Aligning Australia’s manufacturing and mining markets

Credit: CSIRO Science Image

While the manufacture of electric vehicles overseas is predicted to increase the demand for lithium-ion production in Australia, CSIRO Manufacturing’s research director Dr Leon Prentice discusses the importance of closing a disconnect between the country’s manufacturing and mining sectors.

The more advances in disruptive technologies continue to change the landscape of the global value chain and next-generation materials enhance the manufacturing space, Australia’s rich resource sector is presented with added opportunity.

For example, the overall demand for lithium will more than double by 2025, an expert panel predicted at last year’s Australasian Law Teachers Association (ALTA), and is dominated by the product’s value to the emerging electric vehicles market.

Lithium mining has therefore provided new growth opportunities for the Australian resource sector, the panel added, demonstrating how the manufacture of more sustainable and energy efficient products are setting new trends.

Dr Leon Prentice, research director for Commonwealth Science and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) Manufacturing, welcomed research into smarter materials but has said that more collaboration between the manufacturing and mining industries is necessary if Australia’s export market is going to thrive.

“Australian resources are being driven very specifically by design and customisation, and the merging of multiple technologies,” Prentice told Manufacturers’ Monthly.

“One of the big opportunities for manufacturers is agility, and the other is integration,” he continued. “Manufacturers are aiming for more niche products that are more highly designed.

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“In a sense, they are placing more emphasis on the design stage rather than the physical manufacturing step. Being able to change products rapidly and to customise what you are making feeds back up the value chain.”

You can see this in just about any commodity, he continues – especially in the metal space where scientists are developing smarter materials that have longer life-expectancies and can fend off the degradation of product.

For example, if steel producers begin making ultra-high-strength steel, or perhaps unique alloys for specific markets, Prentice says that would enable the manufacturer to drive demand.

More can be done however, Prentice continues, to align these resources with the evolutions – and small revolutions – in the commercialisation of marketable commodities.

“The mining industry, to my mind, should be thinking more about what sort of products they can add value to at an early stage, so manufacturers can use [commodities] more readily,” he said

“However, I don’t necessarily think our resource industries have been good enough at taking these advances on board and they have been pushing the same products to market and expecting others to take them up from there, which tends to happen overseas,” Prentice added.

Connecting both markets
There is still a disconnect between advances in manufacturing and what Australia’s commodities sector chooses to store and distribute, according to Prentice, whose research centres mainly on prospective titanium and lithium production.

“The two sectors (manufacturing and mining) need to talk together about what the future looks like, to better connect the value chain,” he said. “You can imagine that, even for commodities such as iron and steel, nobody in Australia is making steel powders for additive manufacturing.

“That is where new integration can happen directly – when someone eventually decides to make stainless-steel powder so that a mine site can 3D print stainless steel parts. That, as an example, could be revolutionary.”

Advanced manufacturing involves a broad set of enabling technologies and processes that all businesses along the value chain can use to improve their competitiveness.

Alongside a wide range of advanced manufacturers serving the mining and resource industries, together the Advanced Manufacturing Growth Centre (AMGC), the Innovative Manufacturing Cooperative Research Centre (IMCRC), and AusIndustry are working to help Australian manufacturers adopt these new processes.

One example of this partnership in practice is Imagine Intelligent Materials, a Geelong-based manufacturer, which has adopted advanced materials including graphene, which has potential in various industry sectors, from 3D printing to energy storage.

Image: CSIRO Science Image
Image: CSIRO Science Image

As a rule, the Australian government is committed to maintaining a manufacturing sector that is attractive to new investors, a spokesperson for the Department of Industry, Science and Innovation explained.

“This includes ensuring competitive business settings, reducing the risks associated with exploration, and building international trade relationships,” she said.

To do this, the federal government has funded programs and research aimed at enhancing the manufacturing and resource sectors, and therefore boosting investment opportunities.

