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  • Writer's pictureEdwin and George

Think you won’t be replaced by a machine? What about the case of the runaway train?

I'll do my best to not make any Soul Asylum references...

The extraordinary story of a runaway train in Western Australia earlier in November has been blamed on human error and equipment failures. The train, comprising 268 wagons of iron ore, ran 57 miles with no-one on board. It was eventually derailed in a dramatic crash scene. By that time, the train had averaged 68 mph on its 50-minute journey.

The driver of the train, operated by BHP, made a stop to inspect an issue with one of the cars at Port Hedland. He left his cab unattended. The rest of the story then unfolded. The Australian Transport Safety Bureau is investigating how this could have led to the destruction that followed. BHP suspended all iron ore rail operations in Western Australia

The episode turns the focus on another major operator, Rio Tinto. Rio are leaders in replacing human driven trains with driver-less ones at its Australian mining operations.

Rio believe that the case of the runaway train adds credit to its own strategy.

In its Western Australian mines, three - quarters of Rio’s trains run without drivers. The trains carry ore from 16 mines before it is transported to Asia. Rio expect to have no human driven trains within the next few months.

Rio are convinced that driver-less trains and trucks are safer. The reason is they give remotely located operation centres (sometimes in cities far away) the ability to step in and take over the control system. Accidents are predicted to reduce by 75% as the roll out progresses.

Mining is becoming a leading case study in how machines and robots will eventually impact all industries.

Hit by the commodity downturn, mining companies could only go so far in ‘sweating assets’ and diving down costs. With companies looking to implement different strategies, the roll out of driver-less vehicles, robots and autonomous systems has accelerated. A recent report by Mckinsey says this will continue. Mckinsey are predicting annual savings in the region of $300bn for oil, gas, coal, iron and copper producers by 2035.

As well as being safer, autonomous vehicles use less fuel and suffer less wear and tear. They also eliminate driver shift changes and resource planning.

But there’s the obvious downside...

‘Up to half the 120,000 mining jobs in Western Australia will be impacted by automation and nobody really knows if they will be doing a different job or what,’ says Paul Everingham, CEO, Chamber of Minerals and Energy, WA.

BDO also believe that half of the mining jobs could be replaced by robots by 2020 (see ‘Financial Times’ 23rd November 2018). There will be more blue-collar job losses than white collar.

The only downside for companies like Rio is being the ‘first mover.’ It will be Rio who’ll have to learn from their own implementation errors. Other companies, in turn, will learn from Rio’s experience.

However, Rio don’t seem to be worried. For example, they are well down the line with planning a total digital mine at Koodaideri, consisting of autonomous equipment, intelligent machine learning and robots.

So, next time you doubt an article or a piece of research saying there will be job losses due to automation, we encourage you to think of the lessons of the mining industry. In 2019, think very carefully of the skills and experience you will need to future proof your career, so you become irreplaceable.

You might not end up as the person driving the train, but you will want to be first in line for the job in the control centre...or the "wrong way on a one way track" (sorry I couldn't help myself - great song from 1992).

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