Innovation the key to continued success in WA resources sector

Innovation is about more than adopting new technology, according to Fortescue Metals Group Director of Operations, Greg Lilleyman.

Delivering a keynote address to CEDA’s WA Annual Resources Overview in Perth on 27 October, Mr Lilleyman described Fortescue’s innovation journey to becoming the lowest-cost producer of iron ore in the world.

CEDA brought together significant players in WA’s resources sector for the WA Annual Resources Overview. Industry leaders discussed insights into the innovations and technology underpinning the sector’s continued success locally and globally.
“We often interchange the word innovation with technology and perhaps it's important to differentiate between the two,” Mr Lilleyman said.

“At Fortescue there is a lot of innovation and in many cases that involves nothing to do with technology, but people in teams day-in-day out looking at what they did today, what they did yesterday and trying to work out what they can do tomorrow smarter, better, faster and more efficiently.”

Fortescue, Mr Lilleyman explained, operates within a culture of setting ambitious, stretch targets underpinned by a strong contingency or Plan B.

“So, set yourself a stretch target, have the courage to chase it but always have a good fallback position and we're able then, as well, to drive ownership and accountability for our improvement program and our productivity and efficiency work right the way through the organisation,” he said.

He noted that Fortescue has improved safety and productivity outcomes through the introduction of autonomous trucks and aims to be a fully autonomous mining company with all trucks across its operations driven eventually by robots.

Fortescue’s focus over the past five years has been on continuing its cost journey and productivity and efficiency improvement program, repaying debt and focusing on the long-term sustainability of the organisation to achieve its vision of being the safest, lowest-cost and most profitable iron ore producer.

Following Mr Lilleyman’s keynote, Northern Minerals Chief Executive, George Bauk, Independence Group NL Managing Director and CEO, Peter Bradford and Tianqi Lithium Australia General Manager, Phil Thick led an interactive discussion on issues and opportunities facing the sector.

The panel discussion tackled issues such as how the mining industry could collaborate better to face challenges ahead, the need to address falling enrolments in the country’s mining schools and where and how to find the next iron ore.

Mr Bradford told attendees the industry needs to pull together to promote mining as a career.

“Some of the things we can do with innovation in mining makes mining just as sexy as Google and Facebook. And what we need to be doing is taking that story into the high schools and using that as a platform to get many more people thinking about mining as a career and getting them to take up positions in university because the reality is, in a few years’ time, we're going to be facing some tough times with a lack of talent in the industry.”

Competition in the industry may be contributing to a reluctance to collaborate on innovation, according to Mr Thick.

“Competition in the innovation space is really tough because there is a competitive advantage and if you take the lithium space in WA, there's half a dozen listed companies who are all mining, they're all competing with each other for the dollar,” Mr Thick said.

“It's fiercely competitive in that space and to think that those companies are going to cooperate and work together is a challenge but at a higher industry level there is the opportunity to do that and lithium has the potential in Western Australia to be the centre of the world here.

“When you look at some of the money that the Federal Government's looking to put into coal for instance, you put that same amount of money into the West Australian lithium industry and it would be the envy of the world…it's that sort of support that the mining industry in this state needs for these new opportunities.”