February 2012

The benefits of change

Klein shares his thoughts on the industry’s resistance to new technology

By Alexandra Lopez-Pacheco

Bern Klein has been department head at the Norman B. Keevil Institute of Mining Engineering at the University of British Columbia since 2008, and an associate professor since 2003. A professional engineer, he worked for eight years in the mining industry, specializing in process design, before joining the university in 1997. Klein has committed much of the past 15 years to exploring practical solutions to the mining industry’s challenges, particularly in regard to advancing technologies. This is the focus of his presentation in this season’s CIM Distinguished Lecturers Series, which examines energy-efficient technologies for mining.

CIM: Why have you chosen to speak on issues related to energy efficiency in mining?
Klein: The Canada Mining Innovation Council has identified energy as one of its target areas for researching potential improvements to the Canadian mining industry. One of our motivations at the university is to learn about and advance new technologies. Typically, there is a 20-year cycle for a new technology to become accepted. So the question is, “How do we shorten that timeline?” My challenge is to understand the barriers to doing that: to prove the technology works, and to prove it is robust and will work in an industrial environment. But we need to look at other barriers as well.

CIM: What are some of those barriers?
Klein: I believe that the barriers are partly cultural. I am looking at technologies that exist but are not being applied readily in the Canadian industry. The Canadian mining industry is very conservative. I have heard of Canadian companies that develop new technologies for mining choosing to advance their technologies outside of Canada, and then return with them after they’ve been established elsewhere. The technologies I have researched are currently being used around the world, but are very slowly being applied by companies within Canada. They are being applied far more enthusiastically in places like Australia, which is significant, because even when well-known international mining companies are using the technologies, the uptake in the Canadian mining industry is slow.

CIM: What is behind this resistance to change?
Klein:
The statement, “Nobody wants to be first; they want to be second,” is overused, but often true. A major challenge to overcoming this attitude is a lack of information: people making decisions about a new technology need to have all the relevant information so that they can make informed choices. At times, even experienced engineers have difficulty accessing this information, or they receive fragmented information that causes them to dismiss the technology outright. I respect and appreciate the risk of utilizing new technology. There will always be a fear of the unknown when you introduce new technology to an operation. There’s a risk to the operation and to the professionals involved. If I were an engineer who had to choose between old technologies that people know and a new one they are not familiar with, I would hesitate. My reputation could be affected if I recommended a new technology and a problem arose. You cannot be judged as wrong by using a known technology, even if it is less energy efficient. There is also another consideration: it may be difficult to get financing on a project that relies on a new technology.

CIM: How can these obstacles be overcome?
Klein: It is clear that an existing operation cannot just change its equipment, because such changes are $100 million decisions. However, new operations need to give new technology fair consideration. Engineers who are advising on the construction and who are involved in the decision-making process for equipment selection need to be open minded about these technologies. I believe we need to change our culture from one that is slow to accept new ideas. As people who are trying to advance new technologies, we need to be more intelligent about how we do this. The Canada Mining Innovation Council is an important part of the way this process will move forward. They want to coordinate research activity across the country related to the mining industry, which we have not done very well in the past. If successful, the Council will be key in making Canadian research more effective and, hopefully, the technology transfer to industry more efficient.
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