Geologists can win, with the help of tech: McCuaig

Richard Roberts

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Mining geoscience leader Cam McCuaig addresses the AusIMM International Mining Geology conference in Western Australia
‘Our job is connecting the business to the earth and making sure the aspirations of our companies don’t get disconnected from what the Earth has to offer’

Do AIs and other technologies replace geologists? Not in Cam McCuaig’s estimation. He urged his fellow geoscience professionals to embrace the array of technologies on display at the 2024 AusIMM International Mining Geology conference which, he believes, can help make them better “stewards of the subsurface” now and in the future.

“I remember when I first came to Australia [from Canada], working as a student at Norseman, a debate about the real concern [some people had] about going to digital drafting,” said the principal geoscientist at BHP’s Geoscience Centre of Excellence in Perth, Western Australia, where the AusIMM event was being held.

“Not because we were going to lose the army of drafting people … but because they were worried that we’d lose all the richness, the thinking, that went into hand drafting.

“The reality is that it elevated the geologist from data gathering, one step up, to knowledge working.”

The 13th AusIMM International Mining Geology conference – an event regarded internationally as a showcase of industry knowledge, technical progress and, yes, custodianship – featured many threads of mining’s escalating debate about how much technology changes the way the industry looks, and operates, in five years, 10 years and further into the future.

AusIMM CEO Stephen Durkin said in his introduction industry luminary, the late Dr Andrew White, mentioned at the first International Mining Geology forum, in 1990, that computer modelling of ore deposits was changing the industry.

“One of the advantages of computer models lies in their power as a communication tool,” Dr White said more than 30 years ago.

Advanced geophysics and surveying tools, high-powered computing, modelling and simulation, and AI-based analytics were impacting the industry today, this week’s event heard.

The tech debate was encapsulated in this year’s event challenge, which asked 54 participants to design workflows and systems for zero-entry mining in 2029.

Contestants said they learned new things about game-changing technologies for the first time at this week’s conference and exhibition, underlining the rate of change.

We will be much more knowledge workers than the data gatherers”

Conference and challenge chair, Northern Star Resources chief geological officer Daniel Howe, said: “I think about this stuff quite a lot actually. If you take what [Monash University professor Peter Betts said in a conference keynote] … the number of geoscientists coming out of tertiary education is less, but we know that demand for geoscientists across the world is going up. There is going to be a delta which we can’t fill with humans. So we need to advance our systems and thinking and join the systems together with tools that maybe aren’t hammers, or pencils, or compasses, but maybe are other things, be it scanning technology or AI, or whatever it might be, to solve the problems that we’re still solving today.

“I think about it a lot from a business point of view. I can’t just go and employ another person to do the job. I’m going to need these new tools in my toolkit to make the mine economical in the future.”

McCuaig said a zero-entry mine of the future wouldn’t “take people out of thinking about the Earth and geology”.

“We will be much more knowledge workers than the data gatherers,” he said.

“It makes it actually more fun, more exciting, and I really want people to embrace that.”

Exploration geology, too, was changing at speed.

“We’re automating drilling and down-hole assay tools.

“I see a future where we don’t take a physical sample.

“We’ve got a digital world. There’s a whole aspect of digital QA/QC that we have to bring in.

“We’re getting that in real time. And in one model: not a long-term geological model, short-term geological model, grade control model … One model that has [all the components] talking to each other.

“And we’re augmenting a lot of that with geophysics.

“Go out to the Fleet Space [exhibition] booth; see the picture they have of the nodes on the ground, and pretend those are drones. A swarm of drones comes in, lands, couples with the Earth, takes all the geophysical measurements you need, goes up, and you don’t even know they were there.

“It’s that type of thing that gets around access and clearances and stuff.

“That’s the future we have to imagine and work towards.”

McCuaig, a respected educator and geoscience leader, joined many conference dots together in his closing keynote.

He suggested technology would continue to help geologists become better communicators, which they need to be now even more than when the prescient Dr White delivered his observations in 1990.

“Our job is to make sure that the decisions that the company’s being faced with are appropriately informed with knowledge of the subsurface”

He said it was essential geologists helped connect “business to the Earth” which meant, among other things, they couldn’t afford to be buried in data, data gathering and data assembly. They needed to leverage better data, and tools, to enable them to contribute more effectively to the decision-making of their under-pressure organisations.

“Our job is to make sure that the decisions that the company’s being faced with are appropriately informed with knowledge of the subsurface,” McCuaig said.

“How variable it is, you can’t change. It is variable and will always be that variable.

“What we can change is the certainty to which we know that variability. And if we communicate that well, then a decision can be made eyes wide open.”

Why do geologists need to be better communicators?

McCuaig said the industry continued to “push the envelope”.

