It’s been 40 years since I started my first job in the potash industry and for most of those years, I’ve been involved in what we called Applied Research and Innovation.
Shortly after graduation in 1981, I joined Noranda Mines and in 1982, I was lucky enough to be involved in an underground rock mechanics project in a potash mine in Saskatchewan, where I worked as a junior engineer at the time. I considered myself fortunate, not least because the potash mine was dry and warm, unlike conventional hard rock mines, but also because drilling holes in salt was fast and easy and placing instruments in 3” holes was not difficult either! But here’s the innovation kicker, in 1982 we were taking portable computers (the size of a 24-bottle beer box) underground to connect a bunch of instruments through wires to the computer… and thus the automatic data recording system was born in the mining industry.
All of this rock mechanics data recording, and the potential for data sharing between mines, was to lead to great new advances in mine design, improved productivity and safety; but at the same time, a second, complementary innovation in bit configuration (cutting teeth on the front of the mining machine) and other machine design aspects was evolved, which changed production rates in the industry forever.
Who was responsible for that second innovation (bit configuration)? Some argue that it was maintenance personnel and bit company representatives. After all the two projects were completely independent of each other so there was no connection, right? I don’t think it was a coincidence that the guys in the engineering office who were involved in both projects had offices across the hall from each other and exchanged information all the time. Rock mechanics guys shared information about “plastic flow” and “crystal structure” that helped the maintenance guys understand the impact of bit size and heat build up at the mining face. Right then, the environment for innovation, experimentation and collaboration was born, nurtured and grown.
Everyone in the potash industry benefited from the innovation in bit configuration and rock mechanics modelling. I think Noranda’s proprietary advantage lasted for about two minutes after the initial demonstration to a large audience of mining guys from across the industry – all the guests came up from underground and ran to the nearest phone (it plugged into the wall…that cellular thing took another 10 years or so). There were no court cases regarding ownership, breach of confidentiality; nothing. Just an undisputed willingness to share for the benefit of the potash industry in Canada, so that we could get a jump on international potash producing markets.
So where am I going with this, you ask? There are a lot of similarities between market-driven innovation in potash, oil sands and pipelines. They all have (or had) global market shakeup. We own all those resources in Western Canada (Alberta, Saskatchewan and BC), and some of the world’s best and brightest innovators work in these industries, right here. We in Calgary are becoming one of the fastest growing innovation hubs around, and our willingness to collaborate and share for the betterment of these Canadian industries is critical and growing.
We can capitalize on the opportunity to advance our industry towards 2050 by doubling down on all of these factors needed for innovation success. Let’s work together in Western Canada, perhaps even North American, to advance the technology and capabilities we need to have world-leading operations, safety, quality, social responsibility, environment during this energy transition. This is one of our goals at Energy Connections Canada, that’s where we are headed.
Want to collaborate? Then climb on our Innovation Train.