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Two leading global surveys paint a picture of Australia’s declining innovation credentials. The Global Innovation Index highlights innovation strengths and weaknesses, in particular gaps in innovation metrics. The IMD World Digital Competitiveness Ranking evaluates countries’ ability to embrace digital technologies and transformation. This special feature examines innovation’s issue with management performance, featuring expert commentary and showcasing industry leaders trying a different tack to attain the desired results.

One of the myths about Australia is that our economy is reliant on digging up raw materials, sending them overseas then buying them back in processed form. This ignores the fact that Australia is a world leader in improving mining technology. RFC Ambrian believes Australia will have a far greater impact on reducing carbon emissions and environmental impact through technology and innovation than by direct consumption of resources.

Take copper. Highly-conductive wiring is essential to all forms of electric power transmission. The average electric car contains 83kg of copper, almost four times as much as the 23kg in the average conventional car, according to the US Copper Development Association. That ratio reportedly also holds for other forms of renewable energy, such as wind turbines. Over the next 30 years, the world will need more copper than has ever been mined. Recycling will not make much of a dent in future demand.

But the world won’t run out of copper if miners improve their efficiency. The US Geological Survey estimates global copper reserves (deposits that have been discovered, evaluated and assessed as profitable) at 870 million tonnes, against current annual use of 28 million tonnes. In its wider definition of overall resources, the US Geological Survey says they could exceed 5000 million tonnes. The most relevant issues for miners now are efficiency and emission reduction.

Adopting new technology

It is challenging to persuade many mining companies to adopt new technology because the oversight of mine operations is typically done in silos. Miners focus on digging and tonnage — and forget about the process once the ore reaches the crusher.

But Australia can be a central part of the drive to new technology. There have been two impediments, the first being inventions that need work before they function properly. My company has got on top of that by collaborating with our partner — the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) — and making new products investable.

Secondly, mining companies have often failed to think laterally about how to improve their operating efficiency in this world of environmental oversight. If they do, they will make more money and gain more support from governments and investors. If they don’t, they will be left behind. The NREL specialises in moving technologies from the theoretical to the practical, functional phase, a process its director, Richard Adams, describes as putting “grown-up supervision” around the technologies.

Improving ore-sorting technology works particularly well in copper mines because even the richest ore bodies contain no more than an average of three per cent copper. Not only is it critical to know how much copper is in the ore as it goes up the conveyor belt, it is also critical to know what to throw out.

Depending on the type of ore body, the immediate value lift in modifying a plant can amount to hundreds of thousands of dollars per day. Some companies are ignoring the chance to make a major saving, but will eventually wake up to the discovery that sorting ore more efficiently not only saves surprising amounts of money in terms of power used, but also reduces their carbon footprint.

Collaboration breeds better technology

RFC Ambrian’s collaboration with the CSIRO has produced two successful commercialisations — both of which materially improve processes and successfully lower environmental footprint. Chrysos Corporation, a startup that I chair, uses photon assay technology to test materials such as gold or copper ore that has come through the crusher, zapping samples with high-intensity X-rays to reveal what’s in the material. It is quick and non-destructive, and replaces the ancient fire assay system.

NextOre is a joint venture between CSIRO, RFC Ambrian and the Worley group. Also focused on improving ore sorting, in this case the technology uses magnetic resonance sensing to check the ore grade on the conveyor in a process similar to the MRI scanning used in medicine. Again, it produces excellent results for a relatively modest outlay.

Rob Adamson MAICD is executive chair of RFC Ambrian, and chair of NextOre and Chrysos Corporation.

The role of standards

Worldwide Innovation Management Standards will make it easier to develop a common language and build effective systems to deliver ROI, writes Brian Ruddle.

Switched-on governance boards are revisiting the role of innovation, moving past collecting ideas and experimenting to gradually develop a culture of innovation. Their focus is on high-performance innovation management systems to support strategy implementation.

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) innovation management standards provide cohesion and a simplified, consistent approach to driving innovation and business improvement. They help organisations move past the buzzword “innovation” to focus on outcomes. The standards provide a set of recommended methods to manage innovation and its implementation aligned with international best practice. Establishing a common language around the process of innovation, and measuring and reporting in a standardised manner, helps support an organisation’s strategy and delivers better outcomes.

The ways innovation managers use ISO standards vary. Some are conducting gap analysis between their existing innovation systems and the standards. A gap analysis also maps out an enhancement plan to improve the operations of the system. SMEs are focusing on the operational aspects of turning ideas into products and services in a more efficient way. Innovation managers are also using the standards as a way of enhancing communication with senior executives and board members.

How do they work?

ISO standards provide a formula to perform a certain process. They cover a range of activities — from making a product to managing a process, delivering a service or supplying materials. They are developed through a comprehensive process of collaboration, distilling the collective wisdom of subject matter experts.

The need for a set of standards to guide innovation activities and provide global consistency was recognised as an important element to supporting the speed and impact of innovation required to maintain the current rate of progress. The Standards Australia Innovation Management committee comprises Australian experts from all facets of innovation, including corporate, NFP, government and R&D sectors. It is working with 43 other countries to improve the way companies approach and gain value from innovation.

Published standards for innovation management include:

  • Fundamentals and vocabulary around innovation systems
  • Guidance on setting up an innovation management system
  • Tools and methods for innovation partnerships
  • Innovation management assessment
  • Tools and methods for intellectual property management. Standards Australia has adopted the first four of these standards, with the fifth going through the adoption process. Another five standards and a SME handbook are in development, covering a range of topics including the measurement of innovation activities and portfolios. For more information, visit standards.org.au

Brian Ruddle is chair of the Australian Innovation Management Standards committee.