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Mining Smarter

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When the people at Devex came up with the name SmartMine for their mine operation control solution, they were not just giving a product a name – they were declaring a philosophy for doing business. Fourteen years after the fact, that philosophy remains as intrinsic to the company as ever. Aston Bell, Devex’s Director, Asia Pacific, says that he is often invited to speak at various events, and when that happens his focus is always on providing information that he hopes will be valuable to the industry. “Sure, we want more mines to use SmartMine, that’s a goal,” he admits. “But every meeting, or every breakfast, or every event that we attend, it’s really not about waving the flag and saying ‘buy SmartMine technologies’. It’s really about allowing people to understand that we understand the industry, we understand their challenges and issues, and we have some information to share with them that might help them on their way.” That is an attitude that Devex is very conscious of, and Mr. Bell says it has garnered them a lot of respect.

Devex – which became 14 years old in March, 2011 – was originally founded by current CEO and President Dr. Guilherme Bastos Alvarenga. At the time, Alvarenga was studying operational research in the mining industry, and in particular he was looking at the challenge of optimizing the mining process. “He believed, based on technology around at that time, that he could come up with something better,” Bell says. “Today SmartMine’s optimization module, which he founded, is actually a core part of our technology. I guess the rest is history, and a product called SmartMine was born.”

Bell himself spent the majority of his career pre-Devex working in the mining and engineering sectors of other companies like Mincom Limited and Bentley Systems Inc. His forte, he says, is technological strategy and innovation. “The biggest challenge for me has always been where to add value, especially in mining.” At Devex, he is responsible for Australia, Asia and international expansion initiatives. “We’re also looking at how and where we can add value to other regions such as Eastern Europe and eventually Africa as well.”

Giving the industry what it needs

The SmartMine Advanced Suite is the key product in Devex’s portfolio, and it covers many aspects of the mining automation and operations control process. It is a toolkit that allows a mine to be run at maximum operational performance. It works by studying maps, mining plans, quality plans and other vital pieces of information and then providing ongoing 24/7 monitoring. Each vehicle in the fleet is equipped with on-board computers with GPS capability, sensors and communication devices – this puts the power to make decisions right in the mine operators hands, and beyond that it offers optimization of the entire mining process. Computer intelligence and sophisticated algorithms utilise data collected in real time to bring productivity to new levels. “It’s all about how best to get the maximum out of the current arrangements you have in your mine, particularly the equipment,” Bell says. “Maintenance control, ore control, ore quality, collision avoidance, et cetera. SmartMine is about helping control in real time the actions of the mine operations. We refer to our technology as mine automation and control, as that’s where the uniqueness is and that’s what the industry needs going forward.”

The industry challenges Bell observes differ depending on the region. In Australia specifically, he sees them revolving around a few things. “What’s fairly evident to me right now is the fact that most mining company boards are really looking at two things. One is they want to increase productivity, and two they want to decrease cost. The huge battle for the operational people at the mine is ‘Okay, Mr. Chairman said we’ve agreed to produce X amount of million tonnes, or hundred million tonnes, per annum. How do we do that?’” Another thing that Bell considers a challenge in the mining industry is data management and evaluation. He says that the inability of people to comfortably understand the data they gather, and then making that data work for them, holistic data integration is costing the industry millions of dollars. It is these kinds of issues that make the SmartMine platform such a good investment.

Another challenge that SmartMine can help to alleviate: resource availability. “Most mining companies are still out there advertising for more people. My question to the industry is: ‘Does it really take more people to do what they want to do? Have they had a really close look at what they’ve got, and if they can improve the way they do their operations?’” By optimizing their processes, he says mines can achieve higher reliability from their equipment and from their people, and that adopting technology is an enabler for that sort of change. “That’s what we believe SmartMine brings to the table. It’s a technology based on an open architecture that provides a platform for a company to put in place what it needs, and if it’s not there, we’ll happily interface and develop that for them,” Bell says. “Let’s face it; a computer can process data more quickly than a human brain.”

Bell is a staunch advocate for industry introspection; for mining organizations to spent time looking at where they are what they require going forward. “I regularly say to people that there’s a new challenge everyday in the mining industry. What’s unique about it, I think, is that it will last a long time. Sometimes people need to stop and take a breath and spent time navel gazing and think about where they’re going or where they’d like to go.”

Growing within the industry, growing within the organization

Devex has about 350 employees, and Bell says they are growing every week. “We’re pretty proud that we’ve come from the humble beginnings of three or four employees to where we are now, 14 years later. We have a great vision about where we think we’re going to end up and we certainly believe we’re in reach of being a world market leader for what we do and specialize in.”

Taking care of their employees is extremely important for Devex, and it is a topic Bell has a lot to say about. “Organizational development is a real key for any organization,” he begins. “For us, I summarize it like this: we still believe we’re a young company. We have a lot of young people in our organization who have come from university. We have a great relationship with some of the universities in Brazil in particular.” Bell says that while they have older employees too, the median age for a Devex worker is actually in the late 20s. “We look for people we believe can help our organization grow, but who can also grow within the organization. It’s about developing a culture, a place where people can express themselves and a place where people can make a contribution and not just be a person sitting in an office or a chair. We tell our people that we don’t profess to know everything, and that someone’s going to come up with a good idea at some point and we must, as an organization, sit and listen.” Bell says their people, while young, still provide a lot of expertise, and the fact that they are growing alongside the industry is a plus. For Bell, it is important to make everyone feel like they are there to add value. “If we have a team meeting, I’ll often say ‘Whatever we do here in our business, let’s make sure we’re adding value to our company and in turn we’re adding value to our customers.’”

Devex is not only conscious about listening to their employees – they make sure to listen to the industry as well. “My view of the world is you can have the best technology team sitting in a back office, rewriting SmartMine. But if we don’t listen to what the industry needs and what the challenges are, then it’s pointless to do what we’re doing. That all combined together makes for a good cultural experience within our organization.” Bell says that management takes a lot of pride in the relationship they develop with their clients, and they encourage their employees to do the same. “We take a lot of pride in supporting our clients, knowing that a mine site is 24/7. We want our people to feel part of our client’s team as well – that they’re part of the mine operations process. They might only be supporting one technology or providing advice on how things should be done using Smartmine, but if we’re able to embrace our clients organizationally then it makes us a unique operation. We’re being proactive in the way we’re delivering our services and technology.”

For the future, Bell says they have significant plans for growth. “I’ve often said to the executive team that one of my goals is Devex Asia Pacific being bigger than Devex head office,” he laughs, but he’s not joking. “I truly believe we have that opportunity. I think we can become one of the leading global players with this type of technology – mine automation control systems – in the world.” What Devex is focusing on now is the question of how to accelerate growth without compromising their current business. Forward of even that, Bell says they are considering a public listing. “When we do that and where do that is still a question. We’ll wait and see what unfolds in front of us.”