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With a view to the mining of the future

The Swedish mining industry is working purposefully towards more productive and climate-smart mining. The way there goes via digitalisation, automation and electrification. Vinnova has played a significant role when R&D agendas, strategic innovation programs and large demonstration projects created opportunities for change and competitiveness.

This web page has been machine translated. If there are any uncertainties, please refer to the Swedish text.

Mining has long played a central role in Swedish industry and has been of great importance to Sweden's competitiveness and growth. Today, access to metals and minerals is also a prerequisite for climate change. At the same time, the mining industry has its own challenges, particularly with regard to its climate footprint. For several decades, the mining industry in Sweden has carried out purposeful development work towards a more automated, digitized and electrified, and therefore more productive and climate-efficient, mining. An interconnected digital and green transformation of the mining industry has been the result. The development has been a toss-up between private and public actors and Vinnova has played an important role. Actors within Sweden's internationally leading innovation system of knowledge-intensive companies and R&D organizations in mining, mining equipment and advanced digitalisation have been driving forces. This has taken place in close collaboration with public actors in Sweden and at EU level. Mobilization around ambitious objective in development agendas has been crucial, along with programme for research, development, innovation and demonstration. This analysis is the first of several analyzes of the role of government efforts in the transformation of innovation system in the direction of competitiveness through sustainable development.

Mining in search of more efficient mining

Mining companies, like business in general, are in a continuous pursuit of productivity improvements. Unlike many other industries, however, the mining industry is based on the extraction of a limited resource. Limited both in terms of how much mineral is in the earth's crust and because technology sets limits on what can be mined. Public acceptance of mining, as well as political and social conditions in the communities where the mineral is mined, are also decisive. Staff safety must also be put first. Since at least the 1980s, a number of mining companies have therefore tried to automate mining operations more and more. This aspiration seems to have been stronger in Sweden compared to other countries. In Sweden, we have relatively high labor costs. At the same time, some mining companies are processing low-grade ore bodies, which pose significant productivity challenges. Sweden and the Swedish mining industry also have a very strong focus on personnel safety. The combination of these factors provides strong driving forces for the development of technology, processes and organization for increased productivity and safety. For a long time, limitations in communication technology meant obstacles to major development steps. However, the rapid digital development during the 21st century, and Sweden's strong industrial and competence-based ability in advanced digitalisation, opened up radically new opportunities for change in the mining industry. The world's first underground WiFi network was installed in a Swedish mine. Relatively soon, however, the range and capacity of WiFi technology down in the mine tunnels became limiting and the focus shifted to the emerging fifth generation mobile network technology (5G). Somewhere, this conversion journey takes off in earnest.

A strong innovation system is the foundation

The early 2000s meant something of a boom for the mining industry, with high price levels on the global commodity markets, a record number of exploration permits in Sweden and a rich flora of development tracks within the industry - one of these being automated mining. However, it was felt from several quarters that the mining companies' and equipment manufacturers' R&D ambitions were not keeping pace. Initiatives were taken from industry representatives and through a forward-looking pilot funding 2009-10 (under the Strategic Mining Research Program) Vinnova was able to contribute to the establishment of an R&D agenda for the mining industry, (Smart) Mine of the Future - (S)MIFU.

Slutrapport MIFU

SMIFU outlined a future vision of a highly automated mining operation, characterized by a continuous process from mining to smelter and with a minimum of human presence in the mining zone. The agenda soon became important when a broader national research and innovation agenda for the Swedish mining and metal extracting industry was drawn up before the establishment of the strategic innovation program SIP Swedish Mining Innovation (financed by Vinnova, the Swedish Energy Agency and Formas). This work, in turn, gained decisive importance at EU level by strongly influencing the agenda for "European innovation partnership on raw materials" (forum for business collaboration around the EU's framework programme). The SIP agenda also became an important argument when the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) moved one of its centers to Luleå. An important contributing factor to the strong European impact was that the agenda work did not become a purely Swedish project, but also had Finnish and Polish participation. This in turn built on the Swedish mining industry's strong international network.

