Digital technologies are having far-reaching impacts on the mining & resources sectors – as with all industries. Brent Balinski spoke to three very different companies, each aiding in the digital transformation of mining.

The resources sector plays a big role in Australia’s economy. Iron ore, coal and natural gas were ranked first, second and fourth respectively among the country’s exports by value for 2017-18. The sector that is key to extracting these and other resources – mining equipment, technology and services (METS) – is another source of national strength. Dating back to 1859 here, it has not stood still and its technical leadership is globally renowned.

An Austrade paper from 2016 notes that while Australia may not design and manufacture big capital items such as draglines and earthmovers, its METS companies “lead the world” via “time and effort in the area of innovation”. The sector is valued at $90bn, based on research in 2013 by industry body Austmine. Exports totalled $15bn, R&D spend amounted to $4bn, and the workforce numbered 386,000.

“The Australian METS sector continues to develop its reputation on a global scale and is of vital importance to the domestic economy,” says Austmine CEO Christine Gibbs Stewart. “We believe the figures in 2013 are still roughly accurate. We plan to conduct another survey this year.”

Gibbs Stewart believes digitalisation is unavoidable for the sector: “Whether it be through product development, supply chain management, accounting, customer interface or communications, digital has completely transformed our sector. This has been embodied in a number of solutions from ‘traditional’ mining suppliers. They have used sensors and data to provide greater services to their clients and to differentiate from competitors. For example, we have a member that is a wear-liner maintenance company that now offers a software application to monitor the health of wear-plates.”

Developing and delivering globally relevant technology is not easy, but it’s something Australian companies have successfully done. Groundprobe, Roobuck and Southern Innovation are just three pioneering companies whose focus is on bringing digital insights to miners.

Groundprobe – Acting like a start-up to keep a cutting edge

“I think that Australia is the capital of mining technology innovation,” says Lachlan Campbell, Vice-President, Marketing & Innovation at Groundprobe. “It’s the sort of thing that Australians should be immensely proud of. I think that the general public may not be aware of this, [but] we are global leaders in mining technology.”

Named Australia’s most innovative company by the Australian Financial Review last year, Groundprobe has its origins in the Cooperative Research Centre for Sensor Signal and Information Processing (which operated from 1992 through to 2006), and promising work detecting rock movements through radar. Since forming in 2001 and achieving its first sales in 2003, it has remained a fast-growing technology provider, improving on wire extensometers, and saving property and lives.

Neil Cordon joined Groundprobe five years ago as Manager of Technical Support & Development, as the company looked to sharpen quality and tech support. It has been an eventful period, including an acquisition by blasting services leader Orica in 2017.

“We went from a single-product company to eight products in the last five years,” says Cordon, now Senior Manager – Supply & Reliability.

Beginning with its original slope-stability radar invention, the company now has three different radar technologies and two different lidar-based technologies, with associated software. Headquartered in Brisbane, the company’s products are in 32 countries, yet it has kept manufacturing here. Cordon estimates 80% of its componentry is Australian.

“The 20% would be small, strange, specific stuff that we can only get from single sources because it’s a technology solution,” he says. “We stretch as far as Finland, the UK, Germany, some stuff from the United States.”

Metal work such as cutting, welding, powder coating and galvanising is carried out by Kilner’s Engineering of Morningside, which has grown through Groundprobe’s progress.

“We’ve given them a large portion of our work from our supply chain, and they’ve used that as a lever to get government grants for new laser cutters and new technologies,” adds Cordon.

Despite its acquisition by Orica, Groundprobe has stayed in touch with its start-up roots. At the AFR’s Most Innovative Companies awards last year, it won Best Overall Innovation for its Geotech Monitoring Lidar (GML), as well as ranking #1 in the paper’s Top 100 List of Most Innovative Companies.

“When we have a big project, we actually pull out a dedicated team and we put them in a small shed with camping chairs and bad coffee and keep them really hungry for that success with a limited budget,” says Campbell. “That way they really focus on making money as soon as they can, rather than staying in a big, corporate, tinkering environment.”

Current projects involve safety solutions for tailings dams, as well as a platform for aggregating and making sense of different types of monitoring data.

According to Cordon, development work sees the reliability and manufacturing team get involved in product design early, “to make sure that it’s designed for manufacture, and that we’ve got the most lean and economical use of materials and labour to assemble the product”.

Groundprobe aims is to triple or quadruple in size over the next four years through demand for its lidar products in civil tunnelling and underground mining, as well as through new customers via Orica. Cordon says this is likely to yield greater efficiency, rather than a lot of new assembly roles.

“My team’s only 13 people, it’s a very small team,” he explains. “Most of the guys are doing technical work: configuration and calibration, that kind of testing stuff. So [we’d] go from 13 to 18 instead of 13 to 50.”

Groundprobe also aims to maintain and grow its local supply base, and Australian producers will remain important.

“It was a conscious decision to lean on an Australian-dominated supply chain because we believe in advanced manufacturing in this country,” says Campbell. “Our future is based on the bright ideas that are coming out of university research and innovative companies that can maintain advanced manufacturing in Australia.”

Roobuck – Small, stringent, and ready to collaborate

For dangerous work environments down mines and elsewhere, certification and quality systems are vital. Based in Brookvale, NSW, Roobuck’s focus is on these, through its supply of lighting, personal protective equipment (PPE), and – more recently – electronic tracking technology.

“It’s a complex area, there is not much competition, and the products are very, very stringently manufactured,” explains David Forshaw, Head of Business Engagement at Roobuck, which manufactures both in Australia and China. “These are designed and manufactured to stringent standards; and our IECEx certification is performed by the independent Test Safe Laboratory here in Sydney. Test Safe engineers travel to our China factory each year to audit factory quality assurance (QA) systems and production processes to ensure that all product builds meet Australian IECEx standards.”

