Applying structured innovation to deliver wins in the mining industry

Brad Phillips Hydrix BDM
Brad Phillips, Hydrix Business Development

The Western Australia mining industry faces challenges with skill shortages. Mineral commodities account for 77% of the state’s total sales value, but as a result of being a large, sparsely populated region with many fly-in/fly-out operations, it has been forced to become a leader for innovation in remote operations centres, advanced autonomous technologies, underground innovation and test facilities.

It is because of the success of these initiatives that voices in the mining industry calling for more innovation appear to be growing louder. Whether it’s at conferences, in the media, or in discussions with industry executives, I’m finding it’s a constant theme. And this is a good thing! Given the drive for improved efficiency against a backdrop of lack of availability of workforce personnel, and diminishing ore grades, these conversations are understandable, and the recognition that innovation can help address these challenges is a positive step forward. This presents both an opportunity and a challenge that faces many industries.

So, what is innovation, how do you implement it and how do you derive greatest value? In a commercial sense, innovation is about turning ‘ideas into money’ (research on the other hand is about turning ‘money into ideas’). Truly transformative innovation requires three key elements – novelty, value and timeliness. An initiative delivered without all three of these elements is either research or is business as usual.

The ideal starting point is to truly understand what problem it is you are trying to solve. This might appear self-evident, but often you can achieve time and cost savings by applying innovation processes to determining the root cause of the problem, prior to any further innovation activity.

When it comes to the innovation process, it is possible for all organisations to learn to become innovative through training, practice, and participation in facilitated activities. In terms of useful tools, brainstorming as a concept is widely practiced, but often it’s in environments without structure and purpose, meaning it is unfocused and ineffectual. In my experience, structured approaches to innovation deliver more effective results ‘on demand’, such as ideation tools and techniques. This approach is effective in framing, exploring and harvesting knowledge to deliver new insights, while, with its deeper technical focus, the Russian derived TRIZ provides an abstract methodology that is particularly helpful for exploring cost down activities.

project management hydrix mining wfeclacpxwqkAt Hydrix, we are lucky in that we can combine these toolsets with the advantage of experience garnered from exposure to a variety of industrial market sectors. As a result, we can take insights, technologies, solutions from one industry, and apply these in new and creative ways to solve challenges in other markets.

For example, a common problem in assay work is drying slurries and muds to allow x-ray based techniques to be applied. With a need to preserve the sample mineralogy, the application of heat must be controlled to limit temperatures. We might typically do this through the addition of control systems that aim to add maximum heat while limiting sample temperature, but the result is still a drying time of hours. For in-line or at-rig analysis such delays are simply not viable.

In seeking solutions to this recent challenge, we asked the question “what is this problem like?” In doing this, we broadened our search to seek solutions in other industries. In this instance the dairy industry had the solution, routinely reducing milk to milk powder at low temperatures through ‘flash spin drying’ – a process that relies on increasing surface area to reduce heat input. Having identified a potential solution, the challenge for the engineering team was to adapt the usual 20 metre drying towers into something that would fit on a small desk. A combination of further innovation and good engineering resulted in a portable device capable of delivering samples at moisture content levels of < 5% in under 5 seconds on a continuous basis.

While this is a great example of cross industry pollination, the search for innovation in the mining industry will need to be more than looking over our neighbour’s fence for ideas and solutions. Innovation thrives in a structured environment, and applying methodologies to generate ideas, and filter out the best concepts to test and mature. If we can do this then I think conversations at the forthcoming GMG Forum in Perth, and beyond, will move from simply a call for innovation to a deeper discussion on how we can successfully and repeatedly innovate and, as a result, unlock value from our ideas.

Join us, Austmine and METS Ignited on August 14-15 at the GMG Perth Forum to discuss the future of mining and technologies driving productivity in the mining industry.

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