Sudbury’s High-tech Mining Mania – by Stan Sudol

This column was originally published in the Sudbury Star on November 10, 2002

Government’s Overlook Sudbury’s High-Tech Mining Cluster

Well known for its rich nickel-copper deposits, Sudbury, Ontario sustains the world’s largest mining/industrial complex. For the past century, these rich ore bodies have contributed enormous wealth, measured in the trillions of dollars, to the Canadian economy and have positioned the community as a leader in mining technology development and mining supply and services.

However, Canada’s heavily urbanized population tends to view mining as a low tech industry contributing little to the knowledge based economy of the 21st century.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

Unfortunately, the combination of Sudbury’s undeserved, negative image, and distance from the country’s media and political centres are causing senior governments to overlook a high-technology cluster of mining supply businesses and research institutes.

This growing cluster of mining expertise could establish Canada as a world leader and create a booming northeastern Ontario economy if senior levels of government make the necessary strategic investments. 

Clusters are concentrations of related companies and service providers present in a specific city or region. Many economists believe clusters are the future keys to wealth creation and the establishment of high paying jobs, primarily through the global export of goods and services.

Notwithstanding successful diversification efforts over the past twenty-five years that have established Sudbury is a regional health, education, and retail service center, the community is still intricately linked to its mining heritage.

The city is the only census metropolitan area in the country with 14 active mines and is home to 25 per cent of the miners in Ontario. And in the past few years, new nickel-copper discoveries throughout the Sudbury Basin have made the region one of the mining exploration hotspots of the country.

In fact, most geologists and industry experts would confirm that Sudbury is the largest and most significant mining camp in the world, and a center of hard-rock mining expertise and experience.

Like other facets of the economy, the silicon chip has revolutionized every stage of the mining process, from satellite imaging to robotics. Technology has helped improve working conditions, increase efficiency and lower production costs. In fact, there is a technological revolution surging through the mining industry and Sudbury is at its

Greg Baiden, Laurentian University’s Chair of robotics and mine automation is the world’s foremost authority in mining automation and is revolutionizing the way minerals are extracted from the ground.  The engineers at Cambrian College’s NORCAT Corporation are designing a lightweight robotic drill to accompany a future NASA space mission to Mars.

Sudbury’s mining supply and service firms are also adopting innovations and new technologies that are rapidly transforming the city into the mining sector’s equivalent of Silicon Valley, California’s famous technology centre. 

Over 8000 people are employed in spin-off businesses essential to the mining industry.  These companies range from dozens of small specialty shops that have created niche markets for themselves, to firms specializing in project engineering and management, equipment design and manufacture, software development and other research.

Sudbury’s “Silicon Mining” cluster has been exporting its products and expertise around the world for many years.

Prime Minister Chretien is no stranger to the region’s high-tech mining industry.  In a 1994 visit, he was photographed operating an underground robotic scoop tram at Inco’s North Mine while on the surface many kilometres away.

This leading edge technology includes robotics, sophisticated telecommunications, positioning and navigation systems, software integration, and the use of electronics in a harsh environment.

But more can and must be done in order to establish Sudbury’s cluster as an international center of mining excellence. 

Senior governments have a key co-ordination and funding role that can send a clear signal to the private sector that Sudbury is the place where new innovation in the mining sector will continue and expand.

The federal government’s recent white paper on innovation, “Achieving Excellence,” includes specific references to supporting the development of “globally competitive industrial clusters” in “all sectors and all regions of the country.”

In order to take full advantage of, and further increase the mining expertise in the region, a major $100 million federal investment should be made to build and fund a high technology research center at Laurentian University.

This strategic federal investment in Sudbury’s mining high-tech cluster would ensure that Canada would be at the forefront of robotic and mine automation and help Prime Minister Chretien reach his goal of moving Canada to 5th from 15th in the world in the percentage of GDP devoted to R&D spending.

In addition, this research facility could potentially help create manufacturing jobs in the region from spin-off applications as this technology can be transferred to other resource industries including the forestry and agricultural sectors.

Halifax’s Bedford Institute of Oceanography and St. John’s, Newfoundland’s Fisheries and Marine Institute are research facilities both dedicated to their region’s major natural resources-the fisheries and other ocean related issues. With the federal government’s commitment to innovation, now is the time to establish a major research institute committed to northeastern Ontario’s mining sector.

The federal government should also relocate the Ottawa headquarters of the Geological Survey of Canada and the Minerals and Metals Sector of the Department of Natural Resources to Sudbury.  There are no hard rock mines in the Ottawa region.

Transferring these two important mining institutes to Sudbury would encourage linkages and synergy with the Ontario Geological Survey and the headquarters of the provincial Ministry of Northern Development and Mines which are located in the city. This would further enhance the community’s reputation as a mining centre and attract more investment and growth.

The provincial government can also encourage the mining technology cluster with more investment in the Ontario Geological Survey, and with renewed funding for the Operation Treasure Hunt initiative.  This program was highly successful, improving Ontario’s geosciences infrastructure by uncovering new mineral exploration targets and attracting new mineral exploration.

In addition, the provincial government could transfer the mining engineering programs at universities in Toronto and Kingston to Laurentian University.  By concentrating all educational resources in one location and with increased funding, Ontario could establish the most prestigious mining engineering school in the world.

Canadians have traditionally viewed our mining industries as marginalized, low tech industries that belong to another era.  To our detriment, we are ignoring the huge high-tech mining potential in Sudbury that could further create high paying manufacturing jobs and economically revitalize the entire northeastern region of Ontario.

The federal government’s new innovation strategy sets as a goal the creation of ten internationally recognized technology clusters in Canada by 2010.  Sudbury’s high-technology mining cluster should definitely be one of them.