Games People Play

Are you a board game player?  Personally I am not.  However I understand there is a huge board game community out there. These game enthusiasts meet in small coffee shops and attend large gaming conventions. I read that 35% of Americans say they play board games several times a month. Think about how many board games you may have laying around in your own place, even if you’re not a hard core gamer.
Recently an avid board game player sent me an email asking if I was aware that there several mining related games. That was a surprise to me. Who would create a board game about mining and for what demographic market?
Curiosity took over and I had to check out the links sent to me on the Board Game Geek website. Here’s a few of the games and what they do.   Now that Germany may be moving back into coal, the first three games may come back into fashion.  The 4th game listed is a bit of a head scratcher.

A few of the mining board games

Game 1: Haspelknecht: The Story of Early Coal Mining (2015)
This game is part of a coal-mining game trilogy created by Thomas Spitzer in Germany. The players take the role of farmers with opportunities to exploit the presence of coal in the Ruhr region of Germany. During the game, players acquire knowledge about coal, extend their farms, and dig deeper in the ground to extract more coal.
Players must select the correct tasks while being mindful of quickly accumulating pit water, for it can stall efforts and prevent extraction of coal.  The game info link is here.
Game 2: The Ruhr: A Story of Coal Trade (2017)
In the second game of Spitzer’s trilogy, you are still in the Ruhr region in the 18th century, at the beginning of the industrial revolution. The Ruhr river presented a transportation route from the coal mines. However, the Ruhr was filled with obstacles and large dams, making it incredibly difficult to navigate.
The players transport and sell coal to cities and factories along the Ruhr river in the 18th and 19th centuries. In the beginning, players have access only to low value coal but can gain access to high value coal. The players also build warehouses, locks, and export coal to neighboring countries in the pursuit of the most points.
The info link is here.
Game 3: Schichtwechsel: Die Förderung liegt in deiner Hand (2021)
This game may still be in German text only. Players are the administrator of a coal mine, and experience competition while living through a piece of Ruhr Valley history.
They bring coal and overburden from underground to the surface, let the miner go through a “shift at the colliery”, produce coke, or build the typical colliery settlements.
The info link is  here.
Game 4: The Cost (2020)
This game takes on a more negative view of the mining industry. It is described as “A bold take on the economics in the brutal industry that is asbestos.” The game players assume the role of a global asbestos company.
Players make their fortune in mining, refining, and shipping. Whoever ends the game with the most money wins. The last part of the description is the gem “When players mine or refine asbestos, they must choose to either maximize profits for short-term gains or sacrifice their hard-won money to minimize deaths, thus sustaining the industry.” That’s every mining executive’s dilemma; profits or deaths.   The info link is here.
Some of these game boards look more complicated than the actual industry. To find other games you can go to the Board Game Geek website and search for different themes. Most mining games listed there are not realistic but are more about dwarves mining gems or they just have an activity called “mining”.   Here’s one called Copper Country.

Free Excel Mining Game

In 1983 my brother, at the age of 10, got his Commodore 64 computer and was eagerly learning to program in BASIC. He was always looking for ideas on what he could write programs about. I had graduated from McGill in Mining Engineering a few years earlier, so I suggested he write a simple computer game about mining as his project.
I provided him with the logic and in no time he had it written and functioning. That game is long gone, likely at the bottom of a landfill stored inside the chips of his Commodore 64. Some 40 years later, my brother is still coding as a software development manager. I guess I managed to convince him the mining industry wasn’t a career path.
Over the last few months I decided to learn VBA (Visual Basic for Applications). VBA is a programming language the works with Microsoft Office products, mainly Excel.
I always enjoyed programming. In university we wrote FORTRAN programs using stacks of punch cards to feed the machine the code. I had also learned the BASIC language, from my brother’s VIC 20 and Commodore computers.
A good way to learn something is to watch a few pf the many tutorial videos on YouTube. An even better way to learn VBA is by taking on an actual coding project from scratch. So, what worked 40 years ago, would work again. Rather than write something useful, I decided to re-write the mining game from 1983, albeit enhanced with the Excel application capability and more years of personal mining experience.
This coding process would force me to learn how to write code, figure out logic, create loops, if-then statements, and handle debugging. Already knowing Excel makes the entire process easier.  Combining Excel functionality with VBA delivers capabilities that would have been difficult to do in BASIC alone.  Note: It appears that BASIC is no longer in use, having been replaced by Python as the preferred programming language.

Download it.. if curious

If you are curious about the capability of VBA, the Excel mining game can be downloaded. A descriptive overview of the game is included in the PDF file at this link.

Junior Mining CEO game screenshot

The very simple game is called Junior Mining CEO. The object is to find gold, raise the share price, and not go bankrupt given the pitfalls that often befall the mining industry. The input parameters have a lot of optionality, although I have protected the macro code itself for this edition. You can borrow money and issue equity to fund your mining activity.
The Excel file can be downloaded at this link. The was written using Excel 365 but it may also work on older versions of Excel.
You will first need to save the game to your computer to run the macros. Since there are macros, many computers will disable such Excel files because they can contain viruses. You may need to toggle the file Properties in File Explorer to unblock the file to allow the macros to run.
Is there a junior mining corporate sponsorship opportunity here? Sure. For a small fee, I will add your company logo to the game and pre-set all the input parameters so that everyone is a big winner all the time.

Conclusion

As mentioned in a blog from a few months ago, “ A Junior EIT Mining Story” some gamification of mining may help introduce and educated people on the industry. Augmented reality (AR) and Virtual reality (VR) are both technologies that can be used to help reach out to the younger generations (I’m not talking about investor outreach).
How about a new board game that does to mining what Monopoly did to real estate investing? Look at real estate prices today, no doubt being influenced by everything we learnt playing Monopoly as kids.
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A Junior EIT Mining Story

We know the mining industry is having trouble attracting talent in all sorts of disciplines, including operations, technical, and supervision. Industry people have no shortage of ideas (right or wrong) on how this issue can be addressed in the future. Myself…I don’t really have any good suggestions.
Not long ago I was speaking with a 2020 graduate mining engineer (EIT = Engineer in Training). During our conversation, I was curious to know what attracted him to the industry and if he had any advice on how to reach out to others in his age group. I asked if he was willing to share his thoughts on my blog site. After all, who better to hear from than a recent graduate. He said “yes”, so for your interest, here is his story and his thoughts. (I decided to leave his name out of this article although he was not insisting on anonymity.)

