Innovation Profile: Jeremy Butler, Maptek
For innovation to exist, it’s essential to have innovation champions; people who truly believe in and embody innovation in their day to day work life.
Last month, Austmine reached out for people in the industry to nominate their peers, colleagues or associates who they felt were innovation champions.
In their first profile, Austmine puts the spotlight on Jeremy Butler, Technology Analyst at Maptek. Jeremy was nominated for "being at the forefront of advancing systems in spatial data capturing and reporting, whilst being helpful and down to earth."
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself? Where do you currently work and how has the progression of your career brought you to this point?
After finishing school I started my career as an Electrical Drafter for low voltage to 33kV infrastructure. At this time I developed a compulsion to find better, faster and more efficient ways of doing things. I developed object recognition and automated drafting algorithms that could more than offset the time spent on development, generating faster results, especially when distributed across an office. The result was a competitive edge for the company.
In 2009 I took on a surveying cadetship with Anglo American. This allowed me to study towards formal qualifications and be paid while doing it. At Anglo I created incremental productivity improvements for my peers, automating monotonous tasks and changing the way people worked. I was also introduced to Maptek hardware and software survey systems.
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In 2011, an opportunity arose at Maptek and I spent several years working with Maptek I-Site laser scanners. I started collaborating with various mining professionals and a new multi-skilled team to develop my idea based on my field experience. Two years later this work resulted in the commercialization of PerfectDig. The lessons and experiences gained in evolving an idea though to a commercial product led to my new role of Technology Analyst. Now I spend my time replicating this type of thinking across other new ideas for Maptek.
In April 2015 you won the SSSI Qld Spatial Science Technology Prize. What did it mean to you to win this prize? What did it take to win it?
The SSSI award, along with the 2013 IEMSQ Associate Degree Prize and 2013 Laser & Survey Solutions Prize, were granted in recognition of maintaining a very high GPA for the duration of my Bachelor of Spatial Science Technology. For me it represents external recognition for the many hours of work put into my studies. The motivation in maintaining these results derived from working full time and being paid to study, so I considered it as much part of my job as anything else. Actively working and studying in the same field also gave me access to resources, data, technology, software and real life scenarios that made the theory relevant.
What would your advice be to people just starting out in the mining or mining services and technology sector, who want to make a difference in the way the industry thinks or works? What are some of those first important steps they must take?
Improving processes and projects is a good way to get noticed! Starting a project and tackling the early work is best done alone or with a small group. Once improvement can be proven or shown, then share it with others. If the idea has not worked as planned then move on. This approach provides instant gratification for people who see it working successfully and means they don’t need to worry as much about resourcing or risk for an idea not fully understood or implemented. You need to be flexible in your approach and balance work and personal requirements.
Patience, persistence and networking are very important for people who want to make a difference in mining which is a relatively conservative industry. Developing new products and services requires support and resources, political allies, a strong personality, vision and drive. Coming up with an idea is like planting a seed; many other factors, skills and people are required to make it grow.
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The pathway I took was to firstly create a voice– conceptualize and expose ideas and ensure they are heard by the right people in some form. Recognize what resources may be required to evolve the idea and where you might find them (investors, businesses, personal); this is an important part on larger projects where finance, people and business risk all become involved.
To innovate, you need to believe in your own ideas and be able to influence others to believe in them too. Growing this ability is a key part of being able to market to and influence wider audiences. Ideas should be backed up with proof of concepts and supporting evidence. Once one person can appreciate the improvement and a commitment to resourcing is made, then market research and prototyping work begins (if not done before gaining resource commitments). In some cases it will be difficult to get started on real development until customer research and communication, risk mitigation, prototyping, value propositions, project management plans, design plans and preliminary business plans are investigated. During development, sales, marketing, branding and business plans are also formed in detail around the product.
Big ideas can carry big risk, and with great excitement and enthusiasm there will also be much harsh criticism and scepticism. You need to be able to take on feedback and use it to improve or adapt the idea, including knowing when to abandon it. Criticism can be brutal and belittling. However, it can be effective at helping to establish where to focus on the value, or improve your ideas. Without that feedback you won’t know where your insight into your own ideas is lacking.