Roobuck’s products are in an estimated 70% of Australian mines, including BHP Olympic Dam, and about 40% of its business is exports, to 20 countries including the USA, Chile, Brazil and the Middle East. The company supplies products for underground coal mines, hard rock mines, tunnels, above-ground operations and the petrochemical industries. Roobuck’s flagship product range (including wireless innovation) is its cordless miners’ cap-lamps for underground mines. The company is a small team of 12, covering design, manufacturing, certification, R&D, imports, exports and system integration.

“We operate to a Lean business mode,” explains Forshaw. “We outsource and engage expertise project by project. We’re also looking for new requirements feedback from mines so we can custom-build their solutions.”

Collaboration with outside help, including engagement with grant projects and universities, is important in driving product development. A recent successful application with the METS Ignited Project Fund is supporting development of collision detection technology on Roobuck’s OVERwatch platform, which tracks the location of people and assets underground.

Forshaw, who is also the OVERwatch Projects Manager, says: “The OVERwatch platform is now a key focus for the company to drive further innovation into the mining sector, which is gearing up for the digital mine, by offering connected devices, sensors over wireless connectivity providing rich data to broaden our market offering.”

Roobuck aims to keep expanding the range of applications for the platform over time, which will again require partnerships.

“We aim to keep expanding our range of applications for the OVERwatch platform,” Forshaw adds. “To this end we are always keen to partner with other suppliers and integrators where a mutual benefit is evident, and we are always looking for new underground mines which may wish to partner with us to deliver business solutions matched to their operation needs and future plans.”

Southern Innovation – Catching rays

In June a small Melbourne company specialising in sophisticated digital signal processing products announced it had formalised and expanded its partnership with BHP. Through the agreement, Southern Innovation would provide “technical expertise to uncover solutions to specific challenges” faced by the mining giant. The technology provider would also double its workforce over the next two years.

Southern Innovation seems to have arrived, but the path there looks nothing like a straight line. As Managing Director David Scoullar puts it: “It involves mistakes and bruises and rabbit burrows that you run down and then have to turn around and run back out of.”

Scoullar and brother Paul grew up overseas, with their father employed by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation. Living in locations including Nigeria and Pakistan, they saw the effects of landmines – rendering areas off-limits for farmers and others – and had friends employed in mine clearance.

Back home, at the University of Melbourne, David studied commerce, while Paul studied electrical and electronic engineering. The young engineer’s research focused on detection of anti-personnel landmines, developing an algorithm to vastly improve gamma ray-based methods during his PhD. This decodes “pulse pile-up”, where radiation signals overwhelm the ability to process them and accuracy suffers.

Paul started Southern Innovation in 2004 to commercialise this technique, which he brands SITORO Accelerated Analysis. Early work was in improving gamma logging of oil wells. An oil-field services business saw SITORO’s merit but wanted all the IP rights, so no deal was made. It wasn’t until 2011 that SITORO was licensed to US technology firm XIA for pulse processors, enabling much faster and better x-ray processing for scientific applications. It was finally an application that stacked up.

“The cost to buy a single channel of SITORO-enabled FalconX processing from XIA is about US$25,000,” says David. “A single channel of processing from other providers that use traditional techniques [is] as low as US$1,000 a channel. We need to find really high-value use cases where an increase in speed, an increase in accuracy and potentially a reduction in radiation dose are valued over and above the cost of integrating.”

The Australian Synchrotron was able to see the value. David says an x-ray fluorescence beamline had 400% demand for its available time, and a signal-processing capability offering 10 times the speed of analysis was compelling. Other facilities have followed; Southern Innovation is now top provider of signal-processing equipment to synchrotrons in the world.

“That’s a market that’s important to us and growing,” says David. “This financial year we expect gross revenue there to be probably just under a US$1m. [But] it’s not going to pay for the wages of 20 people working full-time on our product development pathways.”

The next market it targeted was air cargo screening, forming a joint venture with Little Group and eventually being bought out. Southern Innovation returned to mining, starting its relationship with BHP in late 2015. The first project was developing tools for real-time characterising of iron ore, coking coal and potash on conveyors.

“At the same time, one of their technical experts said ‘Listen, if you can do that on a conveyor belt, do you think you’d be able to analyse the cuttings coming out of a reverse circulation exploration drill rig in the field?’” recalls Scoullar.

DrillScan went through a stage-gated process. First was discriminating between iron ore and waste samples at the Synchrotron. Then there was being able to do this for slurry passing through a pipe, and then building a device mounted on a rig. Then came improving the resolution from just ‘ore versus waste’ to grading. Field tests began last August. These have revealed lessons about modularity, so a faulty part can be swapped out in the field while the unit is still mounted on the rig.

Southern Innovation has now moved from prototyping to manufacture. It recently completed two DrillScan units, expected to be sold to BHP for use in a field trial before the end of the calendar year. David predicts the company could sell between five and ten units in the next 12 months.

“Our preference is probably to work with product partners in the industry that have that manufacturing capability, but more importantly who have channels to market it and existing distribution capabilities, sales, and business development capability,” he adds.

David believes the most important thing for any METS innovator trying to commercialise interesting but complex technology is perseverance. It’s your job and not your customer’s job to figure out how to solve problems associated with getting to market.

“A thing that you can do to ensure that you don’t succeed with each of those mining houses is to get angry and begin to second-guess their decision-making processes,” he says. “Maybe take a step back and try somewhere else, and then when you’ve got a more well-developed offering, come back to those mining houses and say ‘Is now the right time?’ And then sometimes the answer will be ‘Yes,’ as it was with BHP in 2015.”