Editorial July 2019: On courage and innovation

In about the year 1440, Johannes Gutenberg combined his experience of goldsmithing with a novel use of a Rhineland wine press. The resulting printing press revolutionized the world. In 1903 the Wright brothers brought the internal combustion engine together with a growing knowledge of gliders and aerodynamics. They flew. Many, if not most, revolutionary technologies arise by bringing together two maturing but unrelated developments.

Doctor Stuart Kauffman introduced the idea of the adjacent possible in relation to prebiotic chemical combinations, all the possible combinations that could arise from a primordial soup. Author Steven Johnson took this further in his 2010 book Where good ideas come from, saying the adjacent possible is “a kind of shadow future hovering on the edge of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself”.

This pathway to innovation has always applied in the mining industry. In 1808 John Taylor, a mining engineer, developed the Cornish rolls crusher after seeing an apple cider crusher on a farm visit. In 1831, William Bickford, a merchant, invented the safety fuse after visiting a rope maker. And so it goes.

The electric revolution and digital transformation are two parallel streams that are coming together. High-capacity batteries and smart communication will rapidly change the way we operate. I was one of the runners up in a competition at Austmine Mining’s Big Idea 2019.  My idea was about using electric drones to haul crushed ore. I don’t expect to see this anytime soon, but one day? Imagine drones flying out of a portal high on a mountainside, across some jungle and a wide river, to a plant or railhead! Like a European wasp nest.

The leading obstacle to our future mine is the conservatism of decision makers. Bickford’s fuse took many years to become popular because it was more expensive per shot than rolling powder in a quill. Never mind that it saved lives and enabled multiple shots to be fired at once with predicable timing. Similarly, new products today struggle for acceptance.

One of the Austmine vendors said that his product will not sell because it is substantially more expensive than the existing technology. It will save lots of capital and operating expense elsewhere in the mine, but decisions are made on upfront cost. One of the speakers was quite comfortable in telling us that, although he thinks a particular technology is great and is the future, he will not try it until it has been proven at someone else’s mine.

Herbert Hoover looked at a mountain of zinc sulphide tailings and thought “I don’t know how we will process that, but let’s form a company to buy it and develop the technology.” There were many technological mis-steps along the way, but the Zinc Corporation became a success and Hoover became President of the USA. More recently, Andrew Forrest saw an opportunity in laterite nickel but suffered serious setbacks. Others might have abandoned a career in mine development, but he went on to build iron ore mines using innovative mining technology. Today, he is one of the richest Australians.

We have a corporate fear of failure. One bad project outcome sends a CEO to the retirement bench. Fortunately, we have a new generation of managers coming on, women and men who are attuned to digital technologies and are not afraid to innovate. The old curricula for mining engineering, geology and mineral processing did not produce many innovative professionals. The imaginative few did not often rise to positions where they could authorize substantial risky expenditure.

The adjacent possible really needs three elements. Two emerging technologies that can be brought together in an innovative way. And a person with imagination and authority to risk failure, perhaps several times, because they believe in the idea and in themselves. We live at a very interesting time.

 Peter McCarthy


Chairman Emeritus / Principal Mining Consultant