Feature Interview – Autonomous Technology in Chile
Alexis Méndez is a mining professional with over 25 years’ experience working in major mining operations and with mining service providers. He has been helping mining companies evaluate, implement, and operate autonomous trucks (and other technologies) on several major mine sites across Chile. Alexis has received several awards such as the Ismael Valdés Award from the Institute of Engineers of Chile and the Innova Award at Codelco.
Ax-Legal: Can you provide us with an overview of your professional background and experience?
Alexis Méndez: I am a mining engineer with 25 years of experience, MBA, with in-depth knowledge of Chilean mining operations. I have spent the last 10 years dedicated to evaluating, implementing, and operating technology projects, with a special focus on automation projects.
Ax-Legal: How has the mining industry in Chile changed in the last 10 years?
Alexis Méndez: It has changed a lot. From the point of view of operational staff, the knowledge and the use of autonomous technology has begun to increase, changing the perspective that many mine staff previously had. Autonomation is now not a threat but instead an opportunity for professional growth and an aid to creating safer and more productive operations.
From a process point of view, the mining industry has incorporated new productivity indicators into operations which were previously not there. The regulatory authorities are making progress on incorporating new approval standards for technology ensuring a safer and more productive implementation and operation.
From a technology point of view, in the last 10 years, the use of automation has really grown through more advanced perception systems. The dispatch systems have improved incorporating new functionalities that have helped mining companies to have greater control over those systems making them safer. The increase of automation has increased the use of assets and made them more productive.
Ax-Legal: How fast do you see the deployment of autonomous transport in the Chilean mining industry?
Alexis Méndez: 10 years ago, only Minera Gaby (currently Gabriela Minstral Division), operated autonomous trucks. However, in the last 5 years there has been more mines that have introduced automation into their operations. We started with only Komatsu technology, but now there is Caterpillar, which is allowing for healthy competition that will benefit Chilean mining operations. The introduction of autonomous trucks is accelerating.
Ax-Legal: What are the current challenges holding back the adoption of autonomous transport?
Alexis Méndez: There is clearly a challenge with adapting legacy operations. Managing the organizational change is the initial challenge because we must have a powerful training plan for operational staff since there are few expert instructors in autonomous operations in Chile.
In addition, you need to have the related infrastructure to educate the workforce such as simulators, the specific software of each supplier technology, etc. This makes us dependent on vendors.
We must also have a communication plan that involves each of the stakeholders and an impact assessment for each of them.
Lastly, there is another challenge, which is the lack of trained manpower not only in operating autonomous projects, but also in evaluating and implementing new initiatives. We must develop these capabilities as a country because clearly it is a beautiful opportunity to consolidate ourselves as a mining technological power.
Ax-Legal: Do you see a difference between the autonomous capabilities of the different truck providers? For example, Komatsu vs Caterpillar vs Hitachi.
Alexis Méndez: I believe that Komatsu and Caterpillar are a step forward with the development of autonomous technology. They have continuously fulfilled commitments with their technology over the last 10 years, with a presence on several continents, billions of tons moved, and hundreds of trucks operating now.
The level of technological maturity is also increasing, allowing mining companies to have more independence in their operations and not depend so much on each vendor.
Hitachi is a company that I am confident will allow us to have an alternative that does not depend on the compulsory purchase of one or another brand. Instead, it is more flexible in the conversion of equipment already in operation, which would allow an important leap in independence and financial flexibility for mining companies.
Ax-Legal: In what internal capacities must mining companies work on to be prepared for the adoption of autonomous transportation?
Alexis Méndez: There is many since we are still early in the journey. They need to improve training for people and the infrastructure related to the equipment and systems. High standardization of processes since autonomy requires operational excellence. Improvements to our digital systems such as LTE and fiber optic communications networks. Also, an adequate communication plan with people and with the authorities.
Ax-Legal: Do you think there is a shortage of skills within mining companies for these new types of technology? Are universities training for new skills or how are existing employees’ skills being upgraded?
Alexis Méndez: I think there is a shortage especially when it comes to the evaluation and implementation of these technologies. Regarding universities, it is important that they are preparing new graduates, providing training of these technologies in their classrooms, and the development of new research related to digital twins that allow us to analyze the impact of automation.
Ax-Legal: What can foreign companies do better when introducing and deploying new technologies in Chile?
Alexis Méndez: Invest in capacity development infrastructure (autonomy training), develop new technological solutions that allow us to simulate the use of this technology and the effect is has on our mining plans. I also see the need to generate new technologies that allow the incorporation of autonomy across different brands of equipment.
Ax-Legal: Do you have any advice or advice for foreign companies that are introducing new technologies or solutions?
Alexis Méndez: Foreign suppliers need to have a local team that can support the mining operation with the implementation. There could also be more assistance with the evaluation of the technologies.
Introducing new technology such as automation is above all an investment for the mining company, which involves finding professionals that are not readily available in the labor market that are specialized in commissioning and operational ramp-up of technologies.
Service and equipment providers must understand that it is a long-term strategic alliance with the mining companies and not a short-term transaction, for which there must be full involvement from each vendor to achieve a common success.
Ax Legal is an advisory firm that works with foreign companies in Latin America. Our team of legal and commercial advisors have a distinguished track record of helping foreign technology and services companies to grow and operate in Latin America. Over the years, we have worked with starts up, mid-size businesses, and publicly listed companies. The one common factor that connects are clients is that they are leaders in their field, providing innovative technologies and services to the industrial sectors.
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