Lack of funding is the biggest impediment to innovation

Denise Callahan, Director MO Analytics and Strategic Planning at the Doe Run Company, discusses the challenges of funding on innovation, how digitisation can help meet sustainability goals, and her must successful failure to date.

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Denise Callahan, The Doe Run Company

Denise Callahan is Director MO Analytics and Strategic Planning at The Doe Run Company. Before we hear more from her at the upcoming Mines and Technology London, taking place at the Business Design Centre 25-27 November, I sat down with Denise to find out more about her attitudes towards the current state of innovation in the mining industry. 

In terms of innovation in mining technology what is the major challenge facing the industry right now and why? 

One of the major impediments that I see to the drive to innovation is funding.  As with other discretionary expenditures, research and development is often among the first items to be cut during a down cycle.  The search for new approaches, whether through new breakthrough technologies or simply adoption of new ways of doing things, requires new ways to fund innovation, especially for junior producers.  For example, restrictions on funding may drive the use of ‘Proof of Concepts’ to allow testing of new technologies with limited capital investment until a business case can be developed for a larger deployment. 

What are the cultural challenges of introducing technological change in a mining company? 

The most significant challenge to introducing technology change in a mining company is often cultural acceptance of new and different ways of working.  It is critical to engage all levels of stakeholders throughout the project, from the equipment operators to the executive team.  Everyone involved needs to understand why the changes are being made.  Stakeholders need to be involved in providing input to the project in order to design an optimal solution that they will support.  When implementing a data-based decision culture, support needs to be provided to those expected to use the data so they understand what the data means and options for taking action based on that data.  It is also critical to maintain momentum on these projects by finding committed champions and by communicating positive results.

What is the biggest bottom-line benefit that innovating in technology has bought to your company?

For Doe Run, digital transformation has had a positive impact on all three pillars of sustainability.  In the environmental area, digital transformation has improved our environmental monitoring and provided insight into how operational changes impact our environmental footprint.  In the social area, we are providing a safer work area through proximity monitoring and by using drones to eliminate the need to put workers in potentially hazardous areas.  In the financial area, we’ve increased revenue by providing the data necessary to improve decision-making on product mix and are looking to data to increase metal recovery in our mills.  The biggest bottom-line benefit from innovation is a reduction in operational costs, through increased productivity and right-sizing inventory.

How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success?

Recently I was involved in selecting a champion for a digital transformation project.  Doe Run was working closely with a vendor on a proof of concept (PoC).  The vendor recommended that we conduct the PoC at one of our mines with a champion who felt very strongly about the need for success and the criticality of using data to run daily operations.  Instead we decided to conduct the PoC at one of our mines that was not performing well and that could greatly benefit from improved efficiencies.  However, the mine superintendent at that location did not feel as strongly about the criticality of using data to make decisions regarding daily operations.  As a result, there was a major struggle throughout the project to keep operational staff engaged in the project.  While the project was eventually a success, it took much longer than it should have to produce positive results.  I’ve learned that it is critical to select a strong champion upfront.

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

I am hoping to reach those involved with technology at small-to-medium sized mines that want to move forward with digital transformation, but don’t have significant resources to do so.  I’d like the audience to leave with new ideas on methods for determining ideal use cases for digital transformation; options for funding, partnerships and technology platforms; and ways to ensure a return on investment through engaging stakeholders and driving cultural change.

Denise Callahan will be presenting a case study on How junior producers can achieve significant ROI with predictive data analytics at the upcoming Mines and Technology London, taking place at the Business Design Centre in London, 25-27 November.

Andrew Thake

Head of Content, Mines and Money