Opinion: Minerals industry perspective

Materials World magazine
1 Aug 2014

We recently put out a call for Materials World readers who would like to be more involved with the magazine. Lots of you got in touch. This month, Richard Dewhirst ponders the effects of changing attitudes on the minerals industry.

I love history and old things – particularly the way perceptions and attitudes change between generations. I have some vintage mineral processing textbooks, including a set of Richards. Perhaps those who know me would say that my metallurgical experience and practice is frozen in about the same generation as the textbooks authored by Robert Hallowell Richards (1903–1906) and wouldn’t allow me anywhere near metallurgical design, but I defend myself by saying I am the epitome of a generalist. And anyway, good ideas have a habit of coming around again. We see history repeating itself time and time again, and I believe we are observing that in our industry. For me it is back to the ’90s, to the time when I first arrived in Perth, Australia, and was struggling to find workers. We even had a column in our pricing schedules with the heading, ‘We are desperate’. I have to tell you, we used it a lot.

I have a somewhat simplistic approach to economics – in essence, supply and demand. In the past decade, the obscene dash to production almost at any price was primarily due to a supply shortage in the face of massive demand from China. Steel prices went up, iron ore and coking coal prices rose, wages increased and windfall profits were made. In the world of engineering consultancy, designs got increasingly complex and more people were involved in their review. Somewhere along the way we lost sight of adding value, and created layers of bureaucracy and overgovernance to try and cope with it all.

What I find saddest of all, however, is the rhetoric that went with it – ‘People are our greatest asset’ … ‘This time it’s different, we will be investing in people for the future, and we will see them through the booms and busts’. Where are we now? You can’t get enough people one day, then there is 25% unemployment the next. What do we say to this year’s graduating class when they can’t get jobs, after we have spent years encouraging them to enter our great industry?

As I often do when confronted with the imponderable, I turn to history for comfort. Richards’ volumes are called Ore Dressing. Apparently, the term goes back to the earliest days of mineral processing, when ores were dressed to separate waste from value, and coal was washed. Let’s get back to basics, and concentrate on simplifying what we do and avoiding over-complication.

Richard is Managing Director at Limehurst Consulting in Perth, Australia. He started his career on the Zambian Copperbelt with Anglo American, and has since gained more than 25 years’ experience in technical and line management roles in copper, iron ore, gold, uranium, diamonds, and other minerals. Project and operations work has taken him to Africa, Europe, North and South America, Asia and Australia. After joining SKM Consulting in 2004, Richard spent the next decade working on international projects that took him all over the world, including Chile, Brazil, and Peru. Having recently joined Limehurst, he now specialises in feasibility studies for the mining industry.

Did you miss out first time around? If you have a view or experiences you’d like to share that might fit into the opinion section of Materials World, email materials.world@iom3.org with ‘columnist’ in the subject line.