Expert interview: Pat Lowery

19th May 2020


Metals & Mining


smart mine, covid-19, mining

We’re a few months into the pandemic now. How well do you think the mining industry has responded so far?

Generally speaking, I’ve been really impressed with how mining companies have been handling the situation. We saw all the big players acting very swiftly indeed to put worker safety first, which is obviously the number one priority, both now and as we look ahead to the future.

I’ve been especially encouraged by major mining companies giving lots of aid money to support governments and health agencies that could risk being overwhelmed, across the African continent and globally. It’s the right thing to do.

Now we’re through the initial practical response, the dust is beginning to settle and all of us in the mining and minerals industry are thinking seriously about what happens next. We need to find a ’new normal’ as everyone wants to resume operations as soon as possible.

So what do you think this ’new normal’ will look like?

In the short term, the challenge is to get operations back up and running safely. It looks like there will be a new code of practice introduced for mining sites as a condition to restart production. So it may take several weeks to ramp up to full capacity, as thousands of workers will need to be screened.

Longer term, I think we’ll see companies accelerating their digital transformation efforts. Not simply to improve remote collaboration, as the rest of the world is currently doing, but to create automated, smart mine operations that could carry on functioning even in a crisis like this.

Do you see opportunities for mining companies amid the uncertainty?

Of course there are a lot of unknowns, both in social and economic terms. But I really believe we must use this crisis to fundamentally rethink the way things are done.

It’s fair to say we’ve been too reliant on old ways of doing things, too obsessed with chasing volume over value, and generally being overly resistant to change as an industry.

Recent events have shown beyond a shadow of doubt that we need more automation, more remote monitoring and digital capabilities. And this transformation needs to be faster and more far-reaching than it has been until now.

The good news is that the technology innovation is out there. We’re seeing a whole new ecosystem of solutions that could be real game changers right across the value chain. But until recently, the industry as a whole has lacked the will to invest in the long term. I think that attitude is about to shift, in a major way.

So the opportunity lies in reducing the impact of another pandemic?

No, not at all. It’s not just about de-risking. The need was clearly there before all this happened. These new solutions deliver productivity gains, better efficiency and sustainability, as well as improved health and safety. The issue was that not enough large companies were taking the initiative, which is why we haven’t yet reached the tipping point.

In the next few years, I think we’ll see a growing gap between the digital ‘winners’ and the rest. The big companies will consolidate and focus their capex on technology that drives efficiency gains. Again, this focus on extracting more value over volume was starting to happen already but will only intensify post-covid.

What do you think the longer term impacts of the crisis will be on the industry?

It’s so difficult to say, and we certainly don’t know the lasting impacts yet. But we do know we need to plan for the long term and not be surprised by this again.

Any mining companies sitting on the fence about the long term value of digital transformation won’t be questioning it any more. The benefits of implementing many of these remote and automation tools are now clearer than ever.

Additionally, one unexpected but welcome outcome of the current crisis is the degree of collaboration that’s happening. Industry networks are banding together, sharing resources, holding virtual conferences and so on. It’s a really healthy way for us to share knowledge and move forward. Long may it continue.

If you were running a large mining company right now, what would you be thinking?

That’s a good question! Firstly I’d be figuring out how we maintain the safety of our people, as the absolute priority. Then I’d look at how exposed our supply chain is across different regions, and how much we need to futureproof our risk systems. I’d also be keen to spend money only if I could prevent costs reappearing further down the line.

More broadly, I’d also be thinking about how society is changing and the likely impact. For instance if unemployment levels rise, will we see mass migrations from cities to rural areas? That could pose a huge sustainability challenge.

I’d also be keeping an eye on licence to operate conditions, as mining companies may be asked to provide more value and do more for local communities post-covid. So it’ll be

important to keep updated on changing legislation and ensure compliance, which by the way can be done using digital tools.

Pat, it's been a real pleasure talking to you. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Thanks, it’s been a pleasure too. I’d just like to leave everyone with a message of hope. This has clearly been a time of great challenge for many, but I strongly believe that our industry will emerge stronger, safer and more sustainable than ever. There’s lots to be optimistic about.

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