So here’s the story (in his words)

Mining has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Being born in Sudbury, many of my family members have been, or are currently involved, in mining through a variety of occupations, including my father who I idolized. However, I never knew my true interest in the industry until my 11th-grade technology class. I had a teacher who was passionate about the mining industry, and he created a project that involved developing a very basic mine design.
Once I started the project, I realized that I enjoyed the design work, as it requires problem-solving which constantly stimulates the mind. After the conclusion of this project, I started doing my own research to expand my knowledge and realized that the financial side of mining had great interest to me as well. This led me at age 16 to start investing in the mining sector, which I continue to this day.
With this developed interest, and my family’s mining history, the decision to study Mining Engineering at Laurentian University was an easy decision. It allowed me to support my hometown and will allow me, given my career ambitions, to put this small school on the international map.
Before my first year of university, I had a summer job tramming at Macassa Mine in Kirkland Lake Ontario, which has been in production since 1933. My mentality was to get the boots on the ground and get the job done, whatever it took (with proper safety precautions of course). Using rail systems, dumping ore cars manually, jackleg drilling, etc. gave me the perspective that mining was archaic, mining was rough, and mining was only about the ounces.
Therefore, when I started the Mining Engineering program at Laurentian University in 2016, I already had a (somewhat negative) preconceived notion of the mining industry, but as my short career progressed, my opinions morphed into something different, something more positive.
Now that I have graduated and been employed for a couple of years, my perspective has changed. However, I feel that the perspective of the general population has not. People within mining have a (positive) bias and realize its importance in our everyday lives. This is showcased in the famous saying “if it is not grown, it is mined” and I believe that to get the industry to progress at an even faster rate, we need to get everyone on board.
It cannot be an industry that just takes from the Earth, it needs to be seen as one that values sustainability, supplies the world with required goods, and creates jobs with high employee satisfaction. Although this has started with companies taking more of an interest in stakeholder value and employee job satisfaction, based on my limited years in the industry, there is still lots of room for growth.
To change the negative view around mining, I believe the main focal point should be electric equipment and the ability for remote operation/work. With all this newly developed technology at our fingertips, I know that future operations will be safer and more sustainable, which should be better portrayed.
The battery-electric equipment will surely increase employee satisfaction since I know firsthand that one of the worst feelings as a worker is to have a scoop operating in a heading that is already 25+ degrees. It will also create more sustainability since the industry can transition from being reliant almost solely on fossil fuels.
In addition, I believe that remote equipment operation is not being used to its full capacity or explained to the younger generation. Right now, there has been equipment running in Canada that was operated in Australia. What is stopping mines from having equipment operators all over the world in urban office spaces or out of their own homes? I believe that for a company to visit a high school, or even a trades school, to sell the idea that you can operate a massive piece of equipment from the creature comforts of home, almost like a real-life video game, would be quite compelling to this audience.
Even creating a mining simulation video game where you can run through a story of being a manager, excavator/scoop operator, truck driver, etc. would get the thought of mining brought into the coming generations at a younger age. This would increase the talent pool from the more typical operator because more and more youth are getting skilled at remote operation through video games due to their increased screen time.
Not only equipment operators, but technical staff could be made fully, or partially, remote. When I describe my job to my (non-mining) peers, many are interested since mining is a fast-paced, stimulating, and rewarding industry.
But as soon as I describe the remote nature of the work, many young professionals, or high school students, get turned away. Therefore, showing teenagers, through school presentations or workshops, that a technical career in mining can lead you down so many avenues (scheduling, ventilation design, drill & blast, etc.) would pique their interest, but I believe adding the ability to work remote, with some occasional travel, would drive the point home.
InternPeople get comfortable and people are afraid to leave home, so selling a career that allows for boundless flexibility in job tasks and constant stimulation while living wherever you desire could allow a shrinkage in the current technical gap.
Overall, the mining awareness and outreach (approach) is still old school. Getting to youth and teenagers through various media streams could be the key to getting engagement from not only the current mining towns but larger urban centres as well.
I mentioned a mining simulation video game previously, but what is stopping us there. Many of my peers, and youth younger than myself, are entering the professions of doctors, lawyers, finance, or criminal investigators.
I might be wrong, but, intriguingly, these are industries are the base professions glorified on TV. Why not develop more TV shows based on mining? I know that there would be some population interest considering many people ask me if the gold we mine underground looks like what comes out of the pans in Yukon Gold Rush.
So do I think the mining industry is archaic…. not anymore.
Do I think the mining industry is rough… somewhat.
Do I think it is only about the ounces…., yes, since a mine will not run any other way.
However, I believe that there has been more importance placed on employee and stakeholder satisfaction. So, with more time, and more engagement from the public of all ages, I think this industry can have a bright future ahead.
END

Conclusion

Firstly, I would like to thank this engineer for taking time to write out his well formed thoughts, and for allowing me to share them.
Many of the mining people I meet are following along in family footsteps. No surprise there. However, the industry cannot rely on that farm system alone. It should be reaching out to broader society, although that may require some out-of-the-box thinking. People’s attitudes and personalities are different today than they were 20 years ago.  Many different doors are being held open as career options.
The discussion above has some interesting ideas from a person who would be the target of outreach efforts. It likely will take more effort than simply telling people “Hey, your iPhone uses metal, therefore mining is good, and you should work in mining”.

