‘We’ll see significant amounts of automation’: Michelle Ash on new technologies at the Global Mining Symposium

Michelle Ash, CEO, GEOVIA-Dassault Systèmes, speaking to The Northern Miner's Senior Reporter Carl A. Williams during the 2020 Global Mining Symposium

A key theme of the Global Mining Symposium is the need to advance new technologies to make mining safer, as well as more efficient and productive, which is why Northern Miner senior reporter Carl A. Williams spoke to  Michelle Ash, chief executive of GEOVIA-Dassault Systèmes, from her home in Melbourne, Australia. Dassault Systèmes is a software company and GEOVIA is a division that is specifically focused on mining-related software.

“What we’re doing is looking at capabilities in mining,” she told Williams. “And looking at the capabilities that [Dassault] has developed for other industries and bringing some of those capabilities now to mining.”

The idea she outlined is to build a full suite of products that can be used across the mining value chain, from traditional aspects such as exploration, geology and extraction, to uses in logistics, planning, maintenance, project development and project optimization.

“We’re looking at parametric design, looking at the use of artificial intelligence, 3D-modelling,” she said, “and building digital twins that are not just two dimensions, which is historically where a lot the industry’s digital twins have been, but [now] also building three-dimensional capabilities as well.”

Williams brought up a common perception about the mining industry that it can be slow to pick up on new technologies, and wondered if Ash was sensing any changes.

“I think it’s certainly getting much better,” she responded. “In the thirty years that I’ve been working in the industry, I think we’ve seen tremendous change. I look at our environmental performance and that has significantly improved. I even look at our efficiency and our productivity.”

For example, Ash pointed out that when she started her career in mining, a typical open-pit gold mine might have a cutoff grade of around 5 grams per tonne. But thanks to improvements in technology, today there are operations where the cutoff grade is 0.5 gram per tonne that remain profitable.

However, Ash said, the mining industry will inevitably need to accelerate its pace of change, especially in the face of the faster rate of change that is going on outside the sector. While she agreed that some technologies are widely accepted within the mining community, including automation, tele-remote, digitization and even robotics, Ash said the challenge as an industry is to adopt new techniques even faster.

“Historically it’s been around about every forty years we’ve had a major sort of technology shift or change,” she explained. “If you look at automated trucks, they’ve been around for about fifteen or twenty years. We have to be able to create a rate of change that is in the order of five years, and ten years. Not twenty years and forty years.”

Williams then asked Ash how the Covid-19 pandemic had impacted the industry.

“There’s a number of trends that are happening,” she replied. “And I think Covid has helped, with remote working, and we’re seeing a great proliferation in terms of the art of the possible.”

The ability to connect people faster as they work remotely, the use of newer technologies such as drones and the use of physical automation are proof that the mine of the future is not a fantasy, she said.

“Play this forward, in ten, twenty years, we’ll see significant amounts of automation in operations,” she said. “We’re seeing huge strides in robotics. There are some great trials happening in the next few months or beginning of next year in South Africa. Rather than have people at the face, actually using robotics to do some of that work.”

Still, Ash sees two big hurdles that need to be addressed. The first is enhancing the global understanding of ore bodies, down to the last gram, in order to find them faster. As she pointed out, one of the problems the industry faces is that metals are being mined faster than new sources can be found.

“The other one is around precision extraction,” she said. “If we could at least take just the minerals that we’re interested in, that mineralogy, as distinct from all of the waste. If we could really work on those two problems and fast track some of the solutions, they would have dramatic changes to our industry going forward.”

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