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How remote operation centres are satisfying ESG demands in metals and mining

Remote operation centres are part of the sea change sweeping through the industry. Former Rio Tinto Head of Innovation John McGagh tells us how they’re shifting mindsets around technology, efficiency and sustainability.

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contact-Matthew Blenkarn

Matthew Blenkarn

Content Producer

Due in part to public relations, investor demands, stakeholder pressure and advances in technology, sustainability is now an engine that shapes strategy within the metals and mining industry.

The rise of remote operation centres (ROCs) is just the latest result of that trend. Defined in basic terms as centralised workspaces from which workers can oversee mining operations, ROCs can take many different forms. More primitive systems serve as a repository for a single site’s data, while advanced versions track activity in real time across the value chain. What unites each kind of ROC is their potential to help metals and mining companies achieve their sustainability targets.

Nowhere is that more apparent than in Axora’s recent Innovation Forecast. Based on data gathered from 150 senior decision makers at metals and mining companies around the world, the report shows substantial adoption of remote operation centres (ROCs). Nearly three-quarters of respondents (72 percent) said that they’d already implemented ROCs, with a further 15 percent planning on doing so within the next year.

Part of that uptick is due to the need to mitigate the impact of COVID-19, but the pandemic is hardly the only factor at play here. In fact, sustainability seems to be the biggest long-term motivator for metals and mining companies: nearly 44 percent of survey respondents ranked improved sustainability as the biggest benefit of their ROCs.

So how are ROCs helping these organisations hit their environmental targets? And why are they taking these actions now?

From weak signal to screaming alarm

John McGagh, former Head of Innovation at Rio Tinto, has some insight on the matter. For almost a decade, he led the conceptual design, development and implementation of innovative new technologies in one of the world’s largest mining companies. For him, these changes have been more than a decade in the making.

“There were weak signals around sustainability going back 10 or 15 years,” says McGagh. “Sustainability was seen as a phrase looking for a definition. However, with relatable Sustainability Goal frameworks created by the UN in 2015, we’ve seen the discussion gain traction all the way up to the major boardrooms of the mining industry.”

Mining as an industry doesn’t invent its own stuff; the technology mostly comes from the vendors, and now the market will pay a premium if you have a net zero product.

With those frameworks firmly entrenched, it was only a matter of time before environmental, social and governance (ESG) initiatives became a priority for shareholders across the sector. Today, sustainability metrics are a keyway for investors to determine a mining company’s growth opportunities and risk.

“Now, net zero by 2050 is very much in the minds of the people in those rooms,” McGagh notes. “The frequency of climate catastrophes in the last few years – Australia in flames two years ago, California today, Canada’s 50-plus degree temperatures – has helped it remain there.”

As with all major transitions, though, there are multiple factors at play. Public pressure and climate-based disasters have played their role, as have regulation and the availability of cost-effective renewables. But none have had a greater impact, McGagh believes, than investment, and the proof has already made its way to market.

“Net zero by 2050 is affecting supply chains already,” he notes. “The weak signal is now a screaming alarm. Mining as an industry doesn’t invent its own stuff; the technology mostly comes from the vendors, and now the market will pay a premium if you have a net zero product.”

Driving change through efficiencies

At this point, it’s easy to spot the correlation between sustainability and the rise in ROCs. ESG initiatives started the conversation, and the obvious return on investment seen from ROCs has helped establish them as a go-to for mining companies in need of sustainable, productivity-enhancing solutions. But why, exactly, are these centres so effective?

Surprisingly, the answer has less to do with sustainability than efficiency. For McGagh, wasted resources, be they technology, energy or unusable materials, are the most unsustainable outputs of all. By streamlining operations and using data to eliminate inefficiencies, ROCs help cut down on waste of all kinds.

“Once ROCs are implemented, a business enters a new trajectory,” he explains. “You’ve now got a network working within the site, and you can leverage the data flowing from it.”

There’s no use just bringing the technology in – it’s about getting the right people in to really make it work

And once that data begins to trickle through a company, there’s no limit to what it can do. ROCs broadly allow companies to tighten up their operations, but they also offer unique opportunities for each stage of the value chain. Companies can better allocate and dispatch their fleets across sites, plan and schedule logistics more effectively, offer guidelines to plant operators and ensure they make real-time, value accretive adjustments.

And that’s only the beginning. As the centres grow, they become a platform for more technology-led solutions, something that opens up many more opportunities for companies of all sizes within the space.

“Barriers to entry, as a result, are a lot lower. The only major ones that exist now are mental ones.”

Shaping the future with people and technology

These mental barriers are eroding, too, McGagh argues. Even before the pandemic, the dynamic of the mining workforce has been steadily changing. A wider shift toward technological solutions has naturally generated a need for new skills, attracting the talent that possesses them in turn. With new talent comes new ways of working, and ROCs are no exception.

“Every company needs to leverage the latest technology and now, operating them on site via an ROC has become an attractive proposition for certain parts of the workforce,” says McGagh. “There’s no use just bringing the technology in – it’s about getting the right people in to really make it work.”

As these tech-forward newcomers enter the industry, and ROCs continue to prove effective in achieving both sustainability and efficiency targets, the case for adoption will only get easier. From there, McGagh says, the benefits will be clear as day.

It’s a complete paradigm shift,” he says. “Society is pushing us to ask those questions. Now, it's up to us to answer them

“When it’s done right, you’ll end up on the right side of the ultimate value add: less power, less water, more effective people, and an ability to balance consumables with assets.”

All of which paints an extremely positive picture for an industry increasingly driven by sustainability and the opportunities surrounding it. The next challenge, as it usually is with innovation, is where to go next. When it comes to ROCs, McGagh believes, the possibilities are plentiful.

“Once you have that data flowing into one node on the network, you can begin to layer in different processes – like machine learning, for example. With that in place, it opens up a cornucopia of options.

“The key is to think big. Some companies are already harnessing drone information into road conditions so they can identify how many fleets to dispatch in order to save fuel. Things like that become a lot easier when you have the data pulsing through your operations.”

For McGagh, this is all about asking the right environmental questions, driven by the sustainability agenda. “It’s a complete paradigm shift,” he says. “Society is pushing us to ask those questions. Now, it's up to us to answer them.”

Read more about digital transformation trends among metals and mining companies in the Axora Innovation Forecast, which surveyed 150 senior industry decision makers. Get your copy here

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