 

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Hard Rock Continuous Cutting – Reducing Drill & Blast

Several years ago I worked in the Saskatchewan potash industry where I grew my appreciation for continuous mining systems. Some of the key benefits were the high productivity per man-hour and the safe operating conditions.  On a 12 hour nightshift, with a crew of 16 people we could mine over 9,000 tonnes of ore.  Productivity is  likely even higher now with the larger machines.   Therefore, since that time, I have always kept an eye out for when similar technology can be applied in hard rock mining.
One of the research areas we are seeing these days is the development of continuous cutting technology for hard rock mine development.  The idea is to replace the conventional drill & blast approach with something more efficient and safer.  No need to deal with explosives, noxious gases, shatter the wall rock, or have personnel scale their way under loose conditions.
Recently I was contacted by someone associated with Robbins asking if I was aware of their MDM5000 mine development technology.  I wasn’t aware of it, but I wondered if there finally is a light at the end of the tunnel.

4-rotor miner

In Saskatchewan potash the entire mining operation relies on track-mounted continuous miner technology.   The miners are connected directly to the shaft area using a network of conveyors, up to 10 km worth of conveyor.
The potash miners are able to undertake both development work and production mining whilst connected to conveyor.
From time to time they will rely on shuttle cars, scooptrams, or grasshopper conveyors for small development tasks. A roadheader may also be available for localized ground stabilization.
All of this mechanical cutting is done in potash (sylvinite rock), considered a soft rock with a compressive strength of 20-40 MPa. For comparison, hard rock can have compressive strengths exceeding 250 MPa.

Two approaches in hard rock

Hard rock piloting trials are underway at a few operations, using different vendors with different equipment.  These trials include companies like Komatsu, Robbins, Sandvik, and Epiroc.  Each are testing their own equipment and cutting technologies.
The hard rock cutting approaches generally fall into two camps.

Roadheader style

There are the track mounted roadheader style cutters, typically with a movable arm used to shape the excavation.  Any excavation shape is possible.

Tunnel Borer Style

Then there are the tunnel borer styles, where the machine propels itself with hydraulic shoes and the opening shape is based on the machine configuration. Normally a circular shaped opening is the result.
The roadheader style cutter is normally restricted to softer rock (< 50 MPa) while the tunnel borer is capable of much harder rock (200-250 MPa).

Robbins MDM5000

One system that peaked my interest is the Robbins MDM5000 because it can both cut hard rock and create a rectangular opening. Speaking with the vendor, this unit uses shoes to propel itself while cutting a rectangular shaped opening about 5m x 4.5m in size (see image).  A rectangular shape is preferred to the circular opening whereby the floor invert must be backfilled to provide a level operating surface.

MDM5000 opening shape

The MDM5000 configuration and advance rate allows the installation of ground support and utilities behind the advancing face.   Water sprays and dust collectors help to maintain visibility and air quality at the working face.
The Robbins unit is best suited for long straight drives although reportedly it can turn curves with 450-m radius.  Tighter turns may be feasibility in the future by tweaking the machine design.   Interestingly driving a drift uphill is easier than driving downhill due to the more efficient cuttings removal capability.
The MDM5000 unit can be linked to a Robbins conveyor system, which includes a head drive and an extensible belt storage unit that can feed out the conveyor belt as the machine advances forward.  This operation is similar to that used in the Saskatchewan potash industry.

Robbins MDM5000

A Robbins machine has been in operation at the Fresnillo mine for several years with favorable results (check out the link here).
One nice thing about disc cutters is that they can accommodate variable rock types (softer and harder) while road headers can be hindered by hard rock zones.  Roadheaders require a bit more consistency in rock quality.
Continuous cutting systems, such as the MDM5000, can be combined with vertical conveying technology, leading to safe and rapid development (>200m per month) in the right situation.

Conclusion

No doubt that we will eventually see more application of hard rock continuous cutting technology in the right situations.  The Stillwater Mine in Montana has been using a Robbins tunnel borer for years for development tasks.
No matter how well these new systems perform, there will still be some limitations.  This means the conventional drill and blast development will always be around.  However, keep your eyes on this mining technology sector as improvements in cutter head design and equipment mobility continue to evolve.
Coincidentally International Mining (Nov-Dec 2021) recently published an in-depth article on the various systems being looked at.  The link is here.

 

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Two More Mining Productivity Innovations

The mining industry is always on the lookout for new innovations as it strives to keep up with other industries.  In that light, periodically I like to highlight new technologies that I become aware of.   I’m trying to help spread the word  about them, which in turn may assist them in their on-going growth and development.
In this article I want to briefly describe two hardware / software companies that are working on technologies related to mine equipment productivity.    In no particular order, the two companies are Loadscan and SedimentIQ.  SedimentIQ is more of a startup than Loadscan which has a longer operating track record.
These technology companies are both targeting the open pit and underground markets, looking to provide simpler and less costly productivity solutions. Their technologies may be well suited for small to mid tier mines that cannot afford or don’t require the comprehensive Minestar type fleet management systems.
For the record, I get no fee or commission for promoting these companies; I just like what they are doing.

Loadscan

Loadscan has been around for a few years, but I only became aware of it recently.  It is a technology that allows the rapid assessment of the load being carried in truck.  It does not rely on the use of load cells or weigh scales to measure the payload.
Instead Loadscan uses a laser scanner and proprietary software to three dimensionally map the surface of the truck payload and then calculate its volume.  The results will indicate how consistent and optimal truck loading is volumetrically.   One can then calculate the payload tonnage by applying a bulk density.
The Loadscan technology will assess whether trucks are being over or under loaded, whether the loads are off-centre, or whether there is excess carryback on the return trip.
Successive truck payloads can be tracked manually or with RFID tags.   A cloud based database and web based dashboard are used to store the data and summarize it. The output can include an image of each individual load.
What is interesting about this technology is that it is simple to install in an operation.  It does not require retrofitting of a truck.
Results are immediate.  Loadscan provided an example where a message readout board can let the shovel operator immediately know how well each truck was loaded, resulting in improved education and better performance efficiency.
One can also assess how much better shovel bucket factors are in well blasted rock versus in blocky rock.
The Loadscan system is already in use in several mines globally.  The vendors can provide more technical  data if you need it.
Their website is https://www.loadscan.com/

