On November 19 Austmine will host its next Smart Mining networking event in Perth, Western Australia. The last event saw more than 120 mining and METS industry executives gather in Perth and with confirmed speakers being University of WA EZONE director Peter Lilly and SNC-Lavalin general manager Andrew Curtis, Austmine anticipates an equally good response this month.

In advance of the event, Austmine caught up with both speakers to get their insights into some of the most pressing industry issues for mining projects.

What in your opinion is exciting or innovative about the mining field at the moment?

Peter Lilly: One of the most exciting aspects of engineering in the mining sector is the move to remotely operated equipment and ultimately automation, although a fully automated mine is still a fair way off. This move is driven by innovations in a variety of areas: the sensing of key parameters such as location, proximity and physical and chemical properties of important solids, liquids or gases; storage and management of the vast amounts of data collected from these sensors; the analytics of the data to identify relationships and monitor performance and quality; the real-time use of the information to control operations; and the presentation of some of the information into a human interface.

Another is optimizing process plant feed along with low-cost processing options for low grade ores, both of which are being driven by the ‘burning platform’ of declining grades. It’s almost always an exciting time for innovation in mining.

Andrew Curtis: The most exciting development in the mining engineering field in my opinion is the move towards automation of mining equipment. Examples include driverless trucks, shovels, trains etc. This has arguably resulted in more efficient utilization of existing assets and operating cost reductions over the life of the mine.

However my interest is more related to safety considerations – for example removing the workforce from oppressive and sometimes hazardous work environments. Remote operations centres are now accepted as proven technology based on successful testing and implementation by several of the Tier 1 mining companies – namely Rio Tinto and BHPB Iron Ore. Roy Hill has also embarked on a similar path.

What are the biggest challenges for major engineering projects? Other than funding of course!

Andrew Curtis: I believe that there are a myriad of challenges. I recently read a report which outlined the very low percentage of major projects that are delivered on time, on budget and able to operate as designed. From an engineering and project management perspective, we need to refocus on basic fundamentals to regain credibility in this space.

Another challenge is the growing trend of projects being undertaken offshore due to the cost of engineering services in Australia. My thoughts on this is that we are the victims of our own success. The recent boom in the mining sector required significant engineering resources from a very limited pool so prices became over-inflated. On the downside of the boom, these prices are still being corrected. The challenge that results is that good talent (future leaders) is now leaving the sector in droves. This has other flow on effects – for example short/medium term outlook for employment for engineering graduates.

Peter Lilly: Cost and schedule control have rated as significant challenges in the delivery of major engineering projects in recent years, especially in Australia, and may well remain so in the foreseeable future.

Technological innovation and major project delivery are in some ways opposing imperatives: it is difficult to introduce new technology because the risks of failure are often high or perceived to be high, and therein lies the paradox – innovation that might transform project delivery or performance might at the same time potentially threaten the first mover’s ability to deliver on plan and budget.

Why should people attend the Austmine event you are presenting at this month?

Peter Lilly: It’ll be a terrific networking event, and the two speakers will be covering two quite different topics, which will also make for an interesting time.

Andrew Curtis: SNC-Lavalin has been active in the Australian mining sector for 15 years, but for many people SNC-Lavalin is still unknown. The main focus of my presentation is to reflect on some of the projects we have delivered, outline the range of services we offer and discuss a few recent developments within the company.

Given the wide cross section of people that attend these events, I am hopeful that there will something in the presentation for everyone. I am certainly looking forward to seeing Peter Lilly’s presentation as well. The Austmine events are an excellent networking forum so I encourage people to get along.

If you’d like to hear more from Andrew and Peter register to attend. It’s $66+GST for Austmine members, or $110+GST for non-members.