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Here’s how we find solutions for vexing problems

November 4, 2020

Acid train car loading. Photo: NORCAT

At Vale, we are always looking for new ideas – be they big or small – that can improve the way we do things. Many ideas generated by our employees have resulted in safer, more efficient workplaces in our operations around the world.

But what if there are more ideas out there – perhaps a brainchild of an entrepreneur or small start-up – that would normally not get the attention of a large company with global operations such as Vale?

To that end, our company has teamed up with NORCAT, a Sudbury-based company that develops and delivers programs, services, and resources that enhance productivity and safety, to launch the NORCAT Open Innovation Challenge. The Innovation Challenge invites small- and medium-sized companies to submit potential technology solutions to solve some of the most challenging issues facing the global mining industry – ideas and applications that can enhance the industry’s safety, sustainability and productivity.

Natural fit

Excessive water/run of material in underground Mines. Photo: NORCAT

“We’ve got some tough problems that we don’t always have the expertise on hand to solve,” explained Sudbury-based Anthony Downs, manager, Digital and Information Technology for Base Metal Operations. “Asking for help is part of a deliberate strategy to get additional points of view on multi-faceted problems. Likewise, small technology companies may not normally have the resources to get our attention.”

Vale asked NORCAT to facilitate the challenge and identified three specific problem areas for which applicants are invited to submit solutions: excess water and run of material in underground mines, acid train car loading, and underground operator alertness. “The three issues are sources of risk in our business,” said Anthony.

For each problem area, companies must have the capacity and confidence to develop, demonstrate and deploy a proof-of-concept solution within one of Vale’s Sudbury operations during a four-month timeframe.

The three problem areas

The first high-risk problem, run of materials, affects underground mines everywhere, and underground water is a major hazard that has resulted in fatalities. Anthony explained: “There’s water in the ground naturally, and mines deliberately introduce water to control dust and assist with drilling, so we are looking for ways to manage it to reduce the risk of a run of material.”

The second high-risk problem area is associated with sulphuric acid, a chemical by-product of the smelting process, at the point where it is loaded into train cars to be removed from the smelter site. “Every day, two or three of our employees load 25 to 35 train cars full of acid, and each car takes about five hours to load,” said Anthony. “The rail cars are not owned by us, and need to be loaded in a particular way. Even though our employees always wear PPE (personal protective equipment) and follow all safety precautions, we did have an incident where an employee sustained minor burns. Other companies are loading acid cars around the world. We want to know if anyone is successfully using technology that’s smarter and safer than ours.” 

Underground operator alertness. Photo: NORCAT

The third area of concern is alertness of underground operators during their work shifts. “A number of factors can impact underground alertness – fatigue, dehydration, underlying medical issues. If an underground employee who’s operating heavy equipment is not fully alert, there is a higher possibility of things going wrong. We are looking for ways to give operators self-awareness around their level of alertness or fatigue so they can do something like alert a supervisor.

What’s next?

Entries, submitted by the October 16 deadline, are now being reviewed by a team that includes Anthony, enterprise architect and IT master analyst Chris Bertrand, also in Sudbury, Suzanne Balima in Toronto and Christiane Passos, who is based in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil and is responsible for Global Open Innovation.

The Open Innovation team has been working closely with knowledgeable business experts who will define the problems, and be involved in evaluating and assisting in the evolution of the solutions. Darren Bronicheski, Maintenance superintendent for Transportation, and his team are supporting the acid car review. Roger Santerre, Business Support superintendent NA-Mines & Mill is engaged for the excess water and run of material. Glen Duffy, Health & Safety manager, and his team are helping with operator alertness. Sajjad Quadri and Ashok Tati, representatives of IT’s Lab team, have been enlisted to advise and assist with integrating the innovators’ technologies.

‘Boot camp’ begins!

Successful ventures will be chosen on November 13, and on November 16 the incumbents will connect with Vale technical support and begin what Anthony called “boot camp.”

“It begins with us assigning an internal business sponsor, a technical expert in the field whom we’ll rely on for help in evaluating the companies’ solutions,” said Anthony. “At the same time, NORCAT will help with the companies’ structure and approach, providing marketing and support to help make the solution reliable, robust and sustainable.”

In January, the projects will be scheduled for in-field testing at our Sudbury Operations to validate the effectiveness of each technology solution. “We’ll provide the entrepreneurs with feedback, and ultimately we’ll decide whether or not the solution fits its purpose and if so, enter into a commercial relationship,” said Anthony.

Anthony and his team are hoping that the Innovation Challenge allows our company to benefit from the out-of-the-box thinking that smaller, entrepreneurial technology companies can provide. “We want to tap into the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Facilitating such relationships has led to great successes in countries like Brazil, Sweden and Israel,” he said.

Validating an effective solution and implementing it on a large scale, as can be done by our company, would have a significant impact on reducing these three areas of risk, making operations safer for everyone – at Vale, and beyond.

“If we find something that works, we will tell others in the industry what we know about it,” said Anthony. “If we find a way to be safer, we don’t want to keep it a secret – we will share what we’ve learned to make work safer for everybody.”

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