SedimentIQ

SedimentIQ is a vehicle tracking platform using a smartphone app.  Their technology makes use of a phone’s built-in GPS, Bluetooth, and accelerometer to track vehicle operation.  The phone’s sensor can measure vibrations produced by an operating truck or loader.
Vibration is a fingerprint of a vehicle’s activity.  Therefore using machine learning, the SedimentIQ app can produce an “activity score” that decides whether a machine is parked, idling, or performing productive work.  The phone is not connected to the machine diagnostics system, so its very easy to install, only needing a power source.
The system can be used on any vehicle you want tracked, including trucks, drills, loaders, graders, dozers, etc. The system has the capability to monitor equipment location and speed.
In an open pit environment it uses the phone’s GPS to monitor vehicle location. In an underground setting the phone reads inexpensive Bluetooth beacons mounted along the side walls to track location.
The app will identify delay and downtime based on equipment vibration levels.  The system currently requires no interaction with the operator, working in the background.  Hence it will not identify the cause of delay (i.e. blasting delay, breakdown, inter-equipment delay, etc).  I would expect that in the future they could add a feature for the operator to tag delay types on the touch screen.
The SedimentIQ software will aggregate the cycle time and delay information and upload it in real time to a cloud based database.  A web-based dashboard allows anyone with access to view the real time production data graphically or export it to Excel.
The SedimentIQ platform is less expensive than high end fleet management software.  Although it may not provide all the bells and whistles of the high end software, it may deliver just what you need to monitor productivity in your mining operation.  It relies on relatively inexpensive smart phones that are locked to the application.
I recall as a mining student doing time studies.  I rode the shift crew bus with pencil in hand, timing the travel  from the mine dry to the various shovels to measure start up times.  I recall sitting with a stopwatch timing shovel buckets and truck loading times.  Both of these tasks can be done for every shift, every truck by equipping the crew bus and mine trucks with the SedimentIQ tech.
The platform is currently being tested at a couple of trials mines and the founders are looking for more mines willing to adopt and further refine their technology.
The website is https://sedimentiq.com/.

Conclusion

Both of these innovative technologies can provide useful information to open pit and underground mine operations.  They are in the growth stage, looking for wider adoption.   Input from users, whether positive or negative, will assist them with on-going development and enhancements. Their websites obviously have more on what their technology offers, including presentations, white papers, and case studies.
It would be nice to meld these two technologies in some way to allow the SedimentIQ cycle times to also track payloads.
Check them out.  Try them out.  Tell them Ken sent you.

 

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Green Energy Storage Using Abandoned Mines

The mining industry is always looking for ways to rehabilitate their abandoned operations so that there may be a public use for them. This could entail leaving behind recreational lakes, building golf courses, creating nature parks or using empty pits as public landfills. Another rehabilitation idea being studied is using old underground mines as a means of green energy storage.  If successful, we do have a lot of abandoned mines in all regions of the country.

Compressed air can store energy

I was at the 2019 Progressive Mine Forum in Toronto and a presentation was given on underground compressed air storage. The company was Hydrostor (https://www.hydrostor.ca/).  They were promoting their Advanced Compressed Air Energy Storage (A-CAES) system.
It is a technology that addresses the power grid need for power transmission deferral services. The A-CAES system can theoretically provide low-cost, long duration bulk energy storage (i.e. hundreds of MWs, 4-24+ hour duration).
The idea is to store off-peak or excess power from solar, wind, or other generating source.  Then the system can release this power back into the system during peaks or low generation capacity. Solar and wind power normally don’t work as well at night.

 

Flood the mine

The system uses excess electricity to run a compressor, producing heated compressed air. Initially heat is extracted from the air and retained inside a thermal store.  This preserves the heat energy for later use. Next the compressed air is stored in the underground mine, keeping a constant pressure.
While charging, the compressed air displaces water out of the mine, up a water column to a surface reservoir.
On discharge, water flows back down forcing air to the surface where it is re-heated using the stored heat and expanded to generate electricity.
Imagine an underground mine beneath an open pit, and seeing the open pit water level rise and fall daily as the compressed air is recharged underground and then released.
Hydrostor is currently building a $33 million 5-MW project in Australia at the Angas Zinc Mine site. I asked Hydrostor if they had any white papers describing the economics for a typical abandoned mine we might see here in Canada. Unfortunately they don’t have such a case study available.
Update: A Canadian example recnetly came to light; “How an old Goderich salt mine could one day save you money on your hydro bill“.
No doubt there would be capex and opex costs to build and operate the plant, but these would hopefully be offset by the power generation. It just not clear over what time horizon this payback would occur. Many abandoned underground mines are already in place; they are just waiting to be exploited.

Permitting is still an issue

Converting an abandoned mine into a power storage facility will still have its challenges. Cost and economic uncertainty are part of that.  In addition, permitting such a facility will still require some environmental study.
At Hydrostor’s proposed Australian operation, a fairly extensive environmental impacts assessment still had to be completed (see the link here).
Noise, vibration, air quality, ecology, traffic, surface water, groundwater impacts, visual impacts, employment, and indigenous consultations are aspects that would need to be addressed. However, given that this would be a green energy application, one might be able to get all stakeholders on board quickly.

Conclusion

We hear about sustainable mining and the desire to extend the positive social and economic impacts of a mining project. Energy storage is one way to extend the mine life into perpetuity by creating a localized power grid. Simply use wind or solar to recharge the system and then generate power over night.
If anyone is aware of a situation where something similar has been done, let me know and I will share it. Perhaps one day Hydrostor will provide a detailed economic study for a typical Canadian mine so that mining companies can see the economic potential.
Update:  In 2021 Hydrostor announced that it is developing two 500MW/5GWh energy storage projects in California, each of which would be the world’s largest non-hydro energy storage system ever built.  Read more at this link “Gigawatt-scale compressed air
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Google Earth – Share Your Project in 3D

Google Earth is a great tool and it’s free for everyone to use. No doubt that many of us in the mining industry already use it regularly.
Previously I had written an article about how Google Earth can be used to give your entire engineering team a virtual site visit. It’s cheaper than flying everyone to site. That blog is available at this link “Google Earth – Keep it On Hand”.

