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People, process, then technology

Second annual Beyond Digital Transformation in Sudbury talks tech for the sake of human lives

The digital transformation is not as much about tech, as it is about people.

The overlying theme at the second annual Beyond Digital Transformation conference was about how technology is transforming mining for the greater good of the people that work in the industry.

The conference is presented by Partners in Achieving Change Excellence (PACE)

Hundreds of delegates covering the mining and mining service industries packed the United Steelworkers Hall and NORCAT in Sudbury on Feb. 6 to hear from executives and those at the forefront of innovation on how technology is not just changing mining, but how mining can own the change and push innovation outside the industry.

Delegates also took a tour of NORCAT, taking in displays and talks by experts and industry executives.

“The best workforce for the future is my current workforce. We talk often about how to retrain and refocus staff to work in a digital environment,” said Ricus Grimbeek, chief operating officer for Vale in North America, Europe and Asia refineries and honorary conference chair, in his presentation Feb. 6. “Tech is connecting people, locations and systems. We have to be partners in how mining will be done differently.”

He described the digital transformation in mining as fundamentally running a business differently. Like doing open heart surgery and running a marathon at the same time.

While it seems like a daunting task, Grimbeek said he felt privileged to be working in the industry now.

This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reset the industry, he said.

While Vale is more than 100 years old, major changes have only been happening for the past 30. Much of that has been in health and safety. The digital transformation is largely about getting people out of dangerous situations underground and on surface, where they can operate systems and machines without personal risk. It's also about lowering costs to mine companies as operations go deeper and operations become more expensive.

There’s more than just money and jobs at stake. Mining has to be more environmentally friendly, and one solution is adopting the use of battery-electric vehicles.

More people are talking about climate change, which Grimbeek said will be a driving factor for the economy in five years. Reducing the carbon footprint will become more of a priority for mining operations.

“We allow ourselves to be on a journey where we hope it will sort itself out. We have to be sorting that out now,” Grimbeek said.

With demand for battery-electric vehicles increasing, Grimbeek said this could not only drive demand for nickel and other metals, but drive innovation for vehicles themselves. Potentially, all mines could adopt zero-emission battery vehicles, mine the very minerals they need to produce more vehicles and become self-sustaining. It can also be a testing ground for technology for other industries, like the automotive industry at large.  

Sudbury could be a hub for mining and training with more operations being run here than in the current basin. A panel discussion featuring Johnna Muinonen, vice-president of base metals at RNC Minerals; John O'Shaughnessy, Stobie Mine manager with Vale; Neil Milner with KGHM; and Gary Potts, director of Glencore Sudbury Operations Fraser Mine tackled this subject, as well as the challenges of convincing shareholders to take risks in innovation.

Miller said digital transformation will make industry more accessible to those with disabilities.

“We have to look at the barriers we put up, if they are artificial or natural. If they are artificial, if we can take them down we can open up new areas,” he said.

O'Shaughnessy added they had to inspire the next generation early. He said he often talks to students in elementary schools to show mining is not a “barbaric” industry anymore, and that mining has had a positive influence on social issues.

To attract more people and more diverse mindsets, mining has to embrace risk in innovation. The perception that failure is bad has to be changed. There is plenty of desire for change, Milner said, but few want to fully embrace it out of that fear. He said people have to accept that failure is part of the process, so they can determine what works and move forward

But in the end, innovation lives and dies based on shareholders' willingness to embrace it. O'Shaughnessy said if they can’t get people on board, there is no point to going ahead, no matter how groundbreaking it is. The best way to find out where innovation should start is by listening to employees that are working on the floor and spotting problems first-hand.

“It’s impossible to predict the future, and we have to accept we don’t know what we don’t know," he said.