Rio Tinto builds team to sell tech-heavy mines to investors

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Rio Tinto builds team to sell tech-heavy mines to investors
Copper mining at Rio Tinto. (Credit: Rio Tinto)

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Rio Tinto is creating a team of “translators” in its copper business to justify future investment in technologically-advanced mines and find ways to eke knowledge and value from its existing operations.

Chief growth and innovation officer for copper and coal, Craig Stegman, told iTnews the translation team consisted of people with “20-plus years’ experience” and the ability to use it to connect dots across the business.

These 'translators' aren’t data scientists, but rather technical specialists with enough experience to see patterns and potential opportunities that others don't, he said.

“We don’t have a lot of those people, but some people have moved beyond their discipline and can see how [other] disciplines connect,” Stegman said on the sidelines of the AusIMM and UNSW-hosted Third International Future Mining Conference in Sydney.

“There’s no substitute for experience.”

Stegman runs the product group's innovation agenda. This includes acting as an interface with the miner's central technology and innovation unit.

One of the key roles of the new 'translation' team is helping convince investors to back next-generation mine projects.

“We deal with a lot of very technically capable people,” Stegman said.

“The problem is, when you’re trying to explain to investors that spending $5 billion on a new mine is a good investment and there’s all this really complicated technical detail, you actually need these translators, as I call them, to be able to take that information and convert it into information that investors can understand."

Rio Tinto is pursuing several "high-growth" copper projects that involve innovative uses of technology.

They include the Resolution copper project in Arizona, an underground mine that will use "state-of-the-art" block caving techniques and automation technology to extract copper. First production is anticipated in 2021.

Rio Tinto is already pioneering innovative block caving technology in its diamonds business. It is using ruggedised beacons and detectors to measure in real-time how mined material flows out of the cave.

Stegman said the translation team is looking at how this technology might be applied at forthcoming projects such as Oyu Tolgoi in Mongolia as well as the longer-term Resolution project.

In addition to commercial acumen, the translation team is also working to bring consistency to approaches used in its active mine sites.

"It’s surprising how hard it is to ensure consistency of approach, where something that gets learned in one place is done at another place,” Stegman said.

“You need people who can see connections between data points. For example, it’s being able to see the relationship between something a geologist sees and what a marketer has to deal with.”

Cross-functional culture

The creation of the team sheds further light on the types of technical skills being sought as miners like Rio Tinto move to more technologically-advanced operations.

Stegman used a speech at the conference to compare the growth in technical translation roles to the recruitment of traditional operators.

“The role of translators is pretty important,” he said. “I think it’s [also] intuitive that we’re going to see less operators in our operations.”

The multi-disciplinary nature of the team is also broadly reflective of Rio Tinto’s business strategy in recent years, where it has sought to identify and extract learnings from one part of the business that may be applicable in others.

In iron ore, for example, technologies created under its mine of the future program are sent to an innovation centre in India to be modified for broader business benefit.

The centre “takes innovations once they've been proven in a business unit ... and look at what modifications and changes might be required [for them to] be applied for use in other mines, product groups or geographies", Rio Tinto told iTnews in 2012.

"The role of the centre is to take the innovations that have been developed and working in one business unit and see how they can be modified for others.”

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