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Interview with Rick Howes - A Mining CEO with a vision for a digital mine.

MineRP’s Empie Strydom spent some time talking to Rick Howes (CEO of Dundee Precious Metals) about what it takes to run a digital mine. Here are the key takeaways from their discussion. You can also listen to their podcast here.

“My passion has always been to see how we (mining) can do things better. I grew up in the industry and watched how technology and innovation happened over time. I always had the idea that there were opportunities to drive better performance, run safer operations, do things more sustainably. Finding those ways never left me.” – Rick Howes

Empie Strydom: What do you think is the biggest opportunity digital transformation will give mining?

Rick Howes: I would say the biggest opportunity in mining today is to change the speed at which we are able to do things. Being able to respond to the volatile and changing environment we are faced with – both internally and externally, is what is going to differentiate the companies of tomorrow from companies of the past.

E/S: The industry is talking a lot about digitizing and adding digital solutions to the current ways we are working. Where do you think our main focus should be?

R/H: There is a huge opportunity in the ability to use data in a way that allows business to essentially be more precise, more proactive, and be able to make decisions based on better information. How data is being gathered, collected and used is the key to all of this. It isn’t simple, and it is a whole set of things that need to happen – including the technology changes. But the biggest challenges are probably more around the cultural and social aspects of it. It is about how people see their roles at the company and what the benefits of these digital changes are, and whether people are prepared to buy into that or not. Changing processes and involving people in that change critical to a successful transition to digital.

E/S: There is a big conversation around digital solutions, digital transformation and things like AI and their impact on the workforce and expected job losses? But shouldn’t the bigger conversation be about how should the current people in their current jobs be doing their jobs differently. What should the conversation be about at this point in time?

R/H:I think we are jumping too far ahead on this subject. You need to walk before you can run in the digital world, and we are not running or even jogging. We might be crawling or walking a little bit in terms of our potential and what else we can still do. Better information will give us a better understanding of how people carry out tasks and get their job done. So initially it isn’t as much about job losses because of automation, but it is where the conversation will end eventually. As the technology becomes more advanced and we get more comfortable with the idea of not having people operating machinery or in the workplace itself in terms of getting things done.

E/S: There is no specific recipe or any one problem a mining company should start with, but in your opinion, what are some of the critical things mines must put in place foundationally in order to go forward with this digital journey?

R/H:I see a lot of companies looking to point solutions for problems and it’s certainly a pathway to get there, but at Dundee we chose a different way of getting there. It is difficult to integrate all these different components, and we were looking for a more seamless way to run our business. We were constantly thinking about running the business from and end to end integrated point of view. Where we started foundationally was to really look at our operating model. On how we define how work gets planned, scheduled and executed. That was the core of our business, so we really dissected that, took it apart and rebuilt it and then introduced the technology that allowed us to do all of that that better. People use the words “short interval control”, which was something we also did early on. But there is a broader context to this, which is really integrated mine planning, integrated business planning, a fully integrated master schedule and how you execute and get the feedback on that execution. Connecting the discreet parts of your business so you have a business acting as a unit. I think for most companies there is probably be a 30-40% uplift in performance. Whether that is through increase production, reduced costs or better productivity.

E/S: Spending capital on technology, specifically information technology as opposed to hardware technology or machines is sometimes that many mines struggle to get their heads around?

R/H:I think it is simple in terms of value proposition, because if you look at our mines today, and the inefficiency around how we schedule adherence to the plan, how much work is planned, gets done or is reactive and just scrambling? Unplanned work is about 50% less efficient than planned work. So just having your work planned and executing and following your schedule immediately transfers into a more efficient operation because you reduce the amount of unplanned work.

E/S: Do you see your peers finding value in using digital platforms?

R/H:It is bearing fruit for us, at Dundee, but we started this a long time ago in 2010, producing the wireless connectivity that allowed some of these things to happen. We’ve been at it for 10 years, and we have seen about a 30% improvement overall. I see other businesses going down that road too, and I think even though they started later, they are still reaping the benefits.

There is a maturity curve every company needs to go through during this transition, you need to bring your people and processes along as well. The key is to not take this project/journey on yourself, but rather include partners. So if your aspirations are big, sit down with those who are more knowledgeable about these opportunities, and who can guide you on a path to get there. This is not something any mine should do themselves.

If you enjoyed this interview, be sure to visit the MineWarp podcast page, for more fascinating conversations!

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