<p>Dr Wetherelt’s teaching responsibilities include mining engineering, mine surveying, mine transport, tunnelling and surface excavation design.</p>
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Dr Wetherelt’s teaching responsibilities include mining engineering, mine surveying, mine transport, tunnelling and surface excavation design.

Doctor in the house

The mining sector is currently in a down cycle, the effects of which have miners the world over wondering when commodity prices will improve again. Minestories spoke to Dr Andy Wetherelt, senior lecturer and programme director in the mining engineering department at the University of Exeter, about the current climate in mining and what he thinks companies should do to stay competitive.

How can mining companies avoid short-term thinking and foster growth during a prolonged down cycle?

Unfortunately, during the boom period costs escalated, primarily based on elevated salaries. Realistic salaries need to be implemented, and if necessary, pay cuts across the board need to be implemented. This also has to trickle down to OEMs and the complete “food chain.”

What can mining companies do to improve productivity during these times? How can they ensure that investments in productivity won’t be deprioritized once commodity prices improve?

Readjustment of the sector is necessary. A much more cautious approach is needed as commodity prices improve, slowly. The last very aggressive boom or feeding frenzy was created because the previous mining sector doldrums were very long and protracted. Controlling the mining boom or bust is very difficult.

What can countries and regions do to assist miners during this down cycle?

Try to avoid profiteering by those directly and indirectly involved in the extraction industry. Work with OEMs and governmental agencies along with trade unions. If one considers the converse, why should OEMs and employees suddenly demand, say, 50 percent price adjustments or salary increases just because the commodity value goes up? Once the commodity prices fall back, the employees and OEMs are then left high and dry.

The mining and metals sector spends 90 percent less on technology and innovation than the petroleum sector. Why is this, and how can companies change their mindset on the benefits of implementing innovative ideas and technologies?

The mining sector is much more traditional than the petroleum sector. Employee age and demographics play a large role in this. Traditional mining equipment is very robust and reliable in what is a transient and very aggressive environment. Technology and innovation have to be proven beyond normal trialling for any implementation to go ahead. Furthermore, there is an expectation that mining companies extract the valuable commodity while the OEMs do the R&D. While there is still a perceived demand to place the person directly at the “cutting face”, the necessary drivers for innovation implementation are very difficult to bring to the fore.

Bio

Dr Andy Wetherelt is a senior lecturer and programme director in the mining engineering department at the University of Exeter. His research interests include blast vibration analysis, underground surveying methods and pit optimization.