Collaborative push can close mining gaps faster: Plint

Richard Roberts

‘The future is already out there. It’s just unevenly distributed’

Mining3 CEO Dr Neville Plint says news out of Sweden last month confirms what many believe: that most of the technology pieces needed to accelerate the industry’s journey into a more sustainable future are in place and “we just need to put it together in a system and scale it”.

Plint says growing collaboration between mining companies, and between miners and innovators – as demonstrated by Boliden, ABB and Epiroc in Sweden – is key to speeding that journey. And he has also seen evidence of that in Mining3’s work, including its innovation forum series that kicked off earlier this year with a bumper event in Brisbane, Australia.

“It’s interesting because a year, maybe 18 months ago, the narrative was very much around the individual companies wanting to get competitive advantage through technology,” Plint told

“What’s happened now is the conversation has changed.

“The decarbonisation challenge, for example, is too big for one company on its own to solve the problem. All the big companies have tried to solve these problems on their own. But when you’re talking about the major sustainability problems, one company is never going to be able to do it.

“The conversation has changed massively now to, how do we build collaborations to achieve these big outcomes.

“There was also a view that if you went on your own, you could go a lot quicker. And I think it’s been shown that that’s not true. You can actually go much faster if you build a really focused collaboration, where you have different parts of the value chain involved.”

Plint, a former chief scientist at Anglo American Corp and director of Australia’s Sustainable Minerals Institute, became Mining3’s CEO last December.

Mining3 is an amalgam of the former Australian Government-backed, multi-million-dollar CRCMining research centre and national science agency CSIRO’s hard rock mining research activities, formed in 2016. It has a 30-year heritage of cutting-edge mining R&D and R&D coordination.

“We’ve been very good at connecting mining companies to mining companies, mining companies to OEMs [original equipment manufacturers], OEMs to [technology and services] companies,” Plint said.

“The project scope and delivery, the IP, the contracting – all the administration, which is often overlooked – we can do really efficiently. We can onboard new researchers and new companies quickly.

“We’ve been doing it for 30 years.

“Mining3 has run technical meetings for members for many years. What we decided to do this year is to run a much more open forum.

“The first one in January, called Mining the Gap, was largely focused on just talking about greater collaboration and what we thought were the big challenges facing the industry.”

The in-person event in Brisbane, limited by venue space to about 180 attendees, generated a review document, Mining the Gap 2030, focused on “next-gen equipment, technology and services”. It provided a “detailed exploration of the most critical technological gaps in the mining industry … [which represented] opportunities ripe for innovative solutions capable of revolutionising mining operations”.

“[The] report is intended to act as a catalyst for change.

“Our vision is to transform mining by reshaping the conversations around it.”

The series reconvenes next month with a hybrid live/virtual event that is expected to draw a bigger crowd than the earlier forum (Plint envisages a four-part 2024 program).

The focus this time: sensors.

“The future of mining is going to need to be underground, fully autonomous, without any waste disposal or any surface footprint,” Plint said.

“If that’s the hypothesis, the question is, how do you get there?

“Well, first, to do anything autonomous we’re going to need sensors to be able to see remotely. And the question is, so what are those sensors?

“The challenge I’ve put out to all the different members and partners and interested parties is to say, have you got a sensor that would be useful? Or do you have a view of what sensors we need to develop?

“A lot of the sensor companies will come along to have a look and say, well, yep we can measure that, or we can develop that; we can make that happen.

“And then I’m hoping the mining and equipment manufacturers will say, well, if we had this, then then we could move along that pathway to autonomy.

“I expect it will be a lot more technical than our previous forum.

“And then the next one will be, okay, so we’ve got all this data, how do we use it? How do we build physics-based models and big data models? How do we build digital twins? And then how do we use those to inform our future mining methods?

“The fourth one, towards the end of the year, will bring it all together.

“And then, ultimately, how do we deploy these new systems?

“Because that’s going to be the trick: deploying at scale.”

Despite the complexity involved, historically, Plint is optimistic about an accelerated rate of progress.

First, there are the compounding pressures on the industry to improve efficiency and reduce its environmental footprint while it adopts new energy systems and strives to produce more of the metals the world needs.

Secondly, the technology gaps to zero-entry, autonomy and low waste, are not significant.

Thirdly, as he says, collaboration is now a thing.

Fierce competition for resources and markets isn’t going away. However, until the industry gets to a new normal after a technological reset, the boat everyone is in is going to continue taking on water and the major threat to companies, boards, investors and other stakeholders won’t abate.

“The narrative Mining3 has always pushed is, let’s bring all of the parties together and we can be [collectively] successful,” Plint told

“What we’re hearing from the industry now is, we actually need to work out how to do this. How do we collaborate to make it go faster?

“If you want to get a piece of equipment on to a mine site you’re better off working with the equipment manufacturers and bringing it through them, because they actually already have the supply chain [and] they have the connectivity into the site.

“If you try and drop new equipment or new technology onto a mine site without that, it fails, because there’s no system to support it.

“Everybody’s looking at electrification and, again, a lot of the technology exists. It’s just not applicable at the scale required.

“We know that hydrogen fuel cells work. We know that batteries work. We know that automation works. But how do you do that at scale, and how do you maybe change your mining approach to adopt more autonomous, smaller-scale vehicles?

“I think there are enough examples of it happening right now, but on a very small scale – sort of demonstration scale.

“It needs to be done at a competitive cost, 24/7, 365 days a year.

“We will see the electrification coming through in the next five years.

“There will be multiple vehicles that will not be able to be electrified. And that’s where the biodiesel comes in, or the hydrogen fuel cells.

“So as a concept, I think we can do it.”

Paraphrasing American author William Gibson, Plint said: “The future is already out there. It’s just unevenly distributed.”


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