(In April 7 item, corrects title of Bechtel's Paige Wilson in 8th paragraph)
By Anthony Esposito and Pratima Desai
SANTIAGO, April 7 (Reuters) - Engineering and technology companies servicing the mining industry see a silver lining to the crippling rout in copper prices: new business opportunities have opened up for improving productivity as producers rush to rein in costs.
Delegates at the annual Cesco/CRU gathering of the copper industry in Chile this week concluded that miners will focus on cutting costs to survive low prices, rather than significant output cuts to offset slow demand growth from top consumer China.
During the commodities super-cycle, producers made huge capital expenditures, but "the focus for the industry over the next two years will be on productivity improvement, and all the mining companies trying to reduce their cash costs," said Pertti Korhonen, chief executive of Finnish mining technology company Outotec.
"There is a lot of opportunity to use modern technology, including digitalization and automation," Korhonen told Reuters this week.
Service providers have also suffered during the commodities downturn, forced to lay off workers as a drop in big-spending mining projects hit revenues.
"All engineering companies have needed to adjust themselves in order to get through this rough time ... we're anticipating a difficult market, with no more than 5 to 6 million man hours of engineering for mining during the year," said Juan Rayo, CEO of Chile-based engineering firm JRI.
But with copper prices now hovering around $4,650 a tonne and the $10,000 a tonne prices from February 2011 a fading memory, miners are seeking further savings through operational efficiencies and boosting productivity.
"Now the focus is on getting the most value from facilities that are already producing, through expansions, solving bottlenecks and incorporating new technologies and competitive designs," said Paige Wilson, general manager of Bechtel Mining & Metals, Americas.
Mining equipment maker Joy Global Inc says producers can get more bang for their buck by using "smarter" equipment, such as its hybrid shovel, combining attributes of an electric shovel and a hydraulic diesel excavator. The company says the hybrid can cut costs by up to 15 percent per tonne.
But as miners tighten their belts, some question how much they will be willing to spend on new equipment.
Outotec's Korhonen said he has already seen appetite from mining companies for newer technologies.
"If you reduce your energy consumption, you reduce your water consumption, you improve your throughput, you can get immediate opex savings, you can get immediate advantages. So I think if the numbers talk for themselves, they will find the money."
Reporting by Anthony Esposito & Pratima Desai; Editing by David Gregorio