June/July 2011

A long-lived pioneer

Innovators can’t be afraid to take a bullet…or two

By Ryan Bergen

Tim Skinner has made a career out of managing information systems, implementing and optimizing technology, and managing change in the mineral resources industry. He has run information systems for Cominco, Fording Coal, Elk Valley Coal, Trans­Canada Pipeline and Michelin Tire. Currently, he is an automation, technology and systems consultant to the metals and minerals industry.

Skinner is also an active member of the Surface Mining Association for Research and Technology (SMART). The association, composed of mining companies, was conceived to help direct and share research and developments that could improve the technologies and services available to the surface mining sector. With SMART, he is committed to establishing connectivity and technology standards and opening up access to the mass of information produced by the technology used at a modern mine site. CIM Magazine recently spoke to Skinner to get his perspective on the state and future of operations in the industry.

CIM: There are a number of external forces affecting the extractive sector, including the industrial fortunes of the BRIC countries and the shallow labour pool. What do you see as the internal influences that are compelling change?

Skinner: Internally, there has been a return to operating excellence. I think prior to the recession when commodity prices were high, we slipped away from that ideal and had a “production at any cost” mentality, which led to sloppiness and inefficiency. Tires are a good example. People were buying tires at any price. We seemed to forget we have our cycles, and so we had a rude awakening. I think also, the mining industry had been overly driven by the financial imperative rather than an operational one.

CIM: Did this affect safety as well?

Skinner: No, safety did not get sacrificed; it got increasing attention. Mining continues to be an industry that is leading in safety.

CIM: The profile of the people that make up the skilled mining workforce is also changing. What are the most significant developments?

Skinner: The younger generation of professionals is much more technologically engaged, and they have an expectation that their work environment will reflect this. Also, young professionals have a much more urban orientation. They want to work in the industry, but they also want to work in the city. It still surprises me when I hear that, but it can be done now. You can take work to the people rather than people to the work.

Also, among management there is increasing understanding and greater awareness of what other industries are doing with technology and what technology can do for our industry. The changing of the guard is underway. If I talk about autonomous drill operations, people don’t look at me like I’m crazy anymore. They understand that there are opportunities that need to be explored.

CIM: What does the increasing automation of operations mean for the relationship between operators and equipment and technology suppliers?

Skinner: As the equipment becomes more automated and intelligent, the operator becomes more of a “pilot” than a direct operator. This requires greater integration of systems and the interface between the operator and the equipment. A unified presentation and capability needs to be provided to the operator for direct onboard control, as well as a complete awareness and knowledge of all the external activity going on around the equipment. There will be a need for a common standard framework that will allow various monitoring and controls technology to be provided as a single, orchestrated, simple and easy-to-use interface for the operator. The technology suppliers must provide and support the standards and interfaces required to enable the unified operator interface.

CIM: The power of the tools available to mine operators is immense. Are mines getting the most out of new technology?

Skinner: No, they aren’t, for many reasons. One reason is there are too many visual and audio presentations that just create noise and an environment that is more annoying to the equipment operator than helpful. Operators will sabotage the warning systems, tune them out, or not comprehend and respond due to overload. This is an evolving safety issue that most are not aware of. The challenge is to design an integrated operator interface that intelligently presents the important information needed by the operator. The right information is not getting to the right people at the right time, and then how do you train people for that? At most, simulation technology might include a dispatch system terminal along with the basic controls from the OEM. That is only one additional system out of many possible, such as stress or tire monitoring, collision avoidance, operator fatigue, etc.

CIM: How different do you think a mining operation commissioned 10 years from now will look? What about 20 years from now?

Skinner: Ten years from now, we will see individual selective pieces of equipment working autonomously – production blast-hole drills and haul trucks. Twenty years from now, we will probably see the first integrated automated mine where most prime operating equipment is working autonomously together. It will be interesting to see who does that because you need a lot of buy-in if you have a multi-OEM environment.

CIM: Some OEMs are more protective of their data than others. What case would you make for OEMs to provide greater access to the data generated at the mine site?

Skinner: First, it is the customer’s data; it is data about their equipment and operation. To limit access is working against your customer. Second, the end owner and user is in the best position to understand and use the data provided to determine and identify improvement opportunities for both the equipment and its application, and thus to the benefit of the OEM. Finally, openness has shown to be the environment that drives innovation and improvement. Closed environments do not survive.

CIM: On the opposite side of the coin, what challenge would you make to mine operators about maximizing their technology?

Skinner: The challenge is to take ownership of the technology, and provide the leadership and support required to apply and utilize the available technology. The mine operator is the only who can make the technology work alongside the needed processes and people changes.

CIM: Why is an organization like SMART important?

Skinner: SMART is important because it is a mine operator’s organization. One of its prime roles is to address technology and innovation in surface mining. SMART is the only organization that brings together mine operators and presents the common technology challenges and needs of the operating industry. Greater attention and accomplishments are achieved when the industry speaks with one voice.

CIM: When it comes to innovation in mining, the saying goes that pioneers get shot. How do pioneers avoid being shot? Are there other industries that might provide a model?

Skinner: You can’t avoid being shot; it is more a question of ‘is the shot fatal?’ The only way to avoid being fatally shot is to work with an organization whose management and senior leadership are fully supportive and driving the developments in an evolutionary improvement approach. You need an organizational culture that states that if you are not making mistakes, you are not pushing hard enough. Most other industries – such as manufacturing, petro chemical, financial – are far ahead of mining, so most can provide a model. I started in Trail, British Columbia with Cominco in process control in the smelter; a lot of the automation we were doing then in the 1970s and 1980s had the same issues that we are seeing now in mining. These are the same fundamentals, but the industry seems committed to the tortuous approach rather than the enlightened one.

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