What else can Google Earth do for me?

The Investor Relations (IR) department in a mining company can also take advantage of Google Earth’s capabilities. Typically the IR team are responsible for creating a myriad of PowerPoint investor presentations. Their slideshows will include graphics highlighting the project location, showing exploration drilling and planned site facilities for advanced projects. This is where Google Earth can be used to create a more interactive experience for investors.

Google Earth with 3D Buildings

Rather than relying only on PowerPoint, the technical team can create drillhole maps, 3D infrastructure layouts, open pit plans, 3D tailings dams, and import them into Google Earth.
By creating a KMZ file, one can share this information with investors, analysts, and stakeholders. This will provide an interactive opportunity to view the information themselves.
Viewers could fly around the site, zoom in and out as needed, examine things in 3D, and even measure distances. Viewers can even save the project in Google Earth and return back whenever curiosity dictates.
I have been a part of engineering teams where Google Earth has been used to share layout information. However I have not yet seen such information offered as a downloadable KMZ file to external parties. If you know of any companies that are currently doing this, please let me know (kjkltd@rogers.com) and I will share their link here.

There also is VRIFY

VRIFY is a new cloud based platform that provides 3D viewing capability. It provides a map based graphic tool to IR departments for sharing project information. VRIFY can also enhance collaboration among engineering teams by enabling a group to view a virtual project and sketch on the image in real time.

VRIFY desktop screenshot

VRIFY also allows more detailed information to be displayed in the form of hotspots within a project. Click on them to get more information on that topic (see image to the right).
Although I have only been given a demo of VRIFY, it appears to be a nice package that provides more functionality than Google Earth. Unfortunately VRIFY is not free for a company to use. The minimum subscription cost is about $10,000 (plus extras).
In June 2019 VRIFY made a deal with Kirkland Lake Gold whereby interested property vendors can submit their project to Kirkland Lake management for their review.
Here is the link (https://vrify.com/dealroom). In the proposed approach, the project information is submitted using the VRIFY platform. Essentially some of the same information presented in a PowerPoint is now provided in a more interactive fashion. Participating companies must first enter into a client service agreement with VRIFY. We will see how this idea works, since it does add a cost and new complexity for the property vendor.
There is another cloud based service called Reality Check, which offers virtual reality site visits.

Conclusion

The bottom line is that the trend in the mining industry is towards more open data sharing whether you’re connecting with the public or within your own engineering team. New and old cloud based platform tools can be used to do this. It just depends on your budget.
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Cyber Security – Coming to a Mine Near You

The mining industry is being told to take advantage of digitalization. As an example, here is a link to a recent article that discusses this “Can mining decode the opportunities of the future?”. The article says “To achieve sustainable improvements in productivity, mining companies will need to overcome a digital disconnect that has held them back”.
I fully agreement with this sentiment, although there are some cautions when adopting new technology.

Not everything is positive

The mining industry will see positive impacts from digitalization.  Unfortunately more reliance on technology also brings with it significant risks.  These risks are related to cyber security.
I recently attended a CIM presentation here in Toronto that focused on cyber security, specifically related to the mining industry. The potential negative impacts to a company can be significant.
Some mining companies already have experienced these negative impacts, albeit in some cases it may not be well publicized. I will highlight some examples later in this blog.
(By the way, I appreciate that the CIM presenter gave me access to the information in his presentation).

Attackers and threats

There are several ways that mining companies can be attacked via technology channels. The attackers could be foreign governments, anti-mining groups, disgruntled employees, or just your average everyday miscreant. There are several avenues as described below.
  • Hack-tivsm: Where a company website may be defaced and blocked as part of a campaign against the opening of a new operation.
  • Data Breaches: Security breaches on websites resulting in leaked sensitive data including personal identification, credentials, and investor information.
  • Industrial Control Attack: Amending software code on major equipment resulting in shutdown or damage.
  • Business Interruption: Attacking systems so the company must be temporarily disconnected from the internet and forcing replacement of all hard drives and servers.
  • Dependent Business Interruption: Overwhelming servers in order to degrade cloud services and websites.

Examples

The following are some examples of how different attack approaches have been used with success.
  • April 2016 – a Canadian gold-mining firm suffered a major data breach when hackers leaked 14.8 GBs of data containing employee personal information and financial data.
  • May 2015 – a Canadian gold mining company was hacked resulting in 100GBs+ worth of stolen data being released.
  • May 2013 – a large platinum producer experienced a security breach on their website resulting in leaked sensitive data online including personal data, credentials, and investor information.
  • February 2015 – A junior mining company was the victim of a cyber scam that resulted in the company paying a $10M deposit into an unknown bank account intended for a sub-contractor.
  • November 2011 – In an attempt to gain information on bid information about a potential corporate takeover, hackers attacked the secure networks of several law firms and computers of the Government of Canada’s Finance Department and Treasury Board.
  • August 2008 – Hackers were able to gain access to the operational controls of a pipeline where they were able to increase the pressure in the pipeline without setting off alarms resulting in an explosion. Beyond damaging the pipeline, the attack cost millions of dollars and also caused thousands of barrels of oil to spill close to a water aquifer.
  • 2014 – A steel mill was the victim of a phishing attack which allowed attackers to gain access to their office network causing outages of production networks and production machines. The outages ultimately resulted in a blast furnace not being properly shut down causing significant damage to the plant.
  • 2003 – Cyber attackers were able to gain access to the SCADA network of an oil tanker resulting in an 8 hour shutdown.
  • August 2012 – A large state-owned oil and gas supplier, experienced an attack intended to halt their supply of crude oil and gas which resulted in more than 30,000 hard drives and 2,000 servers being destroyed ultimately forcing I.T. systems to be disconnected from the internet for two weeks.
  • 2014 – Malware was used to gain access to a Ukrainian regional electricity distribution company to gain remote access to SCADA systems and remotely switch substations off, leaving 225,000 without electricity for three hours.
How many similar incidents have occurred, being unreported or not as publicly visible as these?  Recently Air Canada had a major computer outage.  Was that a squirrel chewing through a wire or a full-on cyber attack?

