Automated Mining Moving Away From Human Workers to Grab More Gold?

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Source: http://www.boston.com/bigpicture/2009/03/robots.html

I came across a press release the other day for a mining automation conference in South Africa.

Now, now — I know what you’re thinking. Yawn. Snore. Boring.

Well, I thought that too, but as I drilled down and did a bit of follow-up reading, some major issues presented themselves and led to big questions. This is the sentence in the release (especially the final phrase) that got me thinking:

“The lack of skilled mining professionals is likely to be the one of the key drivers in next generation mining with mine workers trading in their steel-toed boots for a headset and computer mouse as leading mining companies embrace mine automation to help solve their labour shortages and ramp up output.

Here’s one question that we can explore in a For/Against format (like the one seen in the Economist’s digital pages):

Should investments in automated mining technology especially in Africa come at the expense of teaching and employing more workers? (i.e will automated technology “solve labor shortages as the quote above claims?)

Some arguments for:

  • Increased efficiency resulting in greater volumes of higher-quality ore and metal. Some gold mining companies, for example, are hoping to stop blasting entirely, “create people-less stopes, and mine around the clock.”
  • Fewer employees onsite, which improves overall safety. Since there’s a large push to further take advantage of mineral ore reserves in Africa, and so many countries on the continent are plagued with social and political strife that it would be unsafe to pursue mining projects otherwise.
  • We’ve automated the auto industry so why not?

Some arguments against:

  • It may not build up African mining infrastructure as sustainably as possible. In other words, will local workers have an opportunity to get jobs?
  • It may improve a mining company’s bottom-line exponentially more than creating a sustainable employment infrastructure. As in the auto-industry corollary, the efficiencies provided by nonhuman technology make vast percentages of human workers obsolete. For context, the FT recently reported that in the six months up to June, Freeport McMoRan sold its copper at prices that were on average 4.5 times more than its production cost per pound.”
  • If global growth especially in the emerging economies — tapers off for unprecedentedly long periods (long shot), the investment may be for naught.

Of course, this is a rather cursory and perhaps naive argument and one that will receive deeper investigation as these technologies become more common but what do you think?

Where do you stand on mining automation? For or against? Is it a good thing or bad?

Let us know!

–Taras Berezowsky

Comments (2)

  1. ALexander Gosselin says:

    Mining automation technology will be vastly safer and more profitable than using human miners. Rather than worrying about the possibility that miners will be put out of work, think of the more attractive opportunities created by the availability of cheaper metal.

  2. tberezowsky says:

    You make a good point — the ultimate one on the side of automation investment — that is, that more plentiful, hence cheaper, metal for buyers would be a good thing. Neither MM readers nor editors can disagree!

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