operations and mitigate the risk posed by dangerous activities, Roux said.

"I think we, as leaders, need to redefine how safety actually adds value indirectly and directly," Roux said.

Due to the nature of where Freeport operates, the company would not have a license to operate if it did not protect its employees, Odinet said.

"Safety and sustainability are first and foremost, and productivity comes after that," Odinet said. "With that in mind, everything we've learned over the years is that a safe environment is more productive, and we see it. Because productivity only comes when people feel empowered to work without concerns for themselves or their peers."

Miners need to redesign their businesses to eliminate risks rather than mitigating risk along the way, said Afzal Jessa, chief digital officer of Vale SA. This could change the way companies look at an operation's design and begin a transformation in the sector.

"If you look at the catalyst for change in other industries, we need to find something similar in ours," Jessa said, "And perhaps risk and sustainability become that catalyst to transform our industry."