Ask yourself if you are ready

As your mining company continues to move into the digital world, you must ask:
  1. If an attacker were to disable your business application or a production facility, how long would it take to recover? How much would it cost you? How would you even measure the cost?
  2. How do you ensure your third party vendors’ security standards are appropriate? What would you do if a key supplier or key customer had a data breach that impacted you or hinder their deliveries? How do you mitigate your exposure to such events?
  3. What type and how much sensitive information are you responsible for? If you learned today that your network was compromised, what is your response plan?  Who would you call to investigate a data breach? What law firm would you use and do they have breach response experts?
A cyber attack can impact on operations, public perception, legal liability, and corporate trust.  This can mirror the legal impact of a tailings dam failure.  So are there any mitigations?

Cyber insurance is available

Companies can now consider the growing cyber insurance industry. Traditional insurance indemnifies property, casualty, crime, errors & omissions, and kidnap & ransom events. Cyber insurance adds additional coverage for breaches related to data confidentiality, operations technology malfunctions, network outages, disruption of 3rd parties, deletion or corruption of data, encryption of data, cyber fraud and theft.
While nobody wants to add another cost burden on their business, the gains from digitalization don’t come without pains.

Conclusion

The bottom line is that there is no stopping the digitalization of the mining industry. It is here whether anybody likes it or not. At the same time, there is likely no stopping the growth of cyber crime.
Likely we will hear more hacking stories as miners adopt more of the new technology.
The first line of defense are your security policies and procedures.  Bring in an expert for a security audit. As an option, you can contact cyber insurance brokers that have the expertise to help.
 Its great to see an executive at the head office operating a scooptram at their underground mine.  Its not so great to see some kid in a basement operating that same scooptram (and setting production records).
Open your doors to technology but at the same time keep them locked.
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Is Insitu Leaching the “Green Mining” Future

It is no surprise to anyone that permitting new open pit mines in today’s environment is getting more difficult and even impossible in some areas.   Underground mines also have their challenges, permitting as well as requiring relatively high grades to be economic.
So where might our future metal supplies come from?  What are the options?

Insitu leaching may be the answer

I recently came across an insitu leaching website, called BIOMore.  This was an initiative sponsored by the EU that looked at insitu leaching technology for metal recovery.    Environmental issues associated with mining in Europe, particularly open pit mining, raised concerns about how ore bodies in the EU might be developed in the future.
Insitu leaching technology was viewed as playing an important role.  This is due to its minimal surface disturbance, ability to operate at great depth, and its potential in urban and developed locations.  Sounds like a nice solution to have on hand.
The EU-funded BIOMOre research project was completed in 2018.  It was designed to develop a new technological framework for the insitu recovering of metals from deep deposits.  The process would rely on controlled stimulation of pre-existing fractures in combination with insitu bio-leaching.  The study mainly focused on the application of existing technologies.

Fracing will be an issue

Insitu leaching essentially relies on exposing mineralized surfaces to leach solutions.  This may require hydro-fracturing (fracing) to enhance insitu bio-leaching using bacteria and acid.   Fracing is currently banned in some European countries so this is going to be a potential issue.  From a leaching perspective, the trade-off would be between no fracing, reduced cost & lower metal recovery against higher cost & higher metal recovery with fracing.
If insitu leaching technology development is successful, it could help exploit European base metals from porphyry deposits (Cu, Au, Mo, Cu, REE, PGE, Re, Pb, Cu, Pt, Au) and other gold and uranium deposits.   Insitu leaching would avoid building a mine, mine infrastructure, and it generates almost no tailings nor waste dumps.  Leaching is expected to be cheaper than traditional mining and more acceptable to the public. Insitu leaching is being touted as “Green Mining”

What did they conclude

This study deliverables included comprehensive documentation, an economic evaluation, and risk analysis of a potential insitu bio-leaching operation.  The basis was a theoretical deposit, looking at different well field set-ups.
The study concluded that accessing potential deposits at depths of around 1000 m is economically feasible only if curved wells are used.  The most relevant operational parameters are sufficient permeability in the ore zone and an adequate contact surface between the ore and leaching solution.   The depth of the deposit is indirectly relevant, but more importantly the well installation cost per volume of deposit is critical.  Hence curved wells are optimal.
One interesting suggestion was combining an insitu leach operation with geothermal energy recovery.  This might result in additional project revenue stream with only a marginal cost increase.
It was suggested that insitu leach operations might be attractive in former mining regions where high grade deposits have been mined out yet nearby low grade deposits are well defined. Social license for insitu leaching may also be more accepting in these areas.
If you are interested in learning more about insitu leaching technology and the chemistry aspect, the BIOMore study deliverables are available for downloading at this site.
In the past, mining engineers like myself were told to learn the basics of crushing, grinding, and flotation to become more well rounded.  I may suggest that future mining engineers may need to learn the basics of directional drilling, hydro-fracing, and chemistry.  Sounds like petroleum engineering.
Update: The University of Western Australia is also looking at electric fields to extract metals from hard rock ore, the sample principle as electro-plating.  Check out more information at this link “No more digging – a new environmentally friendly way of mining“.

Some aspects are still uncertain

In practical terms, some things are still not clear to me. For example are how much effort and diligence must go into properly characterizing the permeability of a rock mass.  As well, how complex a task is it to metallurgically characterize the deposit spatially with regards to it being amenable to insitu leaching.  Not all ore types will behave the same and be amenable to leaching.
I am also curious about the ability to finance such projects, given the caution associated with any novel technology.  Many financiers prefer projects that rely on proven and conventional operating methods.
Notwithstanding those concerns, likely insitu leaching technology will continue to advance and show even more promise, and eventually gain greater acceptance.
While some innovators are looking at new ways to drill, blast, and move rock, the real innovators are looking at ways to recover metals without moving any rock at all.
For those interested, Excelsior Mining is looking to open a copper oxide insitu leaching operation in Arizona.  Here is video of how their technology will work.
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Blockchain vs Robotic Process Automation

I recently wrote a blog about how Artificial Intelligence (AI) is now being used by the exploration side of the mining industry. My curiosity was whether the application of AI is going to be real or is it just being used as a buzzword to help promote companies. You can read that blog at this link “AI vs The Geologists”.
With the topic of buzzwords in mind, I was curious about some of other technology advances we hear about. Coincidentally Canadian Mining Magazine (Winter 2019 issue) published two articles on upcoming technologies, the links are provided here; blockchain and robotic process automation. As with AI, I’m still curious about these two, mainly due to the limited number of applications thus far.

