Giant steps

AUSTRALIA has come to be recognised in many other countries as a frontrunner in the world of mining innovation. But does that recognition reach all the way home?
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Wally Graham

When the industrial revolution was in full swing throughout Europe, in particular England, Australia was coming to terms with how to feed its population of convicts and gentrified land grabbers.

Marvellous inventions enhanced modern times in the old country.

Stephenson built his steam-powered rocket, Brunel constructed bridges and the White Star Line assembled unsinkable ships.

Across the Atlantic pond, Thomas Edison invented and patented anything he could get close to.

Any innovation emanating from the northern hemisphere was considered important to the new world order.

Homemakers were given warmth and streetwalkers given light. It was a great time for science.

In Australia, innovation was focused where it was needed most: on the land. This led to iconic inventions such as the stump jump plough, the combine harvester and the self-propelled rotary hoe.

As mining became a key element of Australian life, home-grown ingenuity became an integral component of the burgeoning young industry.

Sometime around 1893, Francis Davis developed the Calyx drill for drilling large holes in rock.

The Calyx drill became popular around the world and was adopted in many countries due to its ability to reduce waste and operate at a highly economical rate.

Charles Potter and Guillaume Delprat developed the froth flotation process for mineral extraction. Amdel developed the in-stream analysis system, computerised analysis equipment for the immediate processing of copper, zinc, lead and platinum – and the washing of coal. The system allowed continuous analysis of key metals, meaning greater productivity for the minerals industry worldwide.

That spirit of innovation seems alive and well today, with some bold Australian manufacturers taking some giant steps in the world of mining technology.

“We [Australians] have a very strong international reputation for innovation,” Gekko Systems managing director Elizabeth Lewis-Gray told Australia’s Mining Monthly.

“I think that is associated with the Australian ‘roll your sleeves up – can do’ attitude.

“You see it a lot on international sites where Australian people work, generally in management roles.

“Australian managers are very successful because they actually go in and help the staff and get dirty themselves, whereas quite a lot of other business cultures may stand back and divert from afar.”

Developing solutions is a familiar concept to Gekko Systems. The company specialises in the design, development and distribution of innovative mineral processing equipment and systems, with a particular focus on gravity separation.

It has enjoyed considerable overseas success with its celebrated InLine Pressure Jig, a high-yield, high-recovery, gravity separation device.

Gekko’s IPJ has been successfully installed in both alluvial and hard rock applications.

“The IPJ was what got us into the marketplace, but it was the InLine Leach Reactor that has been our most successful product to date,” Lewis-Gray said.

“That was a product we developed two years after the InLine Pressure Jig in response to some criticisms the industry had in regard to the IPJ that it produced too much gold concentrate and they didn’t know what to do with it.

“So the Leach Reactor was designed to treat the gold concentrate.

“Once we developed the InLine Leach Reactor, of course, we found there were a host of reasons as to why people would really want to use this product. Probably the thing that made the biggest difference was when we went and presented at a gravity conference in Johannesburg in 1998.”

Gekko’s recognition at that conference is indicative of the conundrum faced by many emerging Australian technology players.

Australian companies are often more likely to look at new technology from other countries than from home. Other countries, however, tend to recognise Australian innovation and technology as being at the forefront and are prepared to take a look at what is on offer.

“This is exactly the point,” Lewis-Gray said. “When we went to sell our product overseas people looked at us and said, ‘you’re an Australian company, so you must know what you are doing’

“So we got that reference benefit from our nationality, which didn’t serve us as well in our local marketplace.”

To recognise why this happens, it is important to look at the mining industry as a whole.

It is, by its nature, a very conservative industry. It is an industry where large amounts of money are spent and people are very reluctant to take risks, particularly around technology.

“We have found that new technology and innovation needs to be stepped into the customer’s operations in an incremental fashion,” Remote Control Technologies managing director Bob Muirhead said.

“We have not found anywhere, any situation where it will have success if it goes in expecting a quantum leap. The operators have to find it acceptable and will improve their job and what [tasks] they are carrying out.”

Wholly Australian-owned RCT specialises in the manufacture and installation of safety and productivity products for the mining sector and other heavy industry.

Just over a year ago the company decided to expand its presence in the growing mine machine control technology market.

The company has grown significantly due to its response to the industry’s call for more advanced remote control solutions.

RCT is now working closely with some of the world’s major mining houses on mine automation projects. This includes being the enabling designer and supplier for the development of an automated surface drill for Rio Tinto.

“Our remote control systems are all over the world. An era of moving towards automation is the next step in that remote control area,” Muirhead said.

“Remote control has been around for a long, long time now and invariably where the work process is unsafe, then generally remote control has been adopted.

“So that is almost an accepted practice.

“The automation will be a gentle process towards where it becomes more effective in taking the repetitive tasks out or getting a more accurate outcome from the process.

“Wherever there is a safety issue, it just seems to be an accepted practice in the mining industry.”

There is no question that the Australian mining industry supports new design and technology innovation from home-grown companies.

However, what hurdles, if any, exist that might prohibit the industry from picking up home-grown technology and running with it?

“In my 21 years direct involvement with Australian manufacturing of product for the mining industry, there have been the odd occasions where it has taken a fair amount of justification, not so much for the actual product and its capabilities but more so of the company itself,” Haulmax marketing manager Bob Calvert said.

“At those times it was an expressed concern whether the company had depth, had sustainability and the ability to be around in the future.

“There seemed an attitude that if you were an Australian company that you could end up on the scrap heap, ‘because others have done so and left us high and dry’

“That didn’t seem to worry them if that happened to an importer but if you were Australian and it happened, it almost seemed like you were going to be an embarrassment to them. And these were very large mining houses at the time.”

Calvert also was involved with marketing the Elphinstone Underground equipment that was later bought by Caterpillar.

Haulmax has developed a range of trucks capable of hauling large amounts of material over long distances. Its approach has won the support of Caterpillar.

What becomes obvious in all this is that for the mining industry, brand recognition and reputation are absolutely critical.

These are two things the mining industry will pay a premium for.

This is why Caterpillar, for example, is so successful; it has a strong brand and an excellent reputation for products that work.

Lewis-Gray says, “We found it very hard to sell to Australia to begin with because not only did we have a new product, but we had a new company.

“So for any buyer there were two risks. One, they didn’t know who Gekko was and if we could support the product and, on the other hand, they hadn’t heard of the product. However, when you move into the expatriate market you are regarded as an international company selling a new product.

“So while I don’t feel the Australian industry supported us very strongly when we first started the business, they probably had a better understanding of our capabilities. The company is now in its 13th year and support from the Australian mining sector has increased substantially. Now they are proud of us.”

It is fair to say the Australian mining industry is more cautious about employing local innovation than it is about innovation coming in from overseas.

Unfortunately for local innovators, that same cultural cringe isn’t shared by other countries. Canadian miners, for example, would probably not be as cautious about Canadian innovation.

When AMM spoke with Calvert he was attending a mining conference in the US where, he said, “Aussies are held in high esteem”

“There is definitely no hint or question the innovation that comes out of our country is recognised as nothing short of world class,” he said, “something we can be very proud

of but we cannot rest on our laurels either.”

Calvert identified the possible existence of a cultural cringe as being akin to a ‘we normally have to go overseas to find that sort of technology’ mentality.

“However, I would have to say that I believe that is almost dead,” he said.

Published in the June 2009 Australia’s Mining Monthly

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