Coronavirus and use of new technologies: The accelerated transition to Mining 4.0 in Chile

Although the incorporation of new technologies in the mining industry has been historically conservative, the coronavirus has accelerated the use of solutions linked to the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

For the professor of the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile and Universidad de Chile, and General Manager of GEM, Juan Ignacio Guzmán, two opposing forces are currently operating in the local mining industry in a scenario where the coronavirus pandemic has hit much of the sector globally when evaluating the incorporation of new technologies in the sector to maintain production.. “On one hand, the drop in commodity prices triggered by the drop in demand is causing mining companies to reduce their expenses and investments, and investments in technology is usually one of the areas affected by these cuts. But, on the other hand, the pandemic has forced us to ‘work remotely,’ which should accelerate the incorporation of some technologies from the Fourth Industrial Revolution”.

The expert, who led the Mining 4.0 Commission of the Center of Copper and Mining Studies, a group that recently presented the document “Towards 4.0 Mining: Recommendations to Promote a Smart National Industry”, explains that this acceleration in the incorporation of these solutions, in the short and medium-term, they will focus on those that “allow replacing the human being in the operation”, taking into account that the industry has reduced staffing by 36% on average, as a measure to allow social distancing and avoid contagions.

According to the document prepared by the Mining Commission 4.0, there are 77 technologies associated with the Fourth Industrial Revolution, associated with artificial intelligence, robotics or the Internet of Things, among others. These were distributed in four areas of the mining business value chain: Exploration and Geosciences, Extraction, Processing, and Services. Although the penetration of these solutions in the sector has been asymmetric and slow, the pandemic has caused the industry to accelerate the implementation of certain technologies that facilitate remote work.

This is confirmed by Guzmán: “From the geosciences to the closure of mines, through the entire value chain, the focus of the industry has been on reducing the ‘physical’ dependence on human beings, so that they are concentrated in areas of greater value. However, in the mine itself, and the extraction processes (drilling, blasting, loading, transportation), there is still plenty room to develop”.

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According to the document prepared by the Commission, the four actors that must coordinately participate in this incorporation of technologies to successfully ensure the transition to mining 4.0 are the mining companies, suppliers, academia and the State. However, these actors have had mixed participation due to the acceleration to incorporate these solutions.

“I think the pandemic has generated some kind of response only in the case of mining companies and certain suppliers”, explains the professor. “The State has been much more focused on controlling the health emergency, and the academy is completely overwhelmed due to the change of classes from a face-to-face orientation to telepresence”.

For the commission, the role of the four actors is essential to ensure the success of the transition to mining 4.0, which will allow not only to improve productivity, but also caring for workers and facilitating the path to green mining.

“As this pandemic and its effects last over time, I have no doubt that the different actors involved will seek ways to incorporate the technologies that make their work possible and more productive in the future”, says Guzmán.

In this sense the commission makes recommendations, regarding the roles of the academy and the state. In the case if the academy the generation of new solutions that exceed the capacities of the industry,  and in the case of the state  to encourage the use of the different available financing mechanisms to generating instruments that enhance knowledge of this type of technology in the industry to develop the capacities and skills associated with knowledge. However, various reasons have prevented the State from playing that role. “I believe that this pandemic and the social crisis dragged on for months is exponentially weakening the Chilean institutional framework, and I see it difficult for it to recover without a cooperation pact between the diverse political actors (government, opposition, opinion leaders, union organizations, etc.). If the State is ‘sick’, it will be difficult for it to play an active role in the technological development of the mining industry, which is key to the development of the country in the coming decades”, he concludes.