You also need to consider factors that are important to the industry. A unique, fun, cool and exciting idea may be fine for consumer level products, but may not have tangible advantages to a business. Working in a particular field and using that experience to thoroughly ascertain the advantages that your idea will create is much more effective.
Depending on the scope of the project, this early development phase can take anywhere from days to years.
Intellectual property can be difficult to understand. If you have big plans and you want to use investors or create your own business or resources to back it--make sure your employer(s) state they have no interest in it and will not provide support, resources or development for the idea or project. You also need to have a solid understanding if investment is involved.
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A web project I started in 2010 is a good example of creating your own voice. Mine surveyor (www.minesurveyor.net) was set up to provide information to students interested in mine surveying as a career. I receive many enquiries through the website from existing and potential students for advice on getting into the industry (not just surveying or in Australia) and how they could start a career in mining. I also receive inquiries from businesses through the web platform which allows networking.
What does innovation mean to you personally?
Innovation involves the process of taking a vision or an existing product with significant room for improvement, understanding and quantifying the value, and evolving it into tangible deliverables.
A unique idea is a start, but innovation also includes the sometimes overwhelming endeavours to turn that idea into something valuable.
Did you have a mentor who helped you along the way?
I’ve worked closely with Peter Johnson (Managing Director/CEO at Maptek) and Simon Ratcliffe (Product Development Director at Maptek) for the last four years. They have mentored me in developing skills in project management, risk mitigation, commercialization and strategizing, appreciation for culture, paradigms and globalization, visionary thinking, value propositioning and team based product design and development.
Can you give us an example of where you feel you saw real innovation at work in a company or project you were involved in?
At Maptek, I introduced an idea which took 2 years from gaining support, conceptual design, proof of concept and client approval through team building, prototyping and improvements, to commercialization. The product PerfectDig recently won the South Australian Industrial & Resources, 2015 Australian Information Industry Association iAward.
PerfectDig development was undertaken by a small group of software engineers using an agile development approach. Frequent consultation with internal and external clients for testing and guidance helped the team ensure our product met real world needs.
PerfectDig provides a different way of communicating mine design conformance to existing options of 3D surfaces, machine guidance and survey pegs. It uses a photograph (which people were taking and roughly annotating frequently throughout production stages) and augments it with real, accurate 3D information to clearly communicate design conformance. The photo is a realistic representation of an as-built surface compared to a design surface that anyone can interpret and relate to.
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Appreciating that people can have difficulty relating 3D surfaces and 2D plans to the real world was my ‘lightbulb’ moment. Visualising how a completed design may look and understanding that machine guidance and survey pegs focus on only one point at any point in time were major insights. PerfectDig now enables a photograph to be used as the communication medium between 3D data and the real world. It uses millions of points over a large area in that single photo. A snapshot taken with PerfectDig and a laser scanner with an integrated camera, allows people to see within minutes where design conformance is achieved or missed in an open pit mine, including entire walls, from a single perspective.
Value in PerfectDig was identified around regulatory conformance, cost of production and time required to generate similar results using other methods. Savings resulting from a single instance of non-conformance, which could lead to a wall failure, commodity losses, re-scheduling, or fleet management costs, can be offset against a single license. PerfectDig software pays for itself by providing timely results that can be used for improved decision making.
An online platform was introduced to allow the results to be disseminated to various stakeholders who could remotely (including via a mobile platform) interact with the data and conduct queries such as cross-sections. The unique way PerfectDig interrogates data allows cross-section and conformance information to be analysed in true 3D as opposed to a 2.5D topography surface, which is ideal for exposing undulating wall features.
Frequent client interaction identified processes and procedures widely applied in current design conformance methodology and which meant mine staff spent many hours or days creating design conformance reports. By analysing the requirements through various businesses we devised a method of automating the reporting process, reducing the time taken from many hours to minutes. The same technology has now been applied to other Maptek products.
