It is no secret that non-gold mining in Canada is struggling to stay alive. Some mining executives liken it to fighting a war. As a result, there is a real urgency among some mining executives to accelerate the process of automation in the industry.
“We got to where we are on the back of our rich mineral resources,” Eric Kossatz, vice-president of mining for Inco’s Ontario Division says. “But now we’re in trouble because we’re too complacent with the present and not too prepared for the future.”
One delegate at a 2-day symposium on Automation in Mining where Mr Kossatz spoke last week, suggested the industry become a leader by adopting the objective of having no men working in underground mines by the year 2000. A flagship mine for such a seemingly far-fetched effort already exists. It’s a softrock potash mine near Moose Jaw, Sask., operated by Kalium Chemicals which uses solution mining methods to produce 1.5 million tons of refined potash annually without the need for a single man underground.
While this may be a situation facilitated by very special mining conditions there is a general concensus that automation in a somewhat different form in hardrock mines must proceed and that effort must be market driven. That is to say we must teach the high-tech people how to profit from automation in mining.
After two days of presentations by mining companies, researchers and the like in Sudbury, it appears as though there is a general realization in the industry that a duplication of technological research and development work is wasteful and time consuming. Having everyone working in their own little corner is slowing down the process of transferring bench-scale technology from the labs to the mines where they can be put to use.
Also there appears to be gaping holes in the organizational path that new technologies typically follow from their inception as a pie-in-the-sky idea to a practical mining tool.
One solution to both of these problems, intitiated by the Ontario Mining Association and the Mining Association of Canada is to set up a mining research directorate to manage all the labs across the country and to promote and finance two centres of excellence modelled after the highly successful Centre for Resource Studies at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. The two proposed centres would deal with two very broad areas of mines research — automation/robotics and rock mechanics.
They would be located in Montreal, centred around McGill University and Ecole Polytechnique and at Elliot Lake around the newly completed geomechanical laboratories of canmet and the rock mechanics chair at Laurentian University in Sudbury.
Conspicuous by their absence, however, in this very important national initiative is a lack of western representation. A recent symposium on surface mine equipment selection held at the University of Calgary attacted 180 international guests. This kind of turnout indicates the international and national significance of this important topic. Participation by the Coal Association of Canada and the newly opened Coal Research Centre in Devon, Alta., at this early stage to promote a centre of excellence for surface mine equipment design in Calgary, for example, would make the OMA/MAC initiative a truly national one. Then the initiative would have the support of everyone in the industry and would give the high-tech companies the big markets they need to make automation a reality.