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The tale of two industries

by Andrew Swart

We are 6 weeks into 2018 and I have had the opportunity to attend two industry conferences focused on two very different sectors. First was CES 2018, the largest consumer electronics show in the world in Las Vegas and the second was Mining Indaba 2018, one the world’s largest mining focused conferences in Cape Town.

My lens for these conferences was one of innovation and seeing what the latest trends are. At CES, I was a bit of an anomaly, with every introduction punctuated with a blank questioning stare of what a mining person was doing at a consumer electronics show. Had things got so bad in mining that I was looking to change industries?

Was I a trailing spouse? Truth is that I went to CES because in terms of innovation the consumer space leads mining by several years and so if you want to understand where the disruption is coming from, best you look outside of the industry.

While mining has come a long way in the last few years and mining executives have bought into the need for innovation, the number of companies that have truly embraced it are in the minority. Yes Mining Indaba featured a whole track called Mining 2050 and I was happy to be a panelist on the future of processing, but what I saw overall was an industry trying to evolve rather than an industry looking to disrupt. While many technology providers are out there punting new ideas and technologies, many in the industry are slow to adopt.

As I reflected on CES, there were four trends that caught my attention and which I thought mining should take inspiration from:

  1. The Future of “Smart Communities”: From car manufactures to IoT data platforms, manufacturers gave us a window into what it will look and feel like to be living in the city of the future. It will have impacts on how cities are designed, how autonomous vehicles will create a new urban language with citizens or how sensors and monitoring infrastructure will lead to healthier and safer urban environments. Hold on tiger! What does this have to do with mining? Well, the traditional social contract between mines and communities will have to change in the next decade. Historically the industry promised jobs, but in the age of automation and robotics, what will that new social contract be? I think part of the answer lies in leveraging off the wireless and autonomous infrastructure that will need to be put in anyway, and using that to leapfrog and create smart and connected communities. While Smart City infrastructure is geared more towards first world scale cities, I think the opportunity is there for us to think creatively as to what aspects could be implemented in communities that could make a meaningful difference in people’s lives. Think things like bringing world-class education to remote communities, supplying leading healthcare through tele medicine, transparent environmental monitoring or local supplier development. I think we can challenge ourselves to think about what a smart community of the future could look like!
  2. Autonomous collectors of data: What was especially interesting in the numerous autonomous vehicle exhibits, was this notion that companies are moving beyond the utility of transportation, towards autonomous vehicles being the single largest collector of city and urban information. I had never thought of autonomous cars in that light, merely that I would be able to listen to my favorite podcasts on the way to work while I catchup on emails and sip my mocha frappuccino. Well the truth is that with the latest advances in object recognition and AI, what we are looking at are not vehicles focused on the utility of transportation, but massive data collectors, which are constantly monitoring the urban environment. When miners often speak about autonomous trucks and vehicles, they focus on the haulage utility of the vehicle and not necessarily on the opportunity of these moving data collectors – profiling of pits, collecting security information, LIDAR, geo mapping etc. How can we think about autonomous vehicles in the pit and underground in a whole new light?
  3. Next generation wearables: Striking at this year’s CES show was the next generation of wearable technologies. It felt like the industry had moved beyond the fitness and step trackers that have permeated our daily lives and onto a generation of wearable devices, which were either at or close to medical grade monitoring. These were wearables like devices that provide hospital quality vital signs monitoring like ECG and respiratory functions or a smart safety boot which provides feedback on posture and position, through to the next generation of smart fabrics or companies providing industrial strength body cams with object recognition capability. The frequency with which I was stumbling on new devices with new applications, made me step back and see both the opportunity for us to substantially increase the safety of our front line workers, but also for companies to really think through a wearables strategy and see how these technologies (and associated privacy concerns) should be addressed.
  4. 5G as the enabling platform: Experiencing the 5G environment was really quite amazing and the possibilities that it opens up in terms of VR and AR applications. While I read the articles and the reports, it was quite another actually experiencing the 5G environment. I was quite dizzy by the end of the show trying on these different headsets with applications ranging from gaming, sports viewing and even industrial training. As mining companies engage communities with different VR applications to give them an understanding of the project and the site or use simulation environments to train operators or to create digital twins to simulate and debottleneck, suddenly the possibilities have exponentially expanded and mining companies need to take note. Clearly this environment will be a big game changer in the industrial space.

And so it is that I return to the Dickensian title of this post – The Tale of Two Industries. While not quite the contrast of Paris and London at the time of French Revolution, the difference in the pace and scale of disruption between mining and consumer electronics serves as a reminder of what can happen when innovation is put as a central focus of strategy in an industry.

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