What drives innovation?

Since the federal government has been bombarding us with political messages about innovation, I started to reflecting on what really drives innovation. I can’t speak for other industries but I would like to tell you my story. Everyone knows that the mining industry is tough right now. Back in 2012, MEC (my consulting company) collectively decided that we needed to be innovative to remain competitive as the mining boom slowed down. So we held some “blue sky” sessions to come up with ideas and started working towards commercialisation. We put on more staff than we needed to make it run day to day, admin people to free up some time and managers to look after the day to day so that we could collectively invest time into developing innovations. We held innovation sessions where we asked the staff to share their ideas. We asked people to work on their ideas and present them as a pitch for funding (Shark Tank style). We worked on cultures and values putting extra weight on thought leadership.

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From the Director’s chair

I’m writing to you today from my my new desk in our open plan office. It’s quite a cosy layout, with everyone effectively sitting on one great big long centre desk. Prior to our move I had an enclosed office, which at the time I thought was great because nobody hear confidential phone calls or see my screen when. Well now I’m fully converted to open plan. It can get a little noisy as we don’t have any policies about silence and making phone calls in quiet rooms, and in fact, a little banter is encouraged. The brilliant part is that now everyone knows what is going on with everyone else’s work. Collaboration has really lifted and the time we spend in meetings has declined because you can just yell out. Everything seems to happen faster in this environment.

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Why grads don’t operate equipment anymore

I started my career 18 years ago on a salary of $50,000 which was good money at the time. Mining was in a downturn and there weren’t too many jobs around. I sent 85 job applications and got one interview which thankfully went well and I got the job. Throughout the early part of my career a truck operator would get paid around $85,000 and most grads aspired to operating equipment for 6 months, motivated in large part by the extra money. Senior engineers in the 90’s were also actually mostly senior, many had aged enough to go a little grey or bald so it was understood that career aspirations would most likely take a while to play out.

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The cost of high mining intensity

During the mining boom years, the focus was on producing as much as possible from the resource to take advantage of higher prices. OEMs did very well selling the addition machinery required to achieve the extra production. So now that commodity prices are low and capacity is already installed, the main game of late has been to drive economies of scale by pushing production even higher. This approach carries a penalty that might not immediately be obvious.

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Focus on the trucks to decrease costs

In a truck shovel operation, all we ever talk about is the excavator. We schedule the excavator, measure it’s productivity, compare various models and make judgements about which ones perform best. But In fact, the excavator doesn’t put any material in the dump or stockpile, its the trucks that do all the work and incur most of the cost of moving the material. So we should really be looking at which is the best truck to use. Assuming that the truck and excavator size are appropriately matched (between 3 and 5 bucket passes to fill a truck), the performance of the excavator only comes into the equation during loading which is perhaps 2 minutes out of a total truck cycle time of 20 minutes. So if the excavator hits some hard dig and takes 3 minutes to load a truck, the excavator productivity will fall by 50% but the truck productivity will only fall by 5% which hardly affects the unit cost of the operation.

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Reduce Coal Loss to Improve Profitability

What is the biggest factor that you could control at an open cut coal mine to generate return?  For me it would be loss and dilution. Small improvements deliver big increases in cash generation, usually at minimal or no additional cost.  Commonly, most of the coal losses occur at top of coal as blast energy breaks up the coal and makes it difficult to separate cleanly from the waste. Big gains can be made by improving blasting practices to avoid fracturing the coal.

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