Blockchain for supply chain

With regards to blockchain, it seems to me the main benefits are being related to supply chains, whether for purchasing or selling activities. Some of the examples given are that one can verify where the cobalt in your phone was mined or where your engagement diamond is from. Oddly though, I don’t recall ever wanting to know where the metal in my phone is from.
Other example applications of blockchain are for inventory management, shipment number tracking, transport log tracking, and bill of lading management. The advantages are transaction speed, trust, and traceability.
Currently there are many ways shipping and receiving activities are being tracked. Hence I am a bit unclear as to where blockchain will provide a groundbreaking improvement. Can’t well designed cloud database achieve the same thing?
Blockchain reportedly has improved security in that copies of its tracking “ledgers” are simultaneously hosted on multiple servers and hence are hack-proof.
Is blockchain over-hyped?  Here’s an article that seems to think so “5 challenges to getting projects off the ground”.
Thus far in my career I have not yet had any direct experience with a real life application of blockchain. Therefore it is a bit difficult to say whether it is a great business innovation or a great business promotion. Perhaps some of you have had experience with actual blockchain applications in the mining industry. Please let me know and I will follow up. So far I am still on the fence.
On the other hand…

Robotic Process Automation

We have seen in manufacturing that robotics will eliminate repetitive type jobs. Will robotic process automation (rPA) be able to do the same by completing repetitive tasks for us?
The types of tasks being targeted for rPA are real time data analysis, daily- weekly-monthly reporting, tracking real time costs and progress schedules, or in other words, monitoring system wide process inputs and outputs.
Having access to real time data is important and it is a growing trend worldwide in all industries. In my view, mine site wide data integration is a key to the future of mining, especially when combined with AI, data mining, and data analysis. It is great to have the ability to instantly know exactly what is going on everywhere at a mine site. It is also great to know what went on in the previous hour, 24 hours, or 30 days.
Modern sensor technology is such that almost anything can be monitored now in real time. Will an action in one part of the operation trigger an impending impact in another part of the operation? For example can a large blast in the pit result in excess vibrations leading to tailings dam creep at the same time and is someone monitoring something this simultaneously? There are many action-reaction type events that occur in a mining operation, each with operational or cost impact. Only technology is able to instantly monitor all of these activities, assess their impacts, and provide quick decisions.
Collecting hoards of data from a site wide sensor network creates a dilemma in what to do with all the data collected. Smart cities are running into this issue. Who can sort through the data, decide what is important and what is noise, then summarize the data and report on it in real time? A human cannot deal with the amount of data being collected in such networks.
I have seen companies use fleet dispatch systems to collect gigabytes of data but then have difficulty in analyzing and making sense of it all. Sometimes the dispatch data is simply used to produce a month end production report. This is one example of where process automation may play a bigger role.
I don’t see repetitive process automation eliminating many jobs. Rather it may even increase the jobs needed to maintain and operate the virtual networks. Employment aside, I see the benefit of rPA is having a better understanding of the functioning organism called a mining operating. An operation is essentially an organism with lots of moving parts constantly making decisions requiring emotional intelligence.

Conclusion

Regarding the two technologies discussed in this blog, I personally feel robotic process automation will have far greater impact on mining industry future and its profitability.
For many years we have already seen some application of this technology (i.e. just in the mine or just in the plant). With improving sensors, increased computing power, AI, and cloud data storage, I feel that site wide integrated robotic process automation will lead the way.
However the clouds on the horizon may be the high cost of implementation, the risk of hacking (read https://kuchling.com/66-cyber-security-coming-to-a-mine-near-you), and the fact that different vendors may use different data protocols making system wide integration extremely difficult.
In my view blockchain has not yet made the case for itself. No doubt I need more education on blockchain but that will hopefully come naturally as some real life applications are introduced into our daily activities.  Read the Canadian Mining Magazine articles linked to above and see what you think the future holds for mining.
For those interested in remote tailings dam monitoring,here is an interesting CIM article “The internet of tailings“.
Note: If you would like to get notified when new blogs are posted, then sign up on the KJK mailing list on the website.  Otherwise I post notices on LinkedIn, so follow me at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/kenkuchling/.
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AI versus the Geologists

We likely have all seen recent articles about how Artificial Intelligence (AI) is going to change the mining industry.   I have been wondering if AI is a real solution or just a great buzzword.   My original skepticism has diminished somewhat and let me explain why.
At a booth at the 2019 PDAC I had a chance to speak with a publicly traded company called Albert Mining (referencing Albert Einstein’s intelligence).  They are providing exploration consulting services by applying a form of AI and have been doing so for many years.  The company has been around since 2005 but were not using the term AI to describe their methods.
These days the term “AI” has become very trendy.  Currently IBM Canada and Goldcorp are using Watson and AI to further their exploration efforts on the Red Lake property. GoldSpot Discoveries is another recent player in the mining AI field.  It appears Goldspot offers something similar to Albert Mining but they extend their platform to include picking projects, picking teams, and picking investments. That’s a lot of analysis to undertake.  Albert Mining is focused solely on mineral exploration.

