Could mining asteroids save Earth?

By Alyssa
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Natural Resources are critical to society.  Without them, virtually everything that defines the modern world would disappear, including the houses we live in, the cars we drive, the technology we use to communicate and save lives –  even the shoes we wear and the toothpaste we brush our teeth with. .  However, the future of mining natural resources is uncertain.  We have already extracted the easy-to-access materials, and those of the highest grade.  But as the population of Earth continues to grow, demand for natural resources continues to mount. There is no quick fix, but there are a lot of ideas on how to approach the challenge. One of these involves mining asteroids.

It might sound like science fiction, but both public entities and private companies are actively working on figuring out if asteroids can be a new source of the materials we need on our planet.  Scientists think asteroids hold promise because they are made of the same minerals as Earth.  NASA, for example, has created an Asteroid Redirect Mission with the goal of extracting a boulder from a Near Earth Asteroid and bringing it close to the moon so that astronauts can study what it can offer.  Private companies are also actively involved: space exploration company Planetary Resources is aiming for an exploratory launch by 2020.

The concept of mining asteroids may be capturing the most attention, but there are other paths too, such as leveraging more autonomous machinery or encouraging more conscious consumption.  This isn’t something any one group alone can accomplish.  Mining companies, communities, environmental groups, and individuals must work together to find new approaches.

“If we want a vibrant economy with globally high quality of life and also to protect Earth for future generations, we all have a responsibility to get involved and find a balance that works,” says Marni Rabasso, vice president of Natural Resources at Dassault Systèmes.

Dassault Systèmes’ 3DEXPERIENCE platform can play a key role in finding new solutions, due to its ability to create virtual worlds in which ‘what-if’ scenarios can be simulated to visualize, design and explore new technologies.

In conjunction with CNBC Catalyst Content Studio, Dassault Systèmes created an in-depth look at the challenges ahead in mining our natural resources and the different options that could provide us new sources for what is needed to run our world.  Check out the videos and articles here.  Then come back and tell us: what do you think is the best approach for mining more natural resources?

The Path to Mining Execution Excellence

By Alexandre
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Mining company profits are being pressured by the uncertainty that remains in the global economy and by a cost and profitability curve that has grown tight over the past twenty years. This is why it is critical Operational Stability – the predictability of expected mine production, costs, and performance levels – be attained. Getting there requires mining and plant processing activities function at higher levels of productivity and efficiency so that conformance plan is always realized.

The quickest avenue to improved Operational Stability begins with reducing the variability in the planning and execution of mining and processing. This requires comprehensive planning, optimized scheduling, and disciplined work management.

Toyota is recognized as being one of the most efficient companies in the world. It is also one of the most studied since it pioneered key methods of reducing variation, with stability being the first and most critical step, because it underpins everything else that follows. Stability includes the general predictability and consistent availability in terms of manpower, machines, materials, and methods. Under each of these basic building blocks of these basic building blocks of manufacturing, Toyota tries to establish consistency and predictability.

Stability increases throughput, reduces waste and associated costs, and ensures production and quality targets are met. The key lies in harnessing operational data. While “big data” may be produced in mining in terms of volume, it must become visible, analyzable, and it must be made actionable to executives, mine management, and frontline workers. If it is, the path to Mining Execution Excellence, and eventually Business Agility, is paved. As we will see, enabling technology is one of the most important requirements to begin the journey.

Operational Stability is the first and most important step a mining company can take to begin transforming itself. It not delivers the benefits of greater productivity and conformance to plan; it ensures improvements gained are sustainable. Operational Stability is also the foundation for Business Agility and the Virtual Mine.

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Going Lean at Oyu Tolgoi

By Alexandre
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by Dan Headrick originally published in COMPASS Magazine

At Oyu Tolgoi on Mongolia’s vast, windswept South Gobi Desert, where nomads still watch over their herds, a new copper and gold mine stands poised to lead a struggling industry on a great leap forward. The mine, developed by British-Australian multinational metals and mining firm Rio Tinto Group, is a test case for applying the same lean principles that most manufacturing industries adopted at least three decades ago as protection from the buffeting winds of rapidly shifting markets.

Miners know rapid economic shifts all too well. After years of boom, in which demand outstripped capacity and efficiency was a luxury few had time to consider, commodity prices have sagged and new strikes are rare. Many mining companies are responding by slashing capital expenditures and pulling back on critical investments. It’s a no-growth strategy the industry has turned to time and again, closing mines, laying off workers and hunkering down until the next boom.

For the first time, however, a few innovative mines are following a different path.

“We’re in the early stages of a paradigm shift in mining,” said Mike MacFarlane, a Canadian engineer, industry consultant and retired executive vice president of AngloGold Ashanti, one of the world’s largest mining companies. “In the United States, the auto industry in the 1940s and ’50s had no peers; in the ’60s and ’70s, still no peers. In the ’80s, little Japanese cars changed everything. I would say the mining industry, in the little Japanese car analogy, is in the mid-’80s.”

Sam Walsh, a 20-year auto industry veteran who is CEO of Rio Tinto, is among mining’s most outspoken champions of lean manufacturing.

“If I had to name one thing I have transitioned from what the automotive industry taught me across to what Rio’s mining operations are doing today, it would be an intense, laser-like focus on value and efficiency,” Walsh told the Australian and New Zealand Chamber of Commerce in Japan during Rio Tinto’s Lean Japan Tour in 2012. “At base level, it represents a concentrated intent to eliminate variation or waste at every stage of production.”

But miners don’t work in sheltered, automated factories with repetitive, predictable processes, and many mining executives argue that the industry’s unique nature makes it prohibitively difficult to apply lean practices. Mining companies, they argue, steer colossal-scale discovery, extraction and processing operations across remote, far-flung regions under conditions so harsh that the word “harsh” is an understatement. The markets for mining’s products are harsh as well, fluctuating with world markets and political upheavals, weather and natural disasters.

Walsh, and others like him, counter that mining is a factory and should be run like one. Rio Tinto, for example, is banishing waste by pioneering new technology that includes driverless, autonomous hauling vehicles and centralized operation control centers located far from the mines themselves. More important, however, is Rio Tinto’s emphasis on collecting and analyzing data and then using those insights to coordinate automation and technology and realize efficiencies. Such efficiencies have lowered production costs, which allow Rio Tinto to invest in expanded operations such as Oyu Tolgoi, which mines the copper critical to emerging clean energy markets.

Lean principles also require different functions within an organization to cooperate and coordinate seamlessly. “Mining companies are very sophisticated within their operational silos,” said Emilie Ditton, a mining industry consultant with International Data Corporation (IDC) who is based in Sydney. “They do everything from optimizing truck performance to minimizing fuel costs and conveyor belt material handling efficiency. But if a production operation meets its goals and delivers products to a processing operation that can’t handle all of the material coming in, the ultimate production outcomes are not improved.”

“Mining companies have assets, technology and access to data, Ditton said. “What they require is an enterprise-level data strategy.” Far more than new technology, she said, mines need organizational investment in data interpretation as a business strategy. But, she admits, taking a risk on a new idea requires strong leadership. “We don’t yet have a convincing story to tell on why we would take that risk.”

Oyu Tolgoi may provide that “convincing story.” This year, while most mining operations sell off assets and cut expenditures, Rio Tinto will begin construction on the mine’s US$5.4 billion underground expansion phase, which is expected to reach full capacity by 2021.

Oyu Tolgoi will deploy the latest mining technology. But the mine’s real game changer may turn out to be its application of proven, 30-year-old manufacturing industry ideas about extracting value from the business, not just the land.

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