‘It’s All About Adjusting to Change,’ Mining Automation Expert Says

June 8, 2017
A Cat 793F CMD mining truck leaves an iron ore pit. PHOTO: Mark Sprouls/Caterpillar
A Cat 793F CMD mining truck leaves an iron ore pit. PHOTO: Mark Sprouls/Caterpillar

Michael C. Murphy has been adjusting to new technologies his entire career. It’s par for the course in mining engineering – now more than ever.

Murphy, chief engineer for the Surface Mining and Technology Division at Caterpillar Inc., spoke about the use of autonomous machines in mining at the recent National Academy of Engineering-American Association of Engineering Societies Convocation of the Professional Engineering Societies in Washington, DC.

Automation is a game changer for the industry, and Murphy talked with ASCE News about how civil engineers may be affected.

ASCE News: You talked about the history of autonomous machines in mining going all the way back to 1985 with Caterpillar. How was that on your radar so early on?

Murphy: As a company, we looked at it. We had the technology, and we could see a number of technologies merging to create good opportunities. High-precision GPS was just starting to happen, but we still asked if that technology could help us automate machines. What would it take to operate a machine autonomously?

So we took the new technology and decided that it probably offered key capabilities which could improve mining. It was just visionaries that were in our company.

It’s amazing, when you think about 30 years ago, to have that vision. And you think today, we’re seeing technology companies like Google and Microsoft just getting into that space.

Autonomous trucks already play a key role in mining. PHOTO: Mark Sprouls/Caterpillar

Autonomous trucks already play a key role in mining. PHOTO: Mark Sprouls/Caterpillar

ASCE News: So what should civil engineers expect in terms of opportunities afforded by automation in mining?

Murphy: What you will see over a period of time – and I can’t tell you when, just because we don’t know – is the same technology moving from mining into construction. You’ll start to see a lot more automation.

Now, it will probably start with operator-assist and a few automated functions. But over a period of time, I’m sure the technology’s going to move from mining into the construction industry. And we’ve already seen that. You see advanced technology on nearly every machine on a construction site these days. They have high-precision GPS on machines, working to high-precision accuracy.

As time and technology move, I believe civil engineering is going to see bigger growth in the use of machine-control technologies. Mining has a small population of machines – big machines, small population. Construction has a large population of machines out there that work very differently. So I’m convinced over a period of time you’re going to see it in the construction business.

All of us must create value. If you come out of engineering school, take that learning and then continue to learn. Because who knows in 40 years what an engineer’s work is going to look like? You can’t predict what an engineer’s going to know in 40 years’ time.

ASCE News: OK, so if you’re a young civil engineer working in construction, you hear this talk about automation and maybe worry about job security. How do you stay on top of the technology?

Murphy: I’m a civil engineer, myself. And I’m at the end of my career – 38 years with Caterpillar – and I’m in the automation space, right? In every part of my career I’ve watched technology change.

My daughter is just graduating as an engineer. My advice to my kids is to learn all the time. Keep abreast of what’s happening, make sure you learn, make sure you’re open to new ideas, and just move with it.

All of us must create value. If you come out of engineering school, take that learning and then continue to learn. Because who knows in 40 years what an engineer’s work is going to look like? You can’t predict what an engineer’s going to know in 40 years’ time.

I also think it comes back to core beliefs as an engineer – you need to be able to communicate, you need to have strong analytical skills, you need to be able to write as well as talk. If you have that package, together with the ability to learn, then these are the core ways you can add value to your organization or company you work for.

It’s all about adjusting to change. I know some people who are 20 year olds who can’t change. And I know some people who are 60 who can accept change.

I look at my father, for example, who is 91. He gets up every day and uses his iPad to read his newspapers. He manages change.

I think it’s more your mental attitude and not your age – I really, truly believe that.

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