Removing bottlenecks is the key to innovation

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Fred Stanford, Torex Gold

Fred Stanford is the President and Chief Executive Officer of Torex Gold Resources. Before he joins us at Mines and Technology London to discuss new approaches to improving on-site efficiencies, I caught up with him to discuss his current outlook on the mining industry.

In terms of innovation in mining technology where does the biggest opportunity lie and why?

Mining has a production system and a series of supporting service systems.  The production system is a series of processes that either transforms the primary product (ore), transports it, or stores it.  One of these processes will be the bottleneck of the production system.  Improving the bottleneck is always where the opportunity lies.  Far too often, when the location of the bottleneck is not understood, the focus goes to the wrong area.  In so doing, the process might be improved, but the performance of the overall system will not be.  This then feels like wasted money, which is why innovation sometimes gets a bad reputation.  Innovation needs to be applied to increasing throughput in the bottleneck or reducing consumption of inputs in the non-bottleneck processes.

What are the cultural challenges of introducing technological change in a mining company? How do you win ‘hearts and minds?’

The joy of work is in having the discretion to make decisions.  Decisions such as how to solve a workplace challenge.  A great deal of technological change actually reduces decision making discretion because computer algorithms are making the decisions instead.  In many cases, algorithms can make better decisions than employees can, due to their ability to process vastly more data in a very short time.  However, that understanding is not going to win over hearts and minds.  The joy of decision-making discretion needs to exist, if the hearts and minds are going to be ‘won over.’ 

In effect, the decisions eliminated by technical change need to be replaced by decision making of another type.  Perhaps you used to make decisions about when to add reagents in a mineral processing operation and now you are making decisions on continuous improvement initiatives in the processing operation.  We don’t have to make it any more complicated than recognizing that decision making is the joy of work.  We can change the decisions being made, but if we want to win hearts and minds, we cannot reduce the number of decisions and the complexity of decisions employees make.

How is your company responding to events such as Brumadinho and the need to rethink tailings and water management solutions?

We are ahead of the curve on tailings management, so we did not need to do anything differently after Brumadinho.  When we built our El Limón Guajes mine, we installed the world’s largest high-pressure tailings filtration facility to eliminate the risk of a failure, such as occurred at Brumandinho.  We also utilized many other technological innovations to improve safety and reduce environmental risks.  We are now developing our own proprietary technology for underground mining, which we expect will reduce costs and lead to a lower carbon footprint.

How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success? Do you have a “favourite failure” of yours?

I like the phrase “battle tested confidence”.  For executives, I see the primary issue as having had the exposure to a wide range of business issues.  The point is to have the experience to be able to judge the root cause of issues to be faced in the future.  Such experience will inform quality judgement as to how to deal with business issues.  In gaining the experience, there will always be wins and losses.  Whether it is a win or a loss, the key is to emerge from the experience with enhanced judgement that will be applied to future situations.

Can you tell us a little bit about what you will be discussing at the upcoming Mines and Technology? 

I will be talking about our proprietary mining technology that we call Muckahi.  It is in the testing phase now and when implemented will improve basically any mining metric that you would want to see improved, such as safety, environmental impact, or cost.

 Fred Stanford, President and Chief Executive Officer at Torex Gold is a speaker at the upcoming Mines and Technology London, taking place at the Business Design Centre, 25-27 November. He will be delivering a case study, Does the rush to digitisation always make business sense? New approaches to make underground mining more efficient, safer, and more profitable.

Andrew Thake

Head of Content, Mines and Money