The 2018 Top 100: How technology is transforming the mining business

With help from new technologies, two mining companies in the Top 100 are changing the way their industry does business

Having spent a large part of my childhood strapping into fake car seats in the games arcade section of the Queen of Tsawwassen ferry, I experience a flashback of sorts when asked to man the controls of a replica shovel. But it quickly becomes apparent that Teck Resources’ simulator is a bit different than choosing which Ferrari will help me best my brothers in Need for Speed.

On the floor of the BCTech Summit this past May, none of the pedals or levers work, but what’s happening in front of me is very real. A heads-up display is being updated with real-time stats, relaying information about how much ore a shovel operator at Teck’s Highland Valley Copper mine near Logan Lake is bringing in with every scoop. The screen also tells the operator whether to move to a different location and how much to pick up next time to fill the load.

It’s one of several innovations that Vancouver-based Teck (No. 2 in this year’s Top 100) is rolling out. A few steps from the faux shovel lies an augmented reality simulator developed with local virtual and augmented reality studio LlamaZoo. It allows users to see exactly what a mining development would look like and what infrastructure a company would need at various stages for a prospective site.

As Teck embraces the advancements that new technology can bring to a long-standing industry, the same reasoning that’s always won the day is well represented. “You always want to be focused on business value; that’s where our approach starts,” says Greg Brouwer, general manager of technology and innovation. “That approach often means scanning and looking out there externally at what different groups are doing, and seeing where there’s an opportunity for us to embrace and incorporate some of those technologies.”

In 2017, gross revenue from B.C. mining operations surveyed by PwC Canada reached $11.7 billion, a surge of almost 35 percent over the previous year. PwC’s 50th annual survey of the industry included 15 operating mines and seven at the exploration, permitting or environmental assessment stage.

“When you think of mining, you think of mechanization, but there is a lot of technology involved,” says Mark Platt, Vancouver-based partner and B.C. region mining leader with PwC Canada. “If you can improve by 0.01 percent what you get out of a pit, it can be huge for a company.”

Another Vancouver-headquartered mining titan, Goldcorp (No. 10), has invested heavily in innovation, looking within and elsewhere for answers. In-house, the gold producer holds an annual Dragons’ Den–like competition to help develop new ideas. Goldcorp, which has already brought autonomous drilling to its operations, has plans for fully automated equipment that would be able to drill, blast and shovel on its own.

These changes don’t only help save money, they allow the companies in question to present plans to governments and Indigenous communities more effectively. “There’s more pressure from governments, First Nations and regulatory entities to use technology because it can lower the environmental footprint,” explains Luis Canepari, Goldcorp’s vice-president of technology. “Right now we’re working in Northern Ontario to build one of the first fully electrical mines in Canada,” he says of an underground and open-pit gold operation at Borden Lake. “There’ll be very little to no diesel consumption. So these are the things that make it more appealing for the community to accept new mining projects.”

Of course, it’s impossible to bring broad transformation to a business that’s been around for as long as mining has without some pushback.

“That’s part of the conversation, just around how jobs will change, because they always have and they always will,” says Bryan Cox, president of the Mining Association of BC. “It’s about engaging our current workforce to let them know that the jobs are still available and still will be there. They’re just going to change a bit, and we need to support our employees like we always have.”

Canepari concedes that the reluctance to accept innovation is something he’s seen in the workforce. “There’s always a fear that if you use technology, you’re going to lose your job,” he says. “But I think that in the long term, these are tools to make your job better and safer, and yes, there will be some jobs that will change by the use of technology, but I think the main driver for all of this is making your company more efficient.”

It’s less about reducing staff than giving people the tools to do their jobs better, the Goldcorp exec insists. “How much of your day is spent doing data gathering or number crunching?” he asks. “How can we change those activities to having a machine doing it so you can spend more time analyzing data and making decisions from it?”

For the MABC’s Cox, it’s about igniting a passion in young people and encouraging them to join an industry that defies its traditional roots. “There’s the Tecks and Goldcorps that are out there and are very public and focused on this, and the rest of the industry is watching,” he says. “The real opportunity is engaging with learning institutions and others to get younger people thinking, hey, a career in mining can mean several different things.”

Like hopping into a chair and feeling 12 years old again. ?