METS Ignited is the Industry Growth Centre for Mining Equipment, Technology & Services (METS) sector. Carole Goldsmith spoke to its CEO, Ric Gros.

AMT: Tell us a little bit about how METS Ignited was founded and and what you do.

Ric Gros: The Australian Government, as part of its Industry Development and Innovation Policy Framework, has established Industry Growth Centres in six sectors that are considered strategically important to the Australian Economy. The METS sector was chosen as one of these segments because of its composition of agile, entrepreneurial SMEs, global competitiveness and growth potential based on Australia’s recognised research capabilities and scale, and its leading-edge mining sector.

Australia’s METS sector is globally connected and financially robust. Contributing $86bn gross value to the Australian economy and supporting half a million jobs, the METS sector plays a significant role in the nation’s prosperity. Over 55% of Australian METS companies are exporters and many are world leaders in their markets. Further, the emerging Industry 4.0 will provide a new wave of opportunities for the METS sector.

It is the role of METS Ignited to work closely with industry to increase collaboration, implement initiatives that will accelerate the commercialisation of innovation, and leverage industry initiatives to grow exports. METS Ignited has representatives based across the country, with headquarters at the Queensland University of Technology (QUT) in Brisbane.

AMT: Describe some specific projects you’re working on at present.

RG: In this age of innovation through collaboration, the Australian METS sector has an opportunity to explore and develop “blue sky” projects that will create new global markets. METS Ignited, through its collaborative Project Funds, looks to support the most commercially attractive opportunities where industry working together can accelerate economic development.

The collaborative Project Fund is a $15.6m initiative funded by the Government through METS Ignited to accelerate the commercialisation of innovation that will be of benefit to the METS and mining sectors. It encourages METS companies to collaborate with an end-user, such as a mining company, system integrator or OEM, to develop innovative solutions to industry challenges. In June and July, METS Ignited spoke to hundreds of METS companies nationally, including manufacturers, about the opportunities to progress innovation through the Project Fund.

AMT: What impact is Industry 4.0 and digital technology having on Australia’s mining industry?

RG: Australia underwent an enormous construction cycle between 2013 and 2015, the end of which coincided with a commodity price crash, forcing organisational restructures to manage profit and loss and balance sheets impacting innovation cycles. Since then there is much evidence to suggest that Australian miners are actively seeking to leverage Industry 4.0 and there is ample opportunity to do so. However, Industry 4.0 is moving rapidly. There is a need for the mining and METS sectors – as well as other sectors in Australia – to embrace the innovation disruption that it will bring and the opportunities that it provides, to consolidate our global leading position and leap the competition where we lag.

While digitisation, robotics and automation will ultimately cost jobs on the production side, it can expect to do so with the benefit of increasing leverage of assets and diminishing resources. In fact, it assists with our global sustainability challenges. On the other side of the ledger, the servicing, maintenance, and development of these automation systems will be delivered by a growing METS sector that has an opportunity to service the Australian mining industry.

There is a call to action, and the challenge is to bring all the elements of the innovation cycle, research, METS companies and miners to leverage what Industry 4.0 can deliver.

AMT: How can Australia keep pace with the rest of the world in this area?

RG: The miners have the capacity to engage and are doing so. However, the opportunity is greater than just keeping up with the rest of the world. The opportunity is for Australian METS companies, working in close collaboration with miners and research bodies, to position themselves as an agile conduit to innovation, leveraging all that Industry 4.0 can deliver.

AMT: With specific regard to Australian manufacturers in the METS sector, how are they keeping up with digitisation to compete with global METS companies?

RG: The top end of Australia’s manufacturers, which includes the innovative METS manufacturers, are very competitive internationally, but the remainder are behind in their adoption of digital technologies. This is due, in part, to the small market size, which may not provide the financial robustness to invest.

But as mentioned earlier, the challenge is not just METS, but Australian industry: no matter how fast a company may think it is moving, there is a need to see if more can be done and to seek collaborations across the value chain and through various segments. In a decade where we expect to see more innovation in the next five years than we have seen in the last 30, collaboration is essential. Without collaboration you will linger and fall behind.

New business models of clustering and collaboration are being adopted by agile SMEs in Europe and North America. Australia needs to adopt these models if our SMEs are to become internationally competitive.

AMT: How can Australia improve its performance regarding collaboration?

RG: Australia can improve the mining innovation ecosystem by increasing collaboration between research bodies/universities, METS companies – particularly SMEs –  and customers (miners, system integrators or OEMs). We need to find better ways to manage IP in a world where speed to market is everything; we must improve in knowledge-sharing in a manner that equitably rewards all parties. We need to focus on integrated solutions that create sufficient value to miners to overcome the inherent barriers to innovation.

There are opportunities for all segments of the ecosystem to increase their absorptive capacity, through initiatives like mentoring programs and skilling researchers and SMEs on effective engagement together. Clustering initiatives can provide strong collaboration frameworks.

AMT: What activities is METS Ignited engaged in to enhance this collaboration?

RG: In June and July, METS Ignited hosted 14 information sessions around Australia about accessing the METS Ignited collaborative Project Fund. This was an excellent opportunity to meet hundreds of METS companies, miners, researchers and other decision-makers across Australia. It reinforced my knowledge that the Australian METS sector is world-class in its application of leading edge technology to produce outstanding products and services to the mining sector.

During these sessions we also released a report into the key challenges facing Australia’s mining industry. This report synthesises interviews and discussions with the mining sector on the problems faced in the mining sector and outlines opportunities for collaboration between the METS, mining and research sectors to provide solutions.

Earlier this year Innovation and Science Australia released a report indicating Australia was good at creating knowledge but was not good enough in transferring and applying it. The METS Ignited Project Fund was established to assist the METS sector to work collaboratively to commercialise innovation for the benefit of the sector. To date, METS Ignited has completed two rounds of funding. A further round will be announced in the coming months.

METS Ignited and the Queensland Government are running the only dedicated METS accelerator in Asia-Pacific for later-stage start-ups and SMEs. It is an Australian-first joint initiative that seeks to bring late-stage startups and SMEs together with leading resources sector corporates focussed on innovative solutions, to drive greater industry collaboration and commercialisation outcomes across exploration, planning, production, environmental and social innovations.

AMT: How is METS Ignited helping to build the export market?

RG: The growth of exports is one of the four pillars required of the Industry Growth Centres. There are a range of initiatives identified in our Sector Competitiveness Plan and METS Ignited is working closely with industry to leverage opportunities. METS Ignited is seeking to collaborate with the Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade and Austrade to promote industry capabilities, attracting capital to support the innovation agenda and leveraging and promoting possible company-to-company collaborations.

Opportunities also exist to facilitate long-term export development opportunities based on the platforms of government-to-government engagements for the developing resources economies, which will promote Australian mining and METS capabilities. METS Ignited will continue to work on understanding and identifying global opportunities for Australian METS companies and the various barriers to entry. This work will facilitate development of effective future METS export growth initiatives.

AMT: Tell us about some METS projects that Australia should be proud of.

RG: Australia leads the world in the development and export of environmental performance, and in the quantification of social licence and the techniques to positively influence this – largely as a result of working with our indigenous communities around resources projects. Companies such as Russell Mineral lead the world in mill-relining systems; Immersive Technologies is a dominant player in mining equipment simulation; Imdex leads the world in real-time sub-surface intelligence solutions. Gekko’s gold-processing technology, advanced manufacturing and modular capabilities allow them to deploy their processing technology effectively in the most remote locations, and Orica leads the world in blasting capabilities. There are many other examples.