Federal support includes:

  • The $100 million Exploring for the Future program announced in May 2016, which facilitates investment into Australia’s under-explored regions;
  • Assistance for industries to better target areas likely to contain the next major oil, gas and mineral deposits;
  • Aligning Deep Earth Imaging with an industry-led initiative, which seeks to address the challenges of deep-exploration.

At CSIRO, engineers are developing new deep-earth imaging tools and technologies to better understand Australia’s resource base, and to unlock new deposits.

The biggest challenge however, according to Prentice, is going to be around distribution and storage of new, innovative materials.

“Ideally, the distribution should be more modular and more robust – such as microgrids,” he said. “By storing energy in electric vehicles for example, the question is how are we going to recapture that energy and then put it back into the grid?”

Automating the mining sector
Jason Mair, product and marketing manager at the sensor specialist Sick Australia, says that he has also recognised a recent shift in the use of automation between sectors, from manufacturing to mining.

“If we look at mining and the so-called boom of capital expenditure, we have now moved from construction to production with the construction of the processing facilities to extract these resources completed,” he said.

“The phase we now find ourselves in is one where we must seek efficiency gains and to look at how we can improve the way we extract the materials from the ground.

“There is a connection between how we do that and what we have experienced within the change of direction manufacturing has faced over the last 30 years here in Australia.”

Sick is a premium partner at this year’s inaugural MEGATRANS2018 conference, which will be hosted by Manufacturers’ Monthly’s parent publisher, Prime Creative Media, bringing together some of the biggest players across the entire supply chain at the Melbourne Convention Centre, between May 10–12.   

Using the latest in sensor and autonomous technology, Mair says the resource sector is finding new ways to improve its efficiency and productivity too, including better ways to distribute commodities into other sectors, including manufacturing.

“The outcome automation gives to mining is real-time traceability and improved safety,” he said. “Because mining covers such a large geographical area, we can start to utilise technology by capturing data throughout the supply chain, and then using that information to produce real-time traceability throughout the extraction of Australia’s raw materials.

Image: CSIRO Science Image
Image: CSIRO Science Image

“If you are going to manufacture more efficiently and reduce costs, that is also true of the mining sector. We can utilise technology to reduce the amount of labour required to extract materials from the ground.”

It means that labour can be used in other areas, Mair explains, such as predictive maintenance.

“Perhaps the future miner will be sitting behind a computer looking at the process and the digital twin of a mine, that our sensors provide,” he said.

“If you look right through the supply chain, mining has traditionally been focused on the extraction side of production, but what’s happening now with the ability to collect raw data with our sensors, we are now able to monitor all stages of the supply chain.

“Resource extraction, manufacturing and production connect all the dots, right through to the storage and the distribution of the resource to the customer,” Mair added.

Engaging new energy
The manufacturing sector is already making contributions to Australia’s search for a more reliable and affordable supply of power, and is being guided by the government’s proposed National Energy Guarantee.

How plants store and distribute its raw materials is changing too. At CSIRO, its Low Emissions Technology Roadmap (2017) pointed to several opportunities for Australian industry in relation to future and renewable fuels.

For example, the report noted that hydrogen, via the gasification of coal, has the potential to become a “key export opportunity for Australia”, while aiding communities impacted by the decline of coal-fired power generation.

Another research paper recently released by CSIRO revealed that, in collaboration with Monash University and the University of Texas, scientists had discovered a “highly efficient and economically sustainable” way to filter salt and metal ions from seawater.

The paper, which was published in Sciences Advances, gives light to research into next-generation materials such as metal-organic frameworks (MOFs), which are presenting real-world uses.

“In the battery materials market, there is not as much research into adding value as there should be,” Prentice continued.

“From a resource-distributor point of view, we tend to try and get into the market however we can and don’t think about how we can make a functioning metal that can be more readily used downstream.

“Australia has a lot of energy in a whole lot of different forms available, and needs to be open to different kinds of energy that are cost-effective and ideally sustainable.”

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