The agenda work contributed to the Swedish mining industry strengthening its roots in Sweden and Europe. Ultimately, however, there were technical challenges that needed to be overcome, something that the Swedish mining industry could not have solved on its own within the industry. Swedish mining companies in a far-sighted way hired telecom engineers in order to be able to drive the automation agenda more efficiently. When Ericsson later sought Swedish partners for the application of the emerging 5G technology, it was mining companies that raised their hand early on. Telecom in a mining environment came to have something of a breakthrough in a Vinnova-funded project "Pilot for Industrial Mobile communication in Mining" (PIMM), which was carried out in the years 2015–2017.

From the start, SIP Swedish Mining Innovation had a strategic ambition to implement large-scale demonstration projects that could demonstrate the potential of the SIP agenda. The purpose of these was to reduce uncertainties and enable mining companies to dare the extensive investments that a complete change of mining equipment entails. Early on, it became clear that such funding was primarily available within the EU's framework programme, Horizon 2020. Through the agenda work, and through the industry's strong European network, they were well positioned for a proposal. SIP Swedish Mining Innovation made it possible via two preparatory projects that resources could be set aside to write proposal and form a project consortium. The work was crowned with success and in 2015 the Swedish mining equipment manufacturer Epiroc (then still within Atlas Copco) EU-kommissionens) was trusted to lead and together with 12 partners implement a multi-year development and demonstration project under the title Sustainable Intelligent Mining Systems (SIMS). The project had a total budget of 16.1 MEUR and was in several respects very successful. Several important development steps were taken and the work generated a lot of international attention. Among other things, it became decisive for Epiroc's commercially successful effort on battery-powered mining vehicles. The project has been followed by an equally extensive follow-up project , NEXGEN-SIMS, which is now being implemented ( also made possible through preparatory projects financed via SIP Swedish Mining innovation.) In this project, the various modules in SIMS (battery operation, positioning system, etc.) are integrated into a cohesive system approach where they can be tested in an integrated manner.

Fifteen years after purposeful change work was started with the SMIFU agenda, completely new system solutions are emerging today. Based on these demonstration projects, the first major investment decisions have already been made. Sustainable transformation has created sustainable competitiveness.

Lessons learned for an accelerated transition policy

The starting point of this development journey was the pursuit of productivity and safety. Along the way, climate and sustainability were added as driving forces, and history holds important lessons for the future.

This development could not have taken place without the entrepreneurial drive that led mining companies and their partners to test new development paths, even when this required new cross-sector cooperation. The result was ground-breaking innovations. Power for the transition could be mobilized through the target images that were formed in agenda work and through the exchange of knowledge that was generated in these processes. Strong innovation system are characterized by entrepreneurial experimentation and efficient information flows, e.g. collaboration and mutual learning in agenda processes. The international networks that already existed were very important and could be further strengthened through the agenda work and through both SIMS projects. Large demonstration projects have finally reduced the uncertainty surrounding the large investments required.

The development has been driven by business and public actors interacting, which has created both adaptability and competitiveness. Vinnova, together with Formas and the Swedish Energy Agency, has played a significant role by strengthening a fundamentally strong innovation system. With funding of R&D project, agenda work, strategic innovation programs and support for applications to the EU's framework program, the authorities have thus contributed when important steps have been taken and, not least, created the conditions for broad cooperation. The large demonstration projects were co-financed with public funds via the EU's framework programme.

Overall, this example demonstrates the developmental power of well-functioning innovation system, as well as that many of the policy tools for change already exist. Vinnova, and other actors in the Swedish innovation system, need to purposefully further develop, nurture and systematically apply these abilities. In the changes for a green and socially sustainable development that are now necessary, a directionality corresponding to that in the SMIFU and SIP agendas will be required. The lessons learned from the mining industry's development journey should then be taken advantage of. In particular, this needs to take place within the framework of the next generation strategic innovation program (Impact Innovation”) and in investments in system demonstration. Then purposeful international connection, including leverage via the EU's power pools and cooperation with countries outside the EU, will be of decisive importance.

Report with in-depth analysis on the future of mining

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Daniel Johansson

Chief analyst

+46 8 473 30 82

Last updated 10 February 2023

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