The Importance of Co-Developing Canadian Mining Innovation Programs
President and CEO
Francis Fournier is President and CEO of COREM. He has over twenty years of experience in the innovation sector, mainly with FPInnovations, a national forest research and development centre. He has gained deep experience in R&D at both the operational and strategic levels, which has made him a key ally in the realization of complex, innovative projects and initiators of change generating growth, efficiency and mobilization.
COREM is the largest organization in Canada devoted to mineral processing R&D. Recognized as a world-class organization, COREM provides a wide range of mineral processing and analytical services to companies that explore and develop orebodies and transform or recycle mineral substances. Its highly qualified staff of over 155 employees can carry out the most complex innovation projects, complete flow sheet development, pilot testing and ore characterization for its members and all mining companies worldwide.
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1- The mining and metals industry is a powerful vector for economic growth in which there are huge opportunities to deploy incremental, adjacent and disruptive innovations.
2- The Canadian mining network – industry, academia, research organizations and other stakeholders and innovation contributors – must work together to solve the mining industry’s priority issues related to energy efficiency, water consumption and environmental impacts together. Mining executives must take the lead and work in partnership with innovation players based on their strengths.
3- Through existing organizations, a clear, national mining innovation agenda should be led by the Canadian mining industry, including suppliers, service companies and innovation partners. It should provide the framework for aligning mining companies’ R&D to fast-track innovation developments and deployments, share the risks, share resources and, ultimately, share the benefits. Governments can then play a supporting role in seeing the innovation agenda adopted across Canada and enabling the delivery of the innovation plan.
If the Canadian mining industry wants to be an international example for leadership in innovation, we need to address the industry’s most pressing challenges through collaborations and partnerships. The industry needs to continue innovating and moving forward together in order to share the risks, to share the resources and to share the benefits. With this alignment, driven by the industry itself, executives and leaders can ask for the federal and provincial governments to support the adoption of new innovations across the mining industry.
What are Canada’s mining innovation strengths and challenges?
There are numerous universities, colleges, and public and private research organizations and associations in Canada, making it a strong nation to activate various fronts of R&D and innovation. These organizations are Canada’s number one strength, and the Canadian mining industry benefits from them. However, the lack of coordination between them limits the level of impact on the industry.
Currently, the Canadian mining industry faces three important issues; energy efficiency, fresh water consumption and environmental impacts.The challenge is trying to streamline R&D efforts within the current innovation ecosystem. For example, if a mining company wants to reduce its energy consumption by 20-40%, they won’t achieve that goal on their own. Unfortunately, there are too many organizations that are working in isolation on their own individual projects. The Crush-it Challenge launched by NRCan is a good example. To scale the benefits of innovation, the Canadian mining network needs to fix priority issues together, rather than focusing on solutions individually in silos. Otherwise, we run into duplicated efforts and concepts, and waste valuable time, resources and capital.
First and foremost, the mining industry’s innovation ecosystem must have better coordination to fast-track the development and deployment of breakthrough technologies. That means collaborating and reaching alignment on pressing priorities, driven by mining industry leaders and supported by the governments. That’s essential because the last thing you want is to develop something that the Canadian mining industry does not need. For example, at COREM, every R&D project is co-developed in collaboration with large and junior companies, and with governments playing a supporting role. As a matter of fact, more than 30 technologies have been co-developed and then implemented in operations. Several of these mature technologies are now commercialized by equipment suppliers.
How can we increase the levels of “internal” collaboration within the Canadian mining industry among all key stakeholders, especially companies who are fierce competitors?
Most Canadian mining companies have strategic agendas that intertwine with one another. Unless we’re speaking about a real and direct competitor, the majority of mining companies seek to collaborate at a certain level on pre-competitive R&D to fast-track process improvements, share the risks and, ultimately, share the benefits.
Overall, the Canadian mining industry needs a clear national innovation agenda to deliver on its goals. This should be based on existing work, such as what the Canadian Mining Innovation Council (CMIC) has produced and implemented by existing organizations. That national innovation agenda should provide the framework that drives mining companies from coast to coast, no matter the differences in their perspective, to align R&D programs. It has to consider regional differentiation and delivery capacity. It should also have the input of the mining suppliers and services sector because they play a huge role at the innovation level.
