Interview with CMIC President John Thompson – December 7, 2012
January 04, 2013
CMIC held an interview with John Thompson, who has been president of the Canada Mining Innovation Council as of May 2012, to discuss innovation in the industry and future plans for our organization.
You were an academic before you worked at Teck. Do you think that is an asset in your role with CMIC?
Definitely! I ran MDRU at UBC, an industry-based and funded research group, which is a real benefit in the context of CMIC. I was able to work directly with 30 or so industry members to formulate research programs for their benefit that they would fund. We were also able to attract additional funding from NSERC and other organizations. A lot of what we do at CMIC is a much larger-scale version of that role, and hence the MDRU experience is very useful for me.
As a former VP of one of Canada's largest mining companies, how do you see innovation as a driver of profitability in the industry?
It’s enormously important for two reasons. One is that mining is a very tough industry, both in complexity and scale. The industry needs new approaches to maintain productivity and profitability but it also tends to be conservative, which makes innovation and the development and delivery of new technology challenging.
The second reason is that the problems are getting increasingly more significant each year. In several critical commodities, we aren’t discovering new resources and reserves at the same rate that we’re mining them. At the same time, many of our mines are getting older, requiring us to go deeper underground or bigger in open pits. On a purely logistical basis we’re moving more rock for less product on an increasing basis, and the only solutions to this dilemma will come through new technology.
So industry has both a need and, in spite of conservative tendencies, an increasing appetite to look at ways to innovate, produce new technologies and implement them into operations. Innovation will be very important going forward.
What do you see as the main barriers to innovation in the Canadian mining industry?
The biggest barrier is the challenge of piloting, testing, and implementing new mining and processing technologies in a very challenging environment. A second one, given the cost and scale of mining operations, is minimizing the risk when introducing new technologies. Obviously, if you're spending five billion dollars to build a mine, you want it to work. So, there's a natural inclination to go with tried and trusted technologies rather than the new technologies that we need.
How do you think we can overcome these barriers?
CMIC and other groups are trying to increase the amount of work going on and come up with new products, new solutions, and new ideas. The more work we do in this area, the more our solutions will resonate with industry’s challenges and issues, and the more industry will want to embrace them. It’s a real challenge to stop an operation to try something new when you don’t have complete certainty that it’s going to work. As the industry’s margins are squeezed and their costs go up, they will be increasingly aware that they need to try new things and will have an incentive to do so.
Overall, the industry has done pretty well over the last five or ten years relative to how it was in the previous decades. Many in the industry realize that the next decade will not be as easy without making changes. The mining industry is looking at ways to pilot and test new ideas and new technologies, so we must provide them with the ideas.
What do you consider the most important mining innovations that you have seen during your career to date?
It's a tough question because there are many. On the exploration front, analytical chemistry has changed dramatically so we now can test for far more elements at far lower levels of detection. Geophysical techniques have improved and we have new airborne technologies, which have had a great impact. And our understanding of the deposits has significantly improved, although it's not complete.
On the mining side, the most important innovation has been the improved efficiency of operations through the integration of mining and milling, the introduction of GPS and GIS, integrated with mine planning, and control systems for operations.
In terms of processing, the most important innovations have been hydrometallurgy and leach technologies.
What are the innovations you think are most necessary in the future?
We still have a lot of work to do in improving our discovery rate by integrating exploration technologies and making better use of the data they generate. The integration of mining and processing and the potential for automation are going to be major changes that we will see in the near future. On the environmental side, we need to truly understand how our rocks and waste behave over time and to mitigate potential issues. And, lastly, we need to reduce the amount of energy and water that we use.
What do you see as the priority or priorities for CMIC during your tenure as president?
My big picture priority is to transition CMIC from a cooperative effort, whereby we have very successfully reached out, consulted, and listened to key players, into an organization that's delivering projects, programs, and results that make a difference, providing innovation to sustain the industry.
The CMIC membership seems largely divided between three types of organizations: industry, government, and academia. What is the key to balancing the interests of these disparate groups?
Engagement and listening; they all have valid perspectives and needs. At the end of the day, we're trying to improve the industry's performance, so we need industry to embrace the solutions, but government and academia are critical to how we provide these solutions. We have to work with all three in a very effective and open manner.
As president, what do you consider the largest challenges currently facing CMIC?
Maximizing the efficiency of our volunteer time. All of our volunteers are busy people and we're asking a lot of them, so we need to get the best results with a minimum amount of volunteer time involved. Part of that involves continuing to build CMIC’s organizational effectiveness. Another part is to make sure that we understand how we're going to fund our programs and projects going into the future.
What do you expect CMIC to look like in the next three to five years?
CMIC will be far more recognized across the country, particularly in the mining industry, but I would hope more broadly as well, as a leading example of how you achieve collaboration and hence deliver innovation that benefits the industry and Canada. CMIC will be widely recognized nationally and also internationally, but will still function as a relatively small, efficient group of people, working with a much larger group of volunteers in an effective and collaborative way.