The Beauty of Mining Machines – Dr. David Robinson

The Sudbury Mining Solutions Journal gave Republic of permission to post Dr. David Robinson’s column. This Sudbury-based magazine showcases the mining expertise of North Bay, Timmins and Sudbury.

Dr. David Robinson

Mining is a rough industry and nowhere is it as challenging as Northern Ontario’s deep, hardrock operations. The mines are hot, dirty and wet. The air has to be pumped in, as if miners were working on another planet. At the bottom of the deepest mines, the rock creeps like toffee under pressure. It can shatter like glass, killing and trapping miners.

In this harsh world, equipment must do miracles. Ventilation systems move minus -40° air to a depth of 2,493 m. Hoist cables lift 4,000 tons per day. There is no room for mistakes. Yet these may be the safest mines in the world.

No wonder Sudbury is the training ground for so many mining experts and the testing ground for some of the toughest machines. The knowledge accumulated by the people of the Sudbury Basin is a treasure. It will grow in value as the mining industry battles to keep up with demand over the next century.

But mining knowledge is strange stuff. It can slip away as miners retire, as engineers move on to other jobs, as files are shredded and companies are sold. That’s the danger that Inco and Falconbridge were facing as the current boom took hold. They needed to expand production when many of their best miners and engineers were retiring, taking their experience with them.

It was a 30-year-old crisis that saved the day. Back in the 1970s, Inco and Falconbridge started laying off workers and outsourcing work. They accidentally launched a diversified supply sector. That supply sector held onto the knowledge and skills that the companies themselves didn’t value. Talent left the companies, but it just moved outside the gates, growing slowly into the export-oriented supply and service sector of today.

It is a familiar story in industry. High flying companies pull in talent, train people and attract related businesses.

Then, a downturn comes along and they start laying off workers. They downsize or even disappear. This was the story of the Ottawa computer electronics sector and the biotech sector in Vancouver. In the ’70s, it was Sudbury’s story.

In each case, the cluster came back stronger than ever. Pieces of the old firms grew into new companies. They re-used the talent. They built on the best of the technologies of the first generation. In Sudbury, it was the start-ups that survived while industry giants Inco and Falconbridge disappeared.

The new management at Vale and Xstrata may not have realized that Inco and Falconbridge no longer owned all their key assets. Even some of the management talent they depended on was outside of their gates.

The old managers had noticed they were in the middle of Canada’s most vital mining supply region. Companies from all over the world were buying Sudbury products and recruiting Sudbury miners. Ontario was funding a Center of Excellence in Mining Innovation. Even NASA was buying services in Sudbury.

Now, the city is taking one step further and talking about developing a “design culture.” A better supply of design skills will improve the quality of mining supplies as well as the quality of life in the city.

City Council wants to see a new school of architecture to attract people obsessed with design. There is talk about building a school of industrial design next. At Laurentian University, the Human Kinetics program teaches the principles of ergonomics. MIRARCO’s 3D visualization system is used to improve the cabs of load-haul-dump machines.

Sure, the mining supplies coming out of Northern Ontario are already first class. The goal now will be to make mining equipment even tougher, more productive, safer and easier to use –possibly even prettier.

Dr. David Robinson is an economist at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Canada.