As mining professionals of the future contemplate a career that may involve as much data as it does digging, it seems fitting that Dr Robert Solomon will help guide them along the way.
Dr Solomon was appointed as the WA School of Mines’ inaugural Professor of Practice in Mining Automation and Data Analysis in August. The appointment came in partnership with the Fortescue Metals Group, where he continues in his role as Manager of Operational Duties on a part-time basis.
For Dr Solomon, who has a lifelong fascination with data and the science behind it, it’s in part a chance to pass on some of the lessons his father taught him.
“I remember my father telling me to talk to him in algebra and that if I wasn’t able to explain what was going on with the numbers and the arithmetic, then I couldn’t really understand what was going on,” Dr Solomon said.
“My role is specifically about trying to get a group of data savvy, mining engineers and mining professionals who will have resilient careers going forward in the dynamic world they’re going to be entering.
“I’ve been very passionate about data analysis and automating things ever since I was young and what we need is people with a passion to learn the disciplines associated with [data science] and execute them.”
The fact Dr Solomon’s WASM role is in partnership with FMG is a pointer towards the need for a collaborative approach in training mining’s future workforce.
Early in his tenure, Dr Solomon met with a variety of industry leaders to discuss the need to prepare graduates with wide-ranging data skills tailored to current and real-world mining sector needs.
“We need to encourage businesses and industry to get involved in undergraduate training,” Dr Solomon said.
“There’s various opportunities within the curriculum for organisations to become involved in an intimate way in delivering the course to students and involving them in vacation work and things like that.
“Curtin University has a long history of very focused industrial research and there is an opportunity for industry to continue engaging with that.”
After training as a physical metallurgist and starting his working life in manufacturing, Dr Solomon moved into the mining sector in the mid-1990s.
Over the course of his career, Dr Solomon has seen the amount of data available from processes jump from hundreds or thousands of rows a day to tens of billions of rows.
He says appreciation of the value of data and automation has increased exponentially as a result.
“Four or five years ago, when I was a manager of innovation and technology at Fortescue, it was all about the toys – new trucks and new hardware,” he explained.
“Now, it’s really all about automation. It’s all about digital science. It’s about how we’re going to use those things to transform the industry into something amazing.
“The biggest myth about automation at the moment is that it’s easy and once you’ve automated something then it’s done.
“One of the interesting cultures in mining is that if you’ve achieved what you plan to do in the day and you get what’s called a ‘green day’, then we [traditionally] don’t want to challenge it.
“But even when you get a ‘green day’, if you look at the data, there’s lots and lots of improvement that you can achieve with automation.
“We’ve automated our truck fleet at Fortescue and that’s given us a huge uplift in productivity but when you start digging below the surface you see there’s probably an equal amount of improvement yet to go.
“We need to be critical and analytical about what’s coming out of our automation systems to enable us to close the gap on productivity that we really need to achieve.”
While a significant proportion of the impact of data analytics and automation relates to productivity, Dr Solomon said there were also vital outcomes for safety and sustainability.
“With some of the safety issues of the environments that we have in mining, we really need to try to eliminate the risk of humans in that environment – and autonomy is giving us that push,” Dr Solomon said.
“The main challenge for mining at the moment I think is sustainability – of our human resources as well as our physical resources and financial resources.
“Automation and data analytics are the tools that are enabling us to hit all those targets at once.”