The Age of Industrial Design in Hardrock Mining – by David Robinson

Dr. David Robinson is an economist at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Canada. This column was originally published in the December, 2010 issue of Sudbury Mining Solutions Journal.

Mining machines are getting prettier. Today, there is a lineup of machines in the square outside my window at the university. The Canadian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy’s Maintenance Engineering and Mine Operators Conference (MEMO) has taken over the Great Hall. Laurentian University looks like a cross between a mine site and a convention centre.

There aren’t any of the giant trucks you’d see in Chile’s copper mines or Alberta’s tar sands. Those monsters couldn’t get into Founder’s Square. These are underground machines. They are smaller, highly specialized, agile pieces of equipment designed for tight spaces and low ceilings. 

The surprise is that they are pretty. It isn’t just the bright colors – signal yellow, standard orange, red, even white. There are striking and completely unnecessary black stripes, clean lines, consistent detailing.  The bucket of one big scoop is dramatic matte black.

These machines are elegantly suited to their purpose. They are tough and powerful, but refined. Somehow, mining has moved beyond the brutal efficiency of the old days into the Age of Design.

Design is everywhere today. Design, not technology, is why Apple is a world leader.  More and more, equipment producers compete on design features like safety, ease of use, noise level, comfort and ergonomics, air conditioning, windshield wipers and even ease of cleaning.

Leading companies like Atlas Copco and Sandvik take pride in harnessing the rich design cultures of Sweden and Finland. Local producers have a weaker pool of industrial designers. They rely more on the creativity and the modern sensibility of young engineers and college-trained mechanical design technologists. The Internet lets them all share and steal ideas. Computer graphics let them revise and refine details in three dimensions.  Improved tooling and suppliers let them do things that an earlier generation could only dream about.

An old-timer might grumble about the trend toward “high production values.” Who needs pretty machines? The fact is that today’s machines aren’t just pretty. They are faster, more powerful and more rugged than their ugly ancestors.  The machines are smarter and they do more of the job.

It takes quality design to compete in international markets. Firms in North Bay, Sudbury and other parts of Northern Ontario have been pushing into the world market. This is where equipment suppliers in Canada should be thinking further ahead.

The competition for design talent is going to increase.  Companies that struggle to find and hold top engineers today will kill for a star designer tomorrow. The next bottleneck could be the general shortage of industrial designers in Canada. For an industrialized country, we have surprisingly few programs to develop industrial designers. Worse yet, the schools we have tend to focus on designing for consumers rather than for industry.

Two Canadian schools make Bloomberg’s list of the top 60 industrial design schools in the world. One is Toronto’s Rotman Business School with its partnership with OCAD, the Ontario College of Art and Design. The other is Dawson College in Montreal.

Part of the problem is that an industrial designer is part engineer and part artist. ACID, the Association of Canadian Industrial Designers, makes it sounds like even Leonardo da Vinci would have trouble getting into the profession.

High-end qualifications include an in-depth understanding of the physical sciences, the principles of engineering, ergonomics, aesthetics and industrial materials.  The list goes on to include a basic understanding of psychology, sociology and anthropology. Then they require the candidate to present a portfolio to demonstrate creative ability. Now you have the perfect industrial designer.

The qualifications for an industrial design technician are not quite as high, and equipment manufacturers tend to use these college-trained designers.
But the supply is limited. The industry should be working to make sure the supply will meet the growing and very specialized demand.