Sudbury’s Mine Specialists (Part 2 of 4)

OEM Off-Highway magazine Editor Chad Elmore has given Republic of permission to post an October 2007 article on Sudbury’s Mining Supply and Service sector.

OEM Off-Highway magazine provides an editorial mix of new technology, component information, engineering processes and industry news to help product development teams design and produce better off-highway vehicles and component systems. OEM Off-Highway

Deep Impact

How Sudbury developed into a mining technology center can be linked to a number of factors. Common elements in every explanation are a direct hit from a meteorite (about 1.8 billion years ago) that created one of the highest concentrations of nickel-copper sulfides in the world, and the two oldest and largest mining com¬panies in the area.

They were for¬merly known as Inco (Creighton Mine started producing ore in 1901; today production areas are more than 8,000 ft. deep) and Falconbridge (80 years of history in Sudbury). Last year Inco was acquired by Brazilian mining giant Companhia Vale do Rio Doce (CVRD) and became CVRD Inco, while Falconbridge attracted Switzerland’s Xstrata plc. The Sudbury division is now Xstrata Nickel.

Clusters of companies that work together to solve industry problems do not develop overnight. Mining activity throughout the basin increased after the 1940s. Mines required custom-built equip¬ment to meet unique applications and standards. Synergy between individual mines owned by the same company was rare. Between different companies it was worse. Still, improving production efficiencies — especially when nickel prices bottomed out — was always important. Local suppliers were busy sup¬porting activity in and around Sudbury and expanded along with their customers. Mine firms were in a position to support research in mineral extraction techniques and technology, and when something worked they became a customer.

A unique entrepreneurial spirit — grounded in practical solutions while shooting for the moon — developed which still exists today.
“In Sudbury you can dream up the weirdest machine and find the people in the neighborhood with the right skill sets to make it work,” says Ballard. “We all know each other. There’s a level of trust that works well. But up until a couple of years ago we really didn’t tell the world about what was going on here. OEMs com¬peted with each other for the local market, and that was good enough.”

New business outside of Sudbury was not being tapped. Small to medium-sized companies often didn’t have the resources to market their equipment outside the area, and when times were good (like they are today) there was really no incentive to do so, anyway. One of Sudbury’s large companies has 800 pieces of equipment underground, and replaces 100 units annually.

When Ballard opened the area’s Fluid Power House office five years ago, one of the first calls he made was to Dick DeStefano, today executive director of the Sudbury Area Mining Supply & Service Assoc. (SAMSSA), an organization he helped create in 2003 to market Sudbury’s expertise to the world.

SAMSSA’s mission can be summed up as follows: “When mines in Nevada or South Africa look for a new prod¬uct, we want them to come to Sudbury first,” says DeStefano. When it comes to mining, Greater Sudbury offers one-stop shopping.

DeStefano worked as a strategic planning consultant for private cor¬porations and cities in Canada helping them grow and diversify. He returned to Sudbury ready to retire at a time the city was looking for a way to lessen its economic dependency on the cyclical mineral extraction industry. DeStefano was among a group of people who began to appreciate the potential of Sudbury’s already active technology cluster.

Rather than ignoring its strengths, they would embrace Sudbury’s mining expertise. Diversification would come by sharing its MS&S knowledge with the worldwide market, be it partnering with OEMs or researching techniques for deep ocean mining.

Hundreds of millions of dollars are being invested in seeking new ore bodies that will easily sustain the area for another century. But due to ongoing productivity improvements in mining, thanks to the very technology the area’s engineers create, Sudbury’s strongest growth potential may not be in mines, but in MS&S. Two years ago, a SAMSSA study showed there were 17,000 people employed in MS&S compa¬nies in Greater Sudbury and neighboring cities. There are less than 10,000 working directly with mineral extraction (from a peak of 26,000 in 1971).
“In a cluster there needs to a unifying source saying we should be responsible for each other,” says DeStefano.

“Sudbury’s companies worked in iso¬lation.” A non-profit, SAMSSA has been working to be that uni¬fying force. It acts as a clearing house for news and offers its member companies marketing assistance and worldwide contacts.

Looks Great Now

With mineral prices soaring, mining is king in Greater Sudbury. Its nickel, copper and other minerals are exported worldwide.
It’s not always been this way, however. In the early 1970s the city was an environ¬mental disaster. Extensive logging, forest fires and pioneering nickel smelting techniques decimated most of the vegetation around the city.

It’s green today, and in the process of repairing years of damage, the city won a number of environmental awards. The MS&S base could add reclamation experience to its resume. Today CVRD Inco’s Superstack, once the tallest free-standing chim¬ney in the world and still the city’s dominant landmark, emits steam from the giant Copper Cliff smelter.

In the 1970s the Sudbury mining camp was transforming into a city. Community colleges and universities opened, each offering some form of mining degree as well as the curriculum found in any other large city. Mines could look to Sudbury for graduates who knew the language. But low commodity prices in the 1990s reduced mining and exploration in northern Ontario.

In 1993 Darryl Lake was the dean of health science, trades and technology for Cambrian College, a community college that began teaching in Sudbury in 1967. Lake recognized that Sudbury’s brightest students typically left for the bright lights of distant cities. With mines downsizing, encouraging the small- to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) to take root in Sudbury seemed to be the best way to reverse the trend and stimulate the local economy.

Inspired by technology innovation centers in Finland, the Northern Centre for Advanced Technology, Inc. (NORCAT) opened for business in Cambrian’s basement in 1995. NORCAT got its own 32,000 sq. ft. building on the campus in 1998.

Thanks to healthy raw material prices (as of Oct. 5, nickel is at $13.62 per pound), mining is hot. At OEMs throughout Sudbury every square foot of the factory holds parts and machines being welded and bolted together for customers waiting (up to a year in some cases) to put them to work.

“Suppliers are so busy putting product out the door they don’t have time to figure out how to make their machine better or to develop a new idea,” says Dale Boucher, manager-prototype development, NORCAT. Expertise from the center’s staff is accessible on a fee basis to help with developing new concepts. It can perform feasibility studies and assist with fabrication and testing. “When it gets to the production stage my department gets out of the way.”

NORCAT can give an entrepreneur additional help, like writing a business plan or marketing. Mechatronics is the group’s strength.
NORCAT rents laboratories and shop space for small companies to get started. When NORCAT celebrated its 10th anniversary in 2005, it had been involved with 150 new products. Half of the 41 companies it had helped start were still in business. In recent years NORCAT’s roll has expanded from simply helping SMEs get started to where it also plays matchmaker, seeking large companies that would benefit from the skills possessed by local SMEs.

NORCAT’s headquarters are at capacity, too, but relief is on the way. In September NORCAT CEO Darryl Lake announced that CVRD Inco had reinforced its support of the organization with a $2 million donation for NORCAT’s new 40,000 sq. ft. Innovation and Commercialization Park. Construction of the building on the college’s property is expected to be done by the summer of 2008.

NORCAT’s work reflects the community. Three-quarters of its activity supports the mining industry. The new center will allow NORCAT to expand into other areas. “Although mining will undoubtedly always be a big part of NORCAT’s work,” says Lake, “we want to look at technology in general. We’ll look for ways to take something used in forestry, for example, and adapt it to mining.”

Part Three Tomorrow