[MELBOURNE] New technology is helping miners cut costs to survive the worst downturn in commodity prices in nearly two decades, which is good news for companies that might otherwise have gone to the wall, not so good for an industry drowning in overcapacity.
Commodity prices from coal to zinc are down in some case as much as 80 percent from record highs a few years ago, caused in part by slowing economic growth in China - for years the world's biggest user of raw materials - which shows little signs of abating.
Global resource-based companies have adapted to the fall in revenue by adopting new technologies enabling, for example, real-time tracking of operations, which helps reduce down time, saves fuel, improves safety and boosts production.
Despite the collapse in prices, Australian mining companies have suffered only a 20 per cent fall in profits in the most recent financial year relative to 2012, according to government data.
That means mines that would have been doomed in past downturns are proving far more resilient, prolonging oversupply and keeping downward pressure on prices.
"You're getting more output for a lower price. It's just one issue that's making production a bit stickier than you would expect," said Ric Ronge, a portfolio manager of Pengana Global Resources Fund.
At a new gold mine in northern Canada, huge fans switch on to suck dust and diesel fumes out of shafts 650m underground when equipment or workers approach the area, and switch off when they leave, not wasting energy spinning all day long.
'Ventilation on demand' is saving Goldcorp as much as US$2.5 million a year at the Eleonore mine, and has cut energy costs more than 20 per cent at a Glencore copper mine in Canada, thanks to software tying together data from tracking tags on the workers and sensors on ore loaders.
"They're seeing it as: 'If I don't do this, I'm not going to be around, because it's helping lower my costs,'" said Doug Bellin, senior manager at Cisco Systems, which helped set up systems for Goldcorp.
The trend is running against the industry's broader drive to cut capital expenditure. "There's a growing interest towards more automation," said Petri Virrankoski, manager of load and haul in Australia for Sandvik Mining, the Swedish maker of mining equipment. "But obviously in these times money is tight, so I wouldn't say it's easy to sell anything nowadays." Sandvik has successfully tested automated trucks and loaders at a mine in Finland.
Gold miners in particular have stepped up technology investment within a falling capex budget, as the gold price in producers' currencies, such as Australian or Canadian dollars, has held up much better than other commodities.
"I'd say half our clients are gold, which is quite lucky, because gold's still doing quite well," said Charlie Forrest, vice president of sales for Quebec-based Newtrax, a private company that makes battery-operated wireless nodes that convey data from underground operations to the surface.
Newtrax has doubled its sales in each of the past two years, and Forrest says it is on track to do so again in 2016, with strong demand for its products in underground hard rock mines.
One client, Glencore's Kidd copper and zinc mine, says Newtrax's nodes are relatively inexpensive and easy enough for mine staff, rather than electricians, to install and maintain.
"At this operation, deploying a Wi-Fi system on a similar scale would (otherwise) be a two-month undertaking that would inevitably result in production disruptions and high installation costs," said Zachary Mayer, Kidd's manager of mine technical services.
Northern Star Resources, Australia's no.3 gold miner, has boosted its reserves by exploring deep underground near existing mines using 2-D and 3-D technology from HiSeis, a company spun out of Curtin University in Western Australia.
Seismic campaigns cost up to A$1 million (S$1 million) each, but they pay off in helping the company identify exactly where to position drills, which has improved its exploration success rates, said Northern Star's chief operating officer, Stuart Tonkin.
That has helped the company cut exploration spending by 30 per cent this year to A$35 million.
Dundee Precious Metals, another gold miner, started using wireless technology and software platforms in 2012 to track operations in real time at its Chelopech mine in Bulgaria, where it has halved production costs from a peak in 2008.
That technology alone has accounted for about 15 per cent of the savings Dundee achieved, Chief Executive Rick Howes said. "It is the gift that keeps on giving. We are not realising the whole potential yet," said Mr Howes.