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The initial vision and innovation has been realized in PerfectDig. The system continues to be improved through client feedback and requests for enhancements. I make a special thanks to Anthony Gibbs, Matt Harris, Peter Iannella and Simon Ratcliffe for their work and support through the development and enabling an idea to become a reality.
Innovation can often become a fluffy term. How can people avoid this and ensure tangible processes, goals and measurements are applied to innovation practices?
An idea that never evolves beyond an idea is not innovation; it’s just an idea. A development (or process) that is not significantly discernible from similar developments (or processes) is not an innovation. Innovation requires a level of differentiation.
To ensure an idea is heard and to evolve it into something that can be considered innovative requires innovators to consider how things can be done differently, better or more productively, and instead of simply adopting or improving current technology or processes, to consider what could be done to supersede it in future.
Innovation therefore should involve risk (for example time, resources, failure or cost). In the current economic environment, being able to define, assess and reflect on quantitative value of a development is also a very important part of this process.
The process should include scoping, prototyping, business assessment, value propositions and compelling mechanisms, risk mitigation, internal and external customer involvement, planning and reflection to ensure tangible results. Product development should be unique, marketable, forward thinking and have strong applicability to its intended market.
Axora: driving safety, sustainability and efficiency
“Axora was conceived to bring collaboration and industrial digital innovation to the next level,” pledges CEO Ritz Steytler. “We spoke with the heads of innovation and the operations leaders of oil & gas and metals & mining organisations. We understand the intense pressure they face to modernise their operations. We’re focused on offering solutions to support mining companies with the three biggest challenges they face: safety, sustainability and efficiency."
Safety, Sustainability & Efficiency
"We can help with everything from discovering the right solutions to solve specific problems, to evaluating physical innovation and then supporting the end to end process for actually getting that technology to deliver business value," continues Steytler. That’s realised through our support of the procurement cycle and helping companies with the deployment and maintenance of their chosen solutions to ensure they continue to deliver value where it’s needed most.”
Axora hosts over 150 innovative solutions from sector leaders to start-ups, universities, and consultancies. Examples include machine vision technology that identifies mineral ore contaminants three times faster than the human eye, and predictive modelling for oil rigs which uses built-in sensors and AI to maximise production. Axora's proven digital solutions help to reduce wasted investment, avoid duplication and accelerate business growth.
The World Economic Forum estimates digitalisation can create value to the tune of $400bn across the coming decade. However, the emergence of ‘digital mines’ isn’t just about the numbers. Digitalisation can transform mining into a far more sustainable enterprise by mitigating some of the big risks the industry faces. A digital mine can optimise operations, unleashing the power of data to understand and implement changes in the business.
With the right solutions it’s possible to effect radical changes in a process that is understood better. Solutions that have been road-tested across the oil and gas industry can deliver real benefits for mining companies, including early adopters like Glencore, explains Axora’s Mining Innovation Director Joe Carr: “Opex Group are using Machine Learning with an AI algorithm to pull in all the available sensor data to monitor a processing plant. Its solutions analyse output and look across all the pumps and motors to offer exact data on where to tweak them down. It’s cloud-based and can monitor, reduce and control operational emissions, optimise energy use and minimise environmental impact. It’s currently being used in the oil and gas industry and it's been shown to save up to 10% of power, but the driver of it was actually Co2.
“If you're running an oil platform, your power is essentially free because you're pumping it out of the ground. But in a mine the biggest power user, outside of the trucks and shovels, is the process plant. It uses around 21 kilowatt hours per tonne of processing power to run, right? Obviously, that's dependent on the plant, but it's a power-hungry situation. Diesel is not cheap, especially in remote locations. Being able to save five to 10% of your power usage for no issue in terms of production could be a big win for mining.”
