Global Megatrends and Industry Division B
Updated: Dec 10, 2021
Just as it goes without saying that life is different today than what it was say 20 years ago, so it will be that life in 20 years-time will be different to what we experience today. This article is looking toward that 20-year horizon for “Industry Division B”. It is aimed at those who are contemplating career or business prospects in the mining industries. It offers some insights from a futurist and might provide you with some food for thought. So, what follows is just that – a perspective on what could be.
Now, although there are several long-term megatrends shaping the world as we know it, I just want to focus on two – computerisation and climate change. Other megatrends – including societal and demographic trends (eg. globally, the proportion of people living in cities is expected to be almost 70% by 2050, up from 50% in 2007) may not have as significant an impact upon careers and business as the two in this article’s spotlight.
About the global megatrend of climate change
We are witnessing shifts in weather patterns, increases in ocean temperatures, and rising rates of abnormally high seasonal temperatures. Shifts that impact harvest yields and interrupt the annual rhythms of fauna and flora (eg. in the south-west of Australia, annual rainfall has declined up to 20% over the last 30 years leading to a reduction in the area covered by some native trees).
Unless there is a globally significant and sustained effort at combating climate change, we will witness a continuing increase in land and ocean temperatures over the coming years. Likewise with the frequency and duration of land and marine heatwaves. And not forgetting the increasing intensity and frequency of heavy precipitation (eg. the global sea surface temperature has risen by about 0.13°C per decade since 1900).
About the global megatrend of computerisation
For decades now, processing power of computers has increased. This observation is aligned with Moore’s Law – the one that that states that computing power will double every two years. In fact, the number of transistors in a CPU (the switching elements in processing heart of a computer) continues to climb with each new generation. For example, Intel’s Pentium 4 CPU from the year 1999 had 125 million transistors in it. Whereas, for a brand new laptop available for sale today, the CPU transistor counts are measured in the billions.
And with this increasing processing power, comes increasing capabilities for computers to do more complex tasks. For example, the rover in the 1997 Mars Pathfinder’s mission was a semi-autonomous machine capable of obstacle avoidance. Compare this Sojourner rover with the most recent machines that NASA sent to Mars. The rover on the latest mission, Perseverance, can drive and navigate by itself. And compared to Sojourner, Perseverance can process more data, and more quickly, from more sensors and cameras.
The impact of these two influences
So, what will these two global megatrends do to the industries of extraction?
First to climate change. This will affect mining industries in terms of their own operations, the activities of their clients, and the needs of the market.
Self-evidently, weather events impact mining operations. The increasing intensity and frequency of precipitation, together with rising temperatures can affect the following: transport infrastructure, water supply, port operations as well as the general safety of staff.
The global drive to reduce Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions not only influences the operations of the mine, but also the activities of those who add value to what is extracted. GHG emissions from mine operations are defined as Scope 1 emissions, those from the sources of energy that the mine uses are referred to as Scope 2 emissions. Scope 3 emissions are those that occur throughout the value chain linked to what has been mined.
Efforts to reduce these three sets of emissions will continue to escalate.
The third impact of climate change is found in the needs of the market. Renewable forms of energy rely upon rare metals and rare earths. While we are well aware of the need for copper to conduct electricity and lithium to store it, these other compounds are crucial to the ongoing success of green energy. For example, the global demand for rare earths (some of which are used in wind turbines, others in electric vehicles) grew from 88,000 tons in 2001 to 138,000 tons in 2015. And, as the science of renewable energy advances (in its creation, distribution, storage and use), expect to see an increase in the exploration for, and the exploitation of, new metals and minerals.
Onto the global megatrend of computerisation.
Just as machines on Mars are able to process more data and perform more complex tasks, so will machines in the mining industry. And just as these Mars machines return richer sets of data back to mission control, so to will the management of mining avail themselves of deep and comprehensive flows of data.
Technologies such as robotics, drones, internet of things (IoT), 3D printing and their application to the mining industry are all enabled by rising computer power. This means: autonomous rigs can drill blast holes, 3D maps can be constructed with drone-mounted equipment, equipment and workers can be managed with industrial IoT networks, and maintenance capabilities can be improved with onsite additive manufacturing capabilities.
Intertwined with all of these technologies is data. Analysis of data from an operational perspective (eg. what are the sensors telling us about air quality, and where is this seam of ore going) and from a strategic perspective (eg. decisions based on digital twin of the mine).
And then there’s the promise of quantum computing. This technology may well give rise to the discovery of new materials, potentially turning marginal ore bodies and wells into valuable feedstock.
Thus, both climate change and computerisation will significantly influence the way the extraction industry operates in the years ahead.
What are your prospects
From the preceding, and from a career perspective, there are several observations that can be made:
If you are more the “get it done” type: you’ll be using increasingly complex machines and software to get your work done. Some tasks may completely disappear
If you are more the “thinking” type: there’ll be more data and a greater need to analyse data from a systems perspective in order to manage operations, customers and regulations
If you are more the “creative” type: there’ll be opportunities to implement novel digital solutions. Greater possibilities for applications of rare earths and metals will arise
If you are more the “helper” type: you’ll be needed more as those whose sources of income are from fossil fuels face a structural decline in their industry
If you are more the “leader” type: you’ll be needing to improve your skills of persuasion and collaboration with other industry stakeholders. You’ll also need to be very comfortable with leading in a highly digitised industry
If you are more the “structure” type: you’ll be faced with using RegTech to help you navigate an increasing amount of environmental regulations and carbon-style trading markets
Overall, in the years ahead you’ll need to comfortable with both using more computing and not doing some things that previous generations did.
Like with other industry sectors - from a business perspective, when it comes to responding to climate change its all about mitigation and resilience. And, when it comes to computerisation its all about automation and using data. So, whether you would provide goods and services to this industry division, or you a direct market participant, likely impacts are:
Mitigation: rising demand for metals and minerals used in renewable energy infrastructure
Resilience: improving operational efficiency and strengthening weather defenses
Automation: increasing digital integration of all aspects of mining operations
Data analysis: improving the skills of the workforce development and enhancing data security
Overall, and quite obviously, for businesses there are both risks to be aware of and opportunities to exploit in the change that is happening.
The global megatrends of climate change and computerisation are impacting life and economies in profound ways, and the mining industry is not exempt. For it seems that these two megatrends are having an intertwining influence. That is, the path to climate-aware operations is being built with pervasive computerisation
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