For the love of the mine
Rick Howes has seen it all. With 35 years of industry experience, the CEO of Dundee Precious Metals (DPM) has held a variety of jobs in mining, and even though he has reached the top of his profession he wants to go further and, as he likes to say, “take the top off the mine”. He sat down with Solid Ground to discuss the “intelligent mining” revolution that is currently under way.
What operational changes have you seen over your 35 years in the mining industry?
This may surprise you, but in general the industry hasn’t drastically changed the way it does things since 1980 when I got my first mining job. In terms of equipment operation and levels of automation, sure, there have been some minor changes – equipment has gotten bigger for the most part, particularly in open-pit mining, and automation has become more commonplace – but overall the changes have been minimal.
DPM’s Chelopech copper-gold mine in Bulgaria is a model of efficiency, having quadrupled production since its acquisition in 2003. How was this achieved?
Chelopech was a neglected, Soviet-era mine when we acquired it. It had neither the necessary business structure nor any motivation from those on the ground to succeed. What it did offer was opportunity: an opportunity to invest capital; an opportunity to change the culture of the operation; an opportunity to change the mining methods used there to get the best grades out of the ore at the site. A lot of the changes we brought to Chelopech were technological and based in innovation, and to date it’s gone through what I would call a major transformation. It allowed us to bring the best of our capabilities and cultural approach to managing the operations there, and we’re very proud of what we were able to accomplish.
At a recent speech to mining students, you spoke of the great opportunity mines now have to rethink their effectiveness and introduce new ways to view mining operations. Can you describe this “intelligent mining” revolution?
I started out as a mining engineer, and in my 35 years on the job I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about ways to improve efficiency and optimize performance. By the time I got to DPM, a lot of my ideas were ready to be implemented. One of those concepts is the digital mine, which is a mine that’s connected via wireless communications, enabling wireless tracking and data accumulation and usage in real time. Obviously, the digital mine is only possible through a lot of enabling technologies.
At DPM, we’ve developed these concepts along with our strategic partners, such as Sandvik Mining, to build such a mine over the course of several years, implementing our vision of using digital and real-time information. And while we’re still scratching the surface of the potential, we believe we have set a new standard in the industry for how to build a modern mine capable of optimizing its own performance.
What are some of the benefits of using real-time data at the mine?
For us, the initial benefits we realized were the abilities to track, schedule and execute our plan. Now we can measure our expectations versus what’s really happening in the mine. Real-time data enables you to see whether you are progressing on schedule, observe any disruptions to the processes in real time and intervene if things go wrong. I must say, that’s where the industry really suffers today: it’s mostly a paper communication system where at the start of the shift operators get told what they’ll be working on, but the reality is that they fall behind schedule and management isn’t aware until much later when it’s too late to intervene. Our concept is to intervene on any disruption when it occurs and course-correct as quickly as possible.
Dundee Precious Metals
Dundee Precious Metals is a Canadian-based, international mining company engaged in the acquisition, exploration, development and mining and processing of precious metal properties. DPM’s business objectives are to identify, acquire, finance, develop and operate low-cost, long-life mining properties.
Those are the initial benefits, but the next phase involves real optimization, linking predictive data analytics and big data collection to the planning, scheduling and execution in an integrated way to make it even more dynamic. That’s where we’re headed, and with that type of operation we can use experts from around the world to solve problems in the field in real time using data and algorithms that are available, transforming us from being just miners to a knowledge company.
What are some of the inherent difficulties in applying modern strategies when faced with traditional mining attitudes, culture and habits?
There can be a real lack of trust, particularly in a unionized environment, with the introduction of technology at a mine. It’s often seen as a way to make people either work harder or become obsolete – hence the resistance. So we always have to start by building trust between the workforce and management. And if I’m going to be completely honest, I’d say the resistance comes more from middle management than from the workforce. These are people that are used to being “firefighters”; they require something to happen so that they can respond.
The modern strategies that we employ are the very opposite of that – they are proactive and predictive. Planning and execution are everything. That’s why our change-management approach works – because it involves everyone at every level. It’s very inclusive and collaborative.
How has Sandvik Mining helped DPM achieve its goals of optimizing results?
Our dealings with Sandvik Mining have been so much more than your traditional supplier-customer relationship. There was a true spirit of collaboration and partnership established to achieve our goals and a very powerful example of what’s possible between suppliers and mining customers when everyone is on the same page. All processes are fraught with challenges, and this one was no different, but having people step up and really work through these issues showed the true spirit of cooperation and collaboration.