Mining Technology: The Need for Survival is Driving Innovation

The president of Seabridge Gold says the mining industry can learn from the oil sector, and sees survival of high-cost mines as the main driver of equipment technology.

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Jay Layman

Jay Layman, the president and COO of Seabridge Gold Inc., has confirmed that he will be presenting the Toronto-based gold explorer at Mines and Technology London in November. We caught up with him to hear his views on recent technology innovations and how this might affect the sector. 

What can delegates expect to learn from your presentation?

I will be discussing the cultural challenges to innovation I have experienced over the past 20 years ­— what I have seen work, and what has not. 

What new technology innovation have you seen over the past 12 months that most excites you?

Development of the mobile miner (today's version of tunnel boring) is by far the most exciting innovation. It offers the opportunity to increase meterage by a factor of two to four times vs current drill and blast techniques. This can cut years off development schedules, and hundreds of millions of dollars off the cost of developing large block cave mines and/or mines with long access and/or water diversion tunnels. 

What can the mining sector learn from other industries when it comes to technology implementation?

The oil and gas industry constantly innovates no matter the prevailing price environment. It does this to maintain, or to increase, competitive advantage. The mining sector can also learn from the high-tech industries that failure is good as it provides a learning experience on which we can build. 

When it comes to implementing mining innovation, what is the biggest challenge you have faced?

The biggest challenge is the culture, and education, at the board and senior-management level. For example, when I kicked off the innovation effort at Newmont ten years ago, within two months of starting the project the board was asking for results. Some resistance to change remains at the mine-site level, but that is changing as the workforce is becoming more technology literate, and the new generation understands that, in many cases, for the mine it is innovate or die (shut down). Also, when innovation increases safety and/or improves working conditions, in addition to productivity, the workers at the face quickly get on board. 

What have been the most important innovations for the exploration sector?

In exploration, most advances have been incremental with regard to remote sensing. The lone exception is the development of down-the-hole technologies for real-time identification of minerals, alterations and grade. Although we still lag the oil industry, we are starting to catch up with miniaturisation of technologies that now exist in the core shack, and will soon be down-the-hole. 

To what extent, do you think, does the price behaviour of gold effect the speed and/or direction of these innovations?

Years ago I would have said high prices lead to bigger R&D budgets, which in turn enhances innovation. Now I see survival as the driving factor in innovation. South Africa, with its deep mines, is leading the charge because without innovation most of the industry there will become uneconomic. So lower prices are having a big effect. 

What role do exploration companies play generally in the speed and/or direction of these innovations? 

Culturally, junior exploration companies will take more risks and try new technologies more quickly than the majors, so they can be a driver on the exploration side. It comes down to cost, however, as most investors who fund the juniors want their dollars spent on drilling, and not on trying new things. So the right shareholders are a big part of the equation. 

Jay Layman will be presenting at the upcoming Mines and Technology taking place in London, 25-27 November 2019.

This article was originally published 

Chris Hinde

Chief Commentator, Mining Beacon

Previously editorial director of Mining Journal, and more recently head of S&P Global Market Intelligence's metals and mining team, Chris is now Mining Beacon's editor-in-chief and lead commentator. He posts two blogs every week, one on Monday reviewing market conditions over the prior week, and a second on Thursday looking at issues on the global mining scene. There is also a quarterly blog on business opportunities in the sector.