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The Role Technology Plays in US, Australia Rare Earths Plan

With China dominating the production of rare earth elements, US manufacturers of consumer tech and defense products have turned to Australia as an alternative global producer. According to Al Jazeera, the US is now collaborating with its longtime ally to preempt the effects of China’s threatened manipulation of the rare earths market.

To accelerate this bold international experiment—and secure US supply of metals used in camera lenses, LED screens, rechargeable batteries, and defense systems like satellites and drones—Australian mining companies need the right technology to support production and reduce supply chain risk.

Chipping Away at Dominance

Although China dominates the global market for rare earths, the elements aren’t exclusive to Chinese soil, nor are they technically rare. They’re just stubbornly bonded to soil in varying concentrations around the world.

Rare earth ores require massive amounts of energy and labor to extract and refine, and China has capitalized on its available work force and processing skill to capture 80 percent of global production.

If it hopes to loosen China’s grip on the rare earths market, Australia will have to create efficient and sustainable production methods. Automated processes, along with supply chain management that minimizes disruptions, will be critical to winning US investor confidence.

Raising the Ante on Discovery

Technologies that help companies extract rare earths from the soil and manage their journey to market will contribute to the anticipated shift in market hierarchy. But before that comes the task of discovery. Australia contains just 2.8% of the world’s rare earths, according to the Al Jazeera report. With such a limited pool, its manufacturers need efficient methods of identifying the best sites for extraction.

Companies that process natural resources—from miners to oil and gas companies to timber producers—have long relied on location intelligence to pinpoint the best sites for their operations. Geologists enlist digital mapping platforms to visualize and analyze soil composition, underground stability, and resource deposits. Their go-to asset is a geographic information system (GIS), which reveals an analysis of the world beneath their feet. For this reason, GIS is a standard asset in extractive industries.

As Australia’s producers ramp up production of rare earths, they’ll use location technology to automate the identification of promising resources and analyze site suitability.

Agility in the Supply Chain

Once producers have located and extracted rare earths, the challenge shifts to end-to-end supply chain management. US manufacturers will need a reliable, on-time supply of the elements to maintain their production of mobile phones, fighter jets, and other products.

To that end, Australian miners could take a cue from GM. For the global auto giant, GIS serves as a real-time supply chain information system. In a recent WhereNext article, Esri’s Yasaman Kazemi described how the system gives GM the ability to respond quickly when supply chain disruptions such as earthquakes, hurricanes, and political unrest occur:

Last year, for example, a magnitude 7.1 earthquake in central Mexico . . . impacted many GM supplier operations in the area. Already coping with the aftermath of Hurricanes Irma and Harvey, the crisis response team was nevertheless able to move fast when it received email alerts and a detailed report about the earthquake.

In the evolving global supply chain for rare earths, Australian producers and their American buyers will be keen to establish real-time visualization and analysis to help intelligently reroute mineral shipments when disruptions occur.

With location intelligence to accelerate resource discovery and mitigate supply chain risk, Australian rare-earth producers can provide the alternative source American manufacturers seek in a time of global trade uncertainty.

About the author

Cindy Elliott heads Esri’s commercial industry marketing team. She helps to shape the role of geospatial analytics within the manufacturing industry related to new market analysis, supply chain operations, and advanced services. For more than fifteen years, Cindy has worked with global manufacturers and enterprise class technology companies to influence customer-focused business transformation. Cindy holds a senior visiting industrial fellow position at Aston Business School in Birmingham, UK, and is an established thought leader on servitization and manufacturers’ advanced services. She earned a master’s degree in international management from the Thunderbird Graduate School, and completed Harvard Business School’s Program for Leadership Development.

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