HISTORICAL: How will Sudbury mines compete – John Ibbitson (Sudbury Star/Southam Newspapers – November 9, 1996)

The Sudbury Star, the City of Greater Sudbury’s daily newspaper.

Please note: Voisey’s Bay nickel reserves have subsequently been proven to be much, much less than the legendary Sudbury Basin. Furthermore, the commitment to mining robotics was significantly reduced and Voisey’s Bay did not start commercial production until 2005. – Stan Sudol

Voisey’s Bay raises the question

A student who wants to graduate with a mining engineering degree from Sudbury’s Laurentian University must be able to sit in a room and pilot a miniature truck with a television camera strapped to it along the university’s corridors.

Some believe Sudbury’s ultimate fate rests on this skill.

Sudbury has reigned for a century as the nickel capital of the world. Even today, despite new mines that have opened around the globe, the Sudbury basin and its 17 mines account for about 11 per cent of the world’s total nickel supply. And there are an estimated 30 to 80 years of reserves left, depending on what new ore bodies are discovered.

But every year, the miners must delve deeper to get at the ore, making that ore ever more expensive.

And now, there’s the nickel of Voisey’s Bay. The fabulous new Labrador find is thought by many to have reserves equal to Sudbury’s: reserves that are untouched, easy to reach and five years or less away from hitting the market.

How will Sudbury compete?

Inco, largest employer in Sudbury and new owner of the rights to Voisey’s Bay, believes the answer lies in robots. The nickel giant is investing millions – it won’t say how many – in developing the ‘minerless mine.’

Work is already under way on Sudbury’s – and North America’s – first fully robotic mine,  known poetically as 175 Orebody. It should be producing ore about the same time Voisey’s Bay come on line.

Advocates of automated mines believe that in 20 years the hardrock miner will exist only in song. Union leaders fear they may be right.

Richard Auger went underground 28 years ago, the son and brother of miners. “Back then, it was pretty well all bull work,” he recalls. “You got off the train, went into a room, took off your clothes and stepped on the scales. If you weighed over 155 pounds, they sent you underground.”
But times change. In 1970, Inco had 20, 700 employees. Today, there are 6,200, the result of mechanization. Drilling machines and huge front-end loaders have replaced the shovel and the hand-held drill.

A Sudbury miner can earn $85,000 to $100,000 a year in wages, overtime and bonuses, according to the Sudbury Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers union. The salary of his Third World counterpart does not bear contemplation. To keep Sudbury competitive, the mining companies have had to automate.

If Sudbury is to survive, Inco executives believe, it must automate further. That’s why, along with its own research, the company is helping fund Laurentian’s Mining Automation Laboratory, where Prof. Nick Vagenas and his students explore the practice and possibilities of tele-operated mining.

Using model machines and high-powered computers, students experiment with how tele-operated equipment could safely and cost-effectively replace conventional mining techniques.

“The only way to be competitive is to be innovative,” Vagenas maintains.

The robotic mine will look something like this: unmanned machines – smaller than those used today, becaue no room for a human is needed – will drill, blast and muck out ore in tunnels that are also smaller because they need only be wide enough to accommodate the machines.

The machines will have cameras that broadcast video signals to receiving stations in the mines’ tunnels. The receiving stations will transmit the signal up the mine shafts to the surface, where controllers will watch the images and send back orders t the machines.

Already, Inco is using three tele-operated drilling machines and two tele-operated front-end loaders in its mines. Preliminary reports suggest the machines are 60 per cent more efficient than their on-site-operated counterparts. When 175 Orebody opens, it will be entirely tele-operated – a ‘minerless mine.’

One day, goes the theory, the machines will be programmed to do their jobs virtually without human supervision.

By that time, believes union leader Rolly Gauthier, the workforce at the Sudbury mines may be down to fewer than 1,500 bodies.

“Unfortunately,” he points out, “they haven’t been able t develop a robot that buys bread and milk, or a car.”

But Greg Baiden, manger of mines research at Inco, points to the half dozen high-tech companies that have recently opened offices in Sudbury to supply and maintain the new equipment.
“Yes, the primary production workforce is declining,” he acknowledges. “But it’s been declining since forever.”

And mining, for all its modern precautions, remains a hazard to life and lungs. Robots don’t breath. “If you believe human life is priceless, you have no justification for jeopardizing human life to prevent job loss,” Vagenas argues passionately.

Some crystal ball-gazers believe Sudbury should stop worrying. Andrew Racz, director of research at the New York investment firm of Bishop Rosen, predicts world demand will soon push nickel from its current healthy price of  $3.28 US a pound to over $4.

And he believes Sudbury’s ample reserves and mining infrastructure will help it exploit the boom.

Others are not so sure. Edward Willauer, chair of the economics department at Laurentian, has been watching the Sudbury economy and its mining industry for more than 20 years. “I don’t know what’s in store for Sudbury,” he says. “I don’t think anyon knows.”

But he is sure of this: “What’s good for Inco is good for Sudbury. And Voisey’s Bay was not food for Inco.”

A company that dominated the world market for nickel was forced to pay $4.3 billion for Voisey’s Bay for that control, he points out.

Willauer wonders how many other Voisey’s Bays there are out there, waiting to be discovered, and what Inco will do when they are.

“If you could overhear what the directors of Inco are really thinking,” he believes, “you’d discover they wish Voisey’s Bay had never been found.”