2018 marks 10 years since Rio Tinto began using autonomous mining trucks. The trucks are part of what Rio Tinto calls “the mine of the future” – a concept around innovation and reinvention to ensure the company survives and thrives in periods of change.

Former Rio Tinto CEO, Sam Walsh, discussed the motivation and origin of the concept as the guest keynote speaker at the Gartner Data and Analytics Summit in Sydney yesterday.

“In Rio Tinto’s case the company preempted this need for reinvention and it’s led the industry, and to an extent the entire country,” he said.

According to Walsh, the exodus of automotive manufacturing from America is a good example of the consequences of failing to innovate and was the catalyst for the mining company’s reinvention. “For me it was a salutary lesson and a clear reminder that if you don’t continue to innovate and reinvent yourself then you are going to disappear.”

Former Rio Tinto CEO, Sam Walsh

Walsh took the lesson and applied it to the mining industry, which had traditionally been sluggish when it came to innovation, according to Walsh. “Having seen the automotive evolution in the car industry I wanted to ensure that Rio Tinto pushed itself up the technology curve.”

“[Rio Tinto] were already leaders in their industry but you can’t be complacent. They needed to explore what was evolving in the high tech area and how this may relate to its processes.”

Walsh says he smiles when he hears the buzz around driverless cars from the likes of Uber and Tesla. “They are making it sound like it is something sort of brand new and so whizzbang they just discovered it.”

“I don’t underestimate the complexity of having cars dodge pedestrians and other careless drivers, but it’s not a new phenomenon. The technology for automated vehicles does exist,” Walsh said.

The complexity of autonomous vehicles lies in controlling several at once, according to Walsh. “Driving one moon buggy on the moon is relatively simple. Try driving 80 of the bastards, it suddenly gets very complicated.”

Stockyard Paraburdoo
Source: riotinto.com

Since 2008 Rio Tinto’s 80 driverless trucks have moved over 1 billion tonnes of material, driven over 150 billion kilometres and recorded zero injuries. All while being controlled some 1500 kilometres away in the company’s integrated operations centre in Perth. Walsh says the amount of work that went into them “can not be overestimated”.

The trucks are one part of an increasingly innovative and autonomous mining process that Rio Tinto calls The Mine of the Future.

The Mine of the future

The mining giant’s innovation era began in 2005 when Walsh took his management team on a trip to America to “see innovation at work”. According to Walsh, the team deliberately avoided mining companies and instead focused on leading universities and companies outside their industry.

Walsh and his team got a glimpse of early automation and big data projects. They took the insights and a renewed focus on innovation back to Australia and, in 2007 Rio Tinto established an integrated operations centre in Perth for their iron ore business. According to Walsh, the project has “revolutionized” the mining industry.

“It turned 15 individual mines into one integrated mining, processing, logistics system that’s controlled from Perth, with operators sitting side by side 1,500 kilometres from the operations.”

“The complexity of managing this can not be underestimated. Rio Tinto’s iron ore mines, rail and port generate 2.4 terabytes of data every minute,” Walsh said.

Rio Tinto’s Autonomous Haulage Trucks, Source: riotinto.com

In addition to monitoring the 80 autonomous mining trucks, the operations centre manages remote drilling and a driverless long haul heavy rail system. These projects have required significant initial investments including $500 million for the long haul heavy rail system.

But it’s been worth it. Rio Tinto is expecting its autonomous projects to deliver nearly $500 million in cash cost reductions in the iron ore division. “The benefits are huge and very real,” Walsh said, also noting improved safety and environmental outcomes.

Despite the success, Rio Tinto’s mine of the future isn’t all about automation. Walsh said he hopes it will include a “great deal more”  and to define the concept would be to limit it.

“As CEO, the moment that I define the mine of the future then I put boundaries around it. I limited people’s thinking. Because, inadvertently, that’s what people do. When the CEO describes something or defines it, that’s the ultimate truth.

“In the 21st century international businesses — by necessity — need to continue to reinvent themselves in order to thrive in an intensely competitive world. Innovation, technology and culture change are key ingredients which allow organisations to adapt past changing environment, where trade barriers are generally falling, financial constraints are increasing and where stakeholders are demanding increasingly efficient and effective organisations.”

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