Here is what I learned

Albert Mining’s system, called CARDS (Computer Aided Resource Detection System) uses pattern recognition and multi-variate analysis to examine a mineral property to look for targets.     The system requires that the property has some known mineralization hits and assay samples.  These are used to “teach” the software.   Both positive hits and negative hits are valuable in this teaching step.
The exploration property is sub-divided into cells and data are assigned to each cell.  These data attributes could be derived from geophysics, geochemistry, topography, soil samples, indicator minerals, assayed samples, geological maps, etc.  I was told that a cell could contain over 700 different data attributes.
The algorithm then examines the cell data to teach itself which attributes correlate to known mineralization and which attributes correlate with barren areas. It essentially determines a geological “signature” for each mineralization type.    There could be millions of data points and combinations of attributes.  Correlation patterns may be invisible to the naked eye, but not to the computer algorithm.
Once the geological signatures are determined, the remainder of the property is examined to look for similar signature hits.  Geological biases are eliminated since it is all data driven.   The newly defined exploration targets are given a ranking score based on the extent of correlation.
Some things to note are that the system works best for shallow deposits, unless one has some deep penetrating geophysical surveys.  The system works best if there is fairly uniform data coverage across the entire property.  The property should also have generally similar geological conditions and as mentioned before, the property needs to have some mineralized assay information.
This exploration approach reminds me somewhat of the book Moneyball.  This book is about the Oakland A’s baseball team where unconventional statistics were used to rank players in order to find hidden gems.

Are geologists becoming obsolete?

I was told that many in the geological community tend to discount the AI approach.  Either they don’t think it will work or they are fearing for their jobs.  Personally I don’t understand these fears nor can I really see how geologists can ever be eliminated.  Someone still has to collect and prepare the data as well as ultimately make the final decision on the proposed targets.   I don’t see the downside in using AI as another tool in the geologist’s toolbox.
Albert Mining’s stock price has recently gained some traction (note: I am not promoting them)  because junior mining news releases are starting to mention their name more often (Spruce Ridge Resources and Falco Resources are some examples).
Probably years ago if a mining company said their drill targets were generated by an algorithm, they might have gotten strange looks.   Today if a mining company says their drill targets were generated by AI, it gives them a cutting edge persona.  Times have changed.

In conclusion

I suggest we all take a closer looks at the AI technology to better understand what it does.
P.S. I  might also suggest that Albert Mining consider revising their company name to incorporate the term “AI” to stay on trend. (Update: In October 2019, Albert Mining changed their name to Windfall Geotek; I’m not sure it better explains what they do).
Note: If you would like to get notified when new blogs are posted, then sign up on the KJK mailing list on the website.  Otherwise I post notices on LinkedIn, so follow me at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/kenkuchling/.
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Does the Mining Industry Employ Interns?

employing interns
Over the couple of years I have been working on a side project in the tech industry.   One of the things that struck me was the hiring of interns, both paid and unpaid.
I’m now aware that interns are being hired in other industries such as legal, politics, journalism, and marketing.  However I have never come across the use of interns within the mining industry.
Intern

Why hire interns?

I was recently talking to a marketing consultant about tips on tech marketing and one of the suggestions she made was to hire an unpaid intern.  They would do much of the legwork of finding sales contacts and establishing contact with them.
My first question was why would anyone work for free?  There are  three main reasons:
  1. For school credit; as part of a course credit in college or university where an internship is part of the program requirement.
  2. For experience; it is difficult to get a real job without experience and so the internship teaches, builds  experience, and establishes a portfolio of work.
  3. Networking; building up industry connections can possibly lead to permanent work down the road.

Its the right thing to do

At first I was taken aback at the thought of asking someone to work for my company for free.  Are we that cheap?
Thinking about it further, if you are paying someone a salary the expectation is that they should be somewhat skilled at their job.  I have come to realize that the internship may actually be a win-win for both parties.

Its a win-win

The company gets a chance to learn about potential employees and also gets productive service from them.
The intern gains employment experience and learns about the realities of the business world.  Students have already paid the schools to teach them.  Now businesses can help teach them more, but at no cost.   It’s a win-win for both.
So how did our unpaid intern search go?  We posted a free ad on indeed.ca.  Within 72 hours we received over ten replies, of which only 2-3 came close to meeting the actual qualifications.  Some of the applicants had no relevant experience at all.
Possibly in today’s job market people are willing to work for free on the hope that they can get some experience, which will hopefully lead to a permanent job in the future.

Conclusion

The question is whether the mining industry can make use of interns in the areas of geology, engineering, marketing, presentation graphics, websites, etc?
There may be many students or recent grads looking for an opportunity and are willing to do whatever it takes to  advance their careers.
Even if your operating budget can’t afford the cost of hiring another person, you may still have a chance to help out someone new in the industry.
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Windshieldink – New Smartphone App

license plate messaging
During the recent years, the slowdown in the mining industry has given me time to pursue a few side interests. Writing this mining blog was one of those interests.
The other was developing a new smartphone mobile app called Windshieldink. The tag line is “it’s the new way to leave a note on a windshield”. The website is Windshieldink.com
Windshieldink image

Here is an overview

Windshieldink’s messaging platform allows anyone to anonymously assign an email address to a license plate.  Others can send messages to those vehicle owners  using the mobile app and the vehicle license plate number.
Registering a license plate with Windshieldink is free. The app provides users the options of receiving their messages via e-mail and phone texts. You also have the option of receiving app push notifications, or attaching contact information, or attaching a GPS location within the message.  There is also an in-app chat functionality.

Stats Canada reported 23.9 million motor vehicle registrations in 2015

Based on personal experience, the desire to be reachable in an emergency via my license plate number was recognized as far back as the mid-1990’s.  Its becoming even more recognized as new vehicles, driverless vehicles come on to our the roadways daily.
Windshieldink logoPrimarily businesses, such as fleet operators, delivery services, city maintenance services can register thousands of their plates and assign a safety office email or dispatcher to each.  The public can then provide feedback on problem drivers.
The Windshieldink messaging platform will function globally.  However our primary focus is North America due to our limited marketing capacity.

Its Free!

The app is now free to download from Google Play Store and App Store and hopefully simple to use.   Learning how the tech world operates, has been an eye opener for someone who has working in the mining industry their entire life.
Here is a video on how the app works.
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