Sustainable innovation in underground hardrock mining technology

CIM Bulletin, Vol. 98, No. 1085, 2005

A. Bamber and M. Scoble

Canadian leadership in a global mining context will depend not only on our entrepreneurship and best practice, but also in sustaining technological innovation. This paper reviews the nature of technological innovation and examines its link to productivity and competitiveness. It then examines how the ability to innovate is strongly influenced by corporate culture and user resistance. This is based on a review of the past research that has been useful in defining the nature and role of corporate culture. An argument is made for more ambition and commitment to R&D for technological innovation in Canadian mining. It focuses on underground hardrock mining, where technological advances have been disappointing despite some significant R&D initiatives in the last 30 years. The paper reviews and analyzes a significant question: why have these R&D initiatives not stood the test of time? Concerns arise because industry’s commitment to R&D has not been consistent over time. Innovation through exploration, processing, and environmental technologies, on the other hand, has been much more significant. The paper examines some corporate models that have achieved sustainable innovation, along with some that have not. Particular reference is given to the Scandinavian prowess in sustaining technological innovation that has resulted in significant business development. Important factors that appear to explain the likelihood of success in technology development and transfer are corporate culture and user acceptance. Specific attention is given to two areas for technological development that have been a Canadian priority in recent years: continuous mining systems and deep mining. Past and current R&D initiatives are examined from the point of view of the factors that appear to have controlled sustained commitment over time. R&D capacity and synergies in Canadian government institutions and universities have tended to not be exploited effectively by industry. Following the recent recession, a lean industry now emerges with stretched human resources and even less spare capacity to devote to driving R&D and innovation. Unfortunately, over the recession period we have also lost many smaller mining technology companies. This further constrains any future collaboration in technology development. We also need to anticipate a skills and training crisis over the next decade that will seriously inhibit our ability to innovate. Technological innovation needs to be related also to a strategy for skills and learning. The trend to more company amalgamations, however, may strengthen the ability to sustain commitments to R&D. The need for breakthrough innovation for high- productivity underground hardrock mining is acute. This applies to quite distinct scenarios: narrow-vein, bulk, and massive mining. Advantage must be taken, while commodity prices are high, to commit planning and resources towards creating a sustainable research effort in appropriate technology areas. Canada appears to have lost a lead in underground hardrock production automation. This is most apparent in the offshore block caving operations in particular that are now close to successful field development and implementation. It is important to invest on the up-cycle and plan a research effort that will be consistent and survive later cycles. A strategy for innovation needs to account for culture, commitment, coordination, and collaboration that brings together industry, governments, manufacturers, and universities. CIM may have a significant role to play in this process. It is hoped that the new CIM Society for Innovative Mining Technology will help foster a strategy to reinvigorate R&D for innovation in the Canadian mining industry. It should offer a mechanism to bring together mine operators, consultants, researchers, and manufacturers towards a sustainable, collaborative R&D model. This could be a means to help to revitalize the Canadian manufacturing and high-technology companies serving the mining industry.