After pushing for more innovation in mining for years, the president and CEO of Dundee Precious Metals has found himself in a position to effect real change at his company’s Chelopech copper and gold mine in Bulgaria. What began as a fairly standard modernization project eventually led to the implementation of advanced wireless underground communications technology, allowing real-time monitoring and control of the underground operations. Three years of work integrating the various systems paid off: the mine’s production has doubled with no net increase in equipment fleet size.
So what made this use of innovation successful where so many past efforts have failed? Partly, the technology has improved. “Ingredients change because of the advances that are happening,” Howes said. He explained that the latest technological advances happened to line up, time-wise, with the company’s goals in Bulgaria. Cooperation among the vendors for the system’s constituent parts and a Bulgarian workforce open to improvements also smoothed the road.
For Howes, it is maddening to watch the mining industry lag behind others. “I used to get frustrated with the idea that the use of our resources was inefficient,” he said. “You could see it: people and machines standing around a lot. There was not consistent production. If you looked to the manufacturing sector, you wouldn’t see machines sitting idle very much. That’s what’s underpinning it, a frustration and observation that it seemed to me that we could do better.”
He admitted that there is more attention being paid to innovation. “I hear a lot more talk now than I did a few years ago,” Howes said. “There’s a lot more interest. But the easy part is saying ‘We’re interested.’ The hard part is figuring out the vision, strategy and plan for where you’re going and executing it.” He added that there is nothing stopping other operators from using recent innovations to improve efficiency immediately, like those Dundee has implemented in Bulgaria. “Things are moving ahead faster than we’re absorbing them now,” he explained. “There’s no shortage of advances in technology that could be applied to the industry.”
Howes said he hopes to continue encouraging the innovative spirit in young engineers: “I’d like the Canadian mining industry to excel and lead again. I think Canada is falling away from that lead role because we are not being innovative enough and we’re not pushing the envelope hard enough to do that.”