A notable example of collaboration in mining is the Crush It! mining challenge. Crush It! is one of five cleantech challenges launched by Natural Resources Canada (NRCan) as part of the Impact Canada Initiative. Challenges were co-developed with industry experts and stakeholders to attract a diverse range of problem solvers to generate breakthrough cleantech solutions to some of Canadian mining’s biggest unsolved challenges. Here the challenge aimed to find and advance innovative solutions that reduce energy use for crushing and grinding mined rock to reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG), improve productivity and help the Canadian mining industry become more competitive.
How can we increase “external” collaboration between the mining industry and Canada’s technology companies, academia and research centres to develop innovative solutions for the mining industry?
Although the Canadian mining sector is not connected well enough to other hubs, like tech, AI, virtual reality (VR), automation and so on, it’s not to say that there is no interest. There just needs to be a higher level of awareness of what prospective partner companies are out there and what their capabilities are. Mining companies are such huge endeavours that their executives are looking for strong partners renowned to be the best in their industry. So, it’s about knowing ‘who is doing what?’, rather than a question of ‘should we collaborate with other sectors?’
Mining executives have to work with research centres and academia to address key issues together. The focus should be to partner with organizations that have the strengths a company lacks. For example, at COREM we know the value of AI, and we understand its potential, but we do not have significant expertise in the field. So, we partnered with the Institute for Data Valorisation (IVADO), based in Montreal. Their help and input were crucial in the co-development of the IntelliCrush project, led by COREM, which ended up being a finalist project in the Crush it! mining challenge.
“To scale the benefits of innovation, the Canadian mining network needs to fix priority issues together, rather than focusing on solutions individually in silos. Otherwise, we run into duplicated efforts and concepts, and waste valuable time, resources and capital.”
An expanded, improved and well defined ecosystem that would include mining companies would strengthen the industry’s ability to integrate innovations. Leaders, in partnership with the innovation ecosystem, need to look at what are their most important needs, prioritize market research to see who’s out there, and who can help find solutions to improve their operations and productivity. These are the collaborations that need to take place in order for us to solve mining’s big challenges.
Can you speak to how artificial intelligence (AI) and data analyticswill transform the mining industry of the future?
With new sensors and digital technologies, Canadian mining companies are now collecting snowballing amounts of data. This data needs to be analyzed; preferably as swiftly as possible. That’s where AI-based solutions come in — they represent opportunities to explore massive amounts of information and distribute knowledge wherever it needs to go. Doing so provides more benchmarking, and perspective on how to optimize and predict mining circuits, and correct them on a more regular basis, continuously improving operations.
Not only can AI and machine learning systems optimize logistical mining circuits, but with image recognition and instant classification, they can also increase the predictability of minerals found on-site, and provide recommendations on the equipment that should be used — all resulting in impressive reductions in costs, resources and variability.
The result is that geologists, mining engineers, mineral processing engineers and metallurgical engineers have more information with which to make an informed decision and these insights will enable them to make smarter funding, asset allocation, and investment decisions.
What opportunities do you see for Canada to export industry leading mining technology and how do we do more of that?
If the Canadian mining industry wants to accelerate the development and deployment of innovations and be the leading nation in mining tech and innovation, it needs to focus on collaboration and partnerships. The leaders of the Canadian mining industry can play a role in the demonstration, de-risking and implementation of new technologies — regardless of whether they lead small, medium or large mining tech companies — to help the mining suppliers and services sector export. For example, groups like the Mining Suppliers Trade Association (MSTA) are very important because of the support they bring in the development of export strategies for mining companies across Canada. They are also on the frontlines and see what is in demand from the international markets, which presents huge insights on how to approach exports.
“Innovation is one of the most important assets that the Canadian mining industry holds. But, as an industry, we need to be able to clearly demonstrate the benefits our innovations bring to our national market first and foremost.”
Innovation is one of the most important assets that the Canadian mining industry holds. But, as an industry, we need to be able to clearly demonstrate the benefits our innovations bring to our national market first and foremost.After it reaches a consensus across the board here at home, it will be much easier to export Canadian mining technology around the world.
Part of the Future of Mining Series presented by