North-west Queensland has punched above its weight on the global stage when it comes to mining industry innovation.
CRC Ore director Joe Pease believes it is part of the culture of the place and can be traced back to the grit it has taken to harness the region’s riches from the pioneering times.
Mr Pease, inducted into the International Mining Hall of Fame last year for his contributions to advancing comminution technology, is a minerals Industry consultant with 35 years’ experience – including 22 years spent in the North West.
He is among the speakers at the AusIMM North West Queensland Branch regional conference being held at the Cloncurry Community Precinct today.
“There are a number of technologies that have come out of that region and been adopted around the world now,” Mr Pease said.
“It’s really way over-represented in the success of innovation. I think that goes all the way back to the early settlers who started out there when things were tough, before the railway got out to Cloncurry.
“They started to make copper mines work – and that was in the days where every bit of kit they had had to come in by horse or bullock.
“I think the first ore that Ernest Henry mined he used bullocks to cart it to Normanton and then ship it to Liverpool, and it cost three times as much to get it to Normanton from Cloncurry as it did to get it to Liverpool.
“The hardships they had to put up with just to make a living meant that to them innovation wasn’t a fancy buzz word. It was just fundamental to survival.”
Mr Pease said his talk would highlight the technologies that came out of Mount Isa in the 1970s, ’80s and ‘90s.
“The people who helped develop and market those were standing on the shoulders of the giants who went before them – so they are just examples,” he said.
“Probably now the best-recognised technologies to come out were things like the IsaSmelt, IsaMill fine grinding technology, Jameson cell for floatation, the copper refining technology out of Townsville called IsaProcess and another one, the Albion leaching process.”
Mr Pease was involved in developing such technology in his role as chief executive officer of what was then Xstrata Technology.
“You hear people say that the mining industry is conservative and needs to innovate more, but the fact is it’s different than other businesses,” Mr Pease said.
“It has certain characteristics that make it really hard to introduce new technology and almost unavoidable that it takes 20 or 30 years to do it.”
While the mining sector was urged to look to how Silicon Valley rolled out new technology for a lead on innovation, Mr Pease believed this was the wrong model.
That industry could take a ‘fail fast, fail often’ approach to innovation, he said.
But technology in mining often entailed assets worth many millions that must withstand a harsh environment for decades, he said.
“It is tough duty, and it has to be backwards compatible with anything else you’ve got and forwards compatible with anything that might come in in the next 20 years,” Mr Pease said.
“That’s quite a different task then, say, designing a new phone. They have a different business model because they know people will update in a few years or replace it if it cracks, but in the mining business you buy that grinding mill and you can replace the internal liners but pretty much that’s something you are going to be keeping for 30 years.
“Those industries are very good at what they do but I don’t think we should beat ourselves up because we are not like them.
“We are not like them for a reason.”