Carr highlights there is also the real opportunity to significantly reduce Scope 1, Scope 2 and even into Scope 3 emissions where Opex Group’s solutions could be used in a smelter to go for the “low hanging fruit” and cut Co2 emissions. “It's a win-win all around, and yet it's a technology which the mining industry doesn't use today, but it exists in a parallel industry.”
To further reduce emissions, Axora is offering solutions which are involved in the scheduling and optimisation of haul truck fleets. “If your fleet is idling for even 10 minutes a cycle, that is wasted fuel,” notes Carr. “It just goes into the atmosphere. And very rarely do the drivers turn the trucks off because they don't want to be stopping and starting those big engines. The mine may be in an extreme climate so even something as basic as saving idling can contribute towards a company’s net zero targets.” The Axora platform also features a system to manage shipping and logistics. “Are you moving your material in the most effective way in terms of routing for fuel usage and speed?” asks Carr.
“Being able to program those variables in terms of Co2 tonnage produced offers new capabilities. We’re able to help our customers understand what they want to achieve. Scope 1 emissions might be the easiest to impact with the haul fleet. Scope 2 focuses on the processing plant and the downstream movement. Understanding what a mining company’s customers are using its materials for makes Scope 3 more difficult to impact – for iron ore it would be a steel melt…”
To that end, Axora offers a predictive maintenance system for aluminum smelting which Carr notes can reduce downtime by up to 20%. “Aluminum smelting tends to come from hydro which can be very clean – it’s energy intensive,” he explains. “But the same system could easily be applied to steel or copper processes where you don't want to be turning them on and off. You don't want to be running your autoclave in a gold mine with a varying sulfide input because the heat goes up and down and it messes with your recovery and you're using a lot more power to heat and cool your autoclave.”
The Axora Platform
“Challenge us and we will find it for you,” asserts Steytler when explaining how he envisages the Axora platform developing. “We aim to match a technology provider to a particular business buyer, somebody that has a real problem that needs to get solved. They can then collaborate to deploy that technology successfully.” Steytler is positioning Axora beyond the sales and procurement process. “There’s no such thing as on time and on budget with a digital transformation effort, right? It’s a difficult thing to achieve, we’re not talking about shrink-wrapped software. That’s why partnerships are extremely important and we can help facilitate those to deliver the value required.”
Reacting to Trends
Against the backdrop of record years for many mining companies – with copper and gold production and prices on the rise – what trends are the team at Axora seeing across the industry that will necessitate a response from its multi-solution platform? “Despite the uncertainties of the global pandemic, mining companies have taken a practical approach,” notes Carr. “What we’ve seen during the pandemic is that miners have realised they need to embrace the digitisation journey. The past year has proved to be a gateway with younger guys coming through the system ready for change.”
Carr highlights that with Covid, engineers couldn’t simply fly to West Africa or Chile so the door to digitsation opened. Where has he seen the biggest push? “How do we get the data we want and then what do we do with it?” he counters. “Miners have so much data that it's in Excel sheets, and it's got macros, and it's historically stored on a server somewhere that nobody's looked at for five years since it was sent out. Our clients' demands today are more around how do we do something with that data? Because we know the benefits are there. The sensor data around predictive maintenance and all these things exist, but they're having such a struggle to deal with it and deliver meaningful insights.”
However, Carr concedes it's a cyclical business. “If it comes down to buying another truck or buying a data server, what's going to get more tonnes out of the ground? But with the right data we can see what will actually benefit operations in the long term… That push towards digital has seen what we thought would take the next five years actually happen in one year because remote capabilities and enhancement to operations centres have advanced to meet demand. At Axora, we’re seeing mining companies assess solutions to improve health and safety on their sites by reducing members of the workforce exposed to risk and in harm’s way and keen to discover how they can drive efficiencies to make more tonnes for less. Ultimately, it’s part of our job to make it simple in terms of a value calculation.”
“Axora is here to accelerate digital transformation in the mining industry,” asserts Steytler. “We can simplify that process. And with investment in that transformation expected to reach $6.8trn between 2020 and 2023 as the world economy digitizes, there’s never been a better time to realise the benefits.”