“How many of your leaders say, I think we should just slow down?

“I think we should just take maybe 75% of what the orebody can deliver. How many conversations like that do you have?

“How about, can we get 120% of what Earth has offered us? That’s often more the challenge that’s put to you. And it’s always a good question.

“There’s nothing wrong with them asking that question. It’s not a demand; we might receive it as a demand. It says, we’d like to produce 120% of what we’re producing.

“Our job is connecting the business to the earth, and making sure that the aspirations of our companies don’t get disconnected from what the Earth has to offer, and what our finite geoscience and engineering capability can do with that, for the business.

“And the decisions are not our decisions. We have to be comfortable with that.

“What our job is, is to inform those decisions, and make sure that they’re made eyes wide open by the companies.”

This was only going to get tougher unless people harnessed the technology at their fingertips, McCuaig said.

“In many industries, not just the mining industry, over the last three decades, there’s been a push to the lean machine; the lean corporation. And there’s been a push to be just in time with information,” he said.

“If you have any excess stock in your business, that’s considered stagnant money that’s not doing anything for you.

“We’re operating faster and faster and faster in our industry, with less latent capacity and less buffer”

“So we get a bit allergic in the industry to things like above-ground stocks, pre-stripping and stuff like this … to access ore. These decisions can get put off. It’s an industry wide challenge.

“We’re operating faster and faster and faster in our industry, with less latent capacity and less buffer.

“Now, that’s a manufacturing mentality. And there’s a lot of good stuff that comes from a manufacturing mentality and a complex system, where … you have handovers to customers and you understand how things can get delivered back and forth. That’s great.

“But there is one major difference, as my friend [fellow geologist] John Vann reminds me, between manufacturing and mining.

“We do the exact opposite of manufacturing. Manufacturing takes very precise inputs, many of them, brings them together to make a complex object and delivers it to market.

“We do the exact opposite. We take a highly variable, uncertain source, deconstruct it and put a very simple product out to the market. We’re the supplier.

“Manufacturing … They outsource all the uncertainty to the supplier. Who do we outsource it to? Oh, that’s us! Because we deal with what the Earth has given us.

“That’s a really important thing to keep in mind. And it also helps with the communication.

“We’ve also heard here about plans. The plan is the plan is the plan. You know, you plan the work, you work the plan.

“General Dwight D Eisenhower, later president Eisenhower, said: I’ve always found plans to be useless. But planning, priceless.

“Plans do go off. And why do they go off?

“BHP [is] recognised by the industry as a top operator, but plans do go wrong. We actually did a forensic within the company … of where mine plans had gone wrong. And there were a number of common factors in there but basically the timely knowledge of subsurface variability and uncertainty, [and] its communication and consumption through the value chain, were key drivers.

“Everyone recognises that geology comes first. [There is a saying] geology is a phase ahead, but it’s forever behind.

“Your company says, in 12 months we want to be at this stage and we want to be able to move a project on. And everyone goes, oh, we’re going to need some geology for that.

“And then the geologist looks at it and goes, if you want all that, I needed to start that 18 months ago.

“I see smiles in the audience because everyone’s had that conversation.

“The deferred investment in characterising the subsurface to inform our decisions is a challenge.

“And the other thing is that our resources are variable. We all know that. We make resource estimates. AusIMM has a conference on resource estimation. And then we hand them on through the process, and they become determinants.

“People forget that it’s an estimate and the numbers take on a life of their own, so to speak.

“This is a challenge in the industry.”

McCuaig said geologists had to work at – “we’re not great at this all the time” – understanding and communicating with users of the knowledge they produced, aka “the client”.

“What’s the knowledge we need? What time? What data? What resolution? The key thing is, what are the critical uncertainties? What are the uncertainties that would really change the decision? And how do we communicate that so that it can be understood and consumed?

“We know what a rock is. A rock is a chemistry deported in a mineralogy, held together by a texture – put an asterisk beside that because it’s a multi-parameter space in itself – it has a pore space that’s filled by a gas or fluid. This gives it a bunch of different properties, geophysical properties, physical rock strength, a whole range of things.

“Our reporting, our classification of resource, focuses largely on two of those things: chemistry and density. Grade and tonnes.

“We talk about modifying factors and everything, but really everything else in there is characterisation for mineability.

“How is this rock mass going to perform as I put holes in it; stopes, caves, big holes in the ground, and as I break it, move it, treat it by physical and chemical processes, produce a consistent product that I put to market and sustainably dispose of the 99.9% of the rock mass I don’t want, in harmony with the planet?

“Geoscience teams have to build business acumen.

“Not necessarily every individual needs to know everything about strategy and market intelligence.

“But as a geoscience team, we have to articulate from client to rock; rock to client.”


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