This speech was delivered at Explo ’99, an AusIMM conference on rock breaking. In it I reveal not only my criminal past but address BHAGs, innovation and blasting.
My experience with explosives
It is important that I first establish my credentials in explosives and blasting. My practical experience can be summed up as follows:
- Arrested at age 10 for illegally ‘setting a face’ and blasting the southern wall of the Mount Charlotte open cut mine.
This was at the top of Hannan Street, Kalgoorlie, and wasn’t in great condition to start with. We didn’t have to drill any holes in this face as there were plenty of uncharged holes. We strung a few detonators together using one stick of gelignite per hole.
I say “we” because I has another youthful companion (who I won’t name as he has become a prominent Perth businessman). If you’re in the market for a high-quality home there is every chance he played a part in the design and construction.
We used industry best-practice at the time. We’d seen how the guys in western movies crimped the detonators onto the fuse with their teeth. We did however short change ourselves with the length of the fuse. The face blew just as we scrambled up the other end of the open cut, straight into the waiting arms of Mr Len Bugg, the Mount Charlottle mine manager, and two of his collegues.
They were pretty shaken up too because the blast had nearly tipped their residence and office into the open cut. Later, when the police were searching our homes, we were complimented on our methods. They noted that we were careful not to store detonators close to the gelignite and the fuse.
One of our problems was explaining how we came to be in possession of such a large quantity of explosives. The whole episode was most embarrassing for my parents but my friend and I enjoyed our new heroic status at primary school. Natually, nobody ever messed with us.
Winning through adversity
Turning adversity to one’s benefit is the secret of all experience. I have used this incident to avoid jury duty on many occasions by explaining that my criminal record precludes me from participation as a juror.
We had another bit of trouble a year later when a friend and I blew up a whole street of letterboxes. Sitting safely on our bikes at some distance, we thought it resembled a giant jumping jack fire cracker. This was probably in November, as before it was declared illegal we would celebrate Guy Fawkes Night by blowing up everything in sight.
Guy Fawkes was the fellow who was caught trying to blow up Parliament House in England and our “thought control” politicians don’t regard him as a suitable role model for future generations. That’s why this celebration is now illegal in Australia. Here in Kalgoorlie we still celebrate by drinking a toast to Guy Fawkes — the only man to enter parliament with honest intent.
Gun control, Kalgoorlie-style
None of this youthful exuberance was regarded as abnormal. We had no TV in those days and had to entertain ourselves. This is probably why it was fairly normal for high school students to have shoulder holsters and .22 caliber pistols. I had a bit of trouble with a headmaster I when I was found shooting rats behind the school gymnasium. He let me keep it as long as I didn’t fire it in the classroom.
There was another bit of trouble with the police quite a few years later when they declared a firearm moratorium, encouraging those with under-utilised firearms to hand them in. When I turned up at the police station to hand in my two-inch mortar, they freaked out. It had never been licensed and being homemade, had no serial number. They didn’t have a category for mortars so they let me keep it.
The little beast was a useful addition to anyone’s arsenal. It was triggered by an electric detonator which fired off a charge of special mixture known as trogutroleum. A 30-second delayed detonator then fired the warhead, encased in a metal Kodak film canister.
Many years later, on Friday nights after a few drinks when the subject turned to Canberra or the Australian Tax Department, it was not uncommon to get out this weapon. As an act of defiance we would fire a potato in the general direction of our federal capital.
We never heard if any of our potatoes landed on Canberra, but I did hear one local at the Palace Hotel telling a friend how his lounge room in Killarney Street shattered one night. When they investigated, all they found was broken glass and a heap of mashed potato on the carpet.
Rockets and the beer can incident
As you grow up, so does the size of your toys. I was proud to be a small part of a local rocket team who set out to pioneer space travel. The rocket used advanced technology at the time (around 1959). It was packed tight with 40 litres of zinc powder and superfine sulpher.
The launch was 100 per cent successful except the rocket didn’t go into orbit. It went up about 3km, then landed about 4km away on the edge of Lake Percolilli. We tracked it down thinking we may be able to recycle it. Much to our amazement, it had landed about 50m away from the local archery group. they were running around with their bows and arrows, feeling quite inadequate to respond to our advanced weaponry.
Around the same time a friend had perfected a device that, when activated by a small explosive charge, would propel an empty beer can a distance of about 200 metres. About 20 of us were test driving this device in the backyard one Saturday afternoon. We kept busy drinking cans to keep up the ammunition supply. These cans were being fired off in every direction.
Little did we realise the reign of terror we were creating. The police were receiving hundreds of phone calls and plotting all these ‘hits’ on a large wall map of Kalgoorlie. It seemed that my house was the epicenter of all this activity, so around they came. Fortunately, one of our party saw the police car arriving and stilled the assembled throng in the backyard.
When queried, I listened to the coincidence that this radius of “beer cans from the sky” seemed to have a geographic relationship to my house. My only defense was “do I look like a guy who can throw an empty beer can 200 metres?”
A few years later, in an endevour to deplete my stock of gelignite, detonators and fuses, I declared war on an infestation of rabbits on my small Esperence farm. Together with my children we blasted all the rabbit warrens we could find.
It was a huge amount of fun. In fact, I would recommend it as a great father, son and daughter weekend. We didn’t kill the rabbits but I do guarantee we gave their reproductive organs a jolt.
So where is all this nonsense leading us? Well, it benefited my career when I was in Sweden in 1972 with the first Australian mining mission to the country. I was signing up the Kiruna truck agency and at the time was offered the Nitro Nobel explosives agency.
When they asked me if I had any previous experience with explosives I was able to look them in the eye, and with passion, say “extensive experience”. They signed me up immediately!
That’s the end of the serious bit, now for the fun bit. The most important single thing that all branches of our industry should be doing to ensure our prosperous survival through “interesting times” is innovation.
If I think back over the last 20 years there have been some truly massive moments in the technology we use in the day-to-day planning, managing and operating of mines. Twenty years ago if you wanted to draw a map of the geology of a mine it would be done by hand. It was drawn on a large piece of tracing film and handled with the utmost care because of the time and expense involved in its production.
Today it would probably never make it off the computer screen. You’d throw up a 3D image of the deposit with its different colours for different grades and rotate, enlarge and zoom it, designing your optimal pit at the touch of a technological button.
Twenty years ago, if you wanted to do a new five-year plan it would take weeks of scratching on pages and pages of tablets and frenzied use of a new but still expensive new toy, the calculator. Today you can run off a couple of alternative schedules optimized for profit, grade or a dozen other things before lunch, and email them to your boss.
Technology in Australia
This is not the result of magic, it’s the result of trial and error, hard work and of course a touch of innovation. Here in Australia we should be particularly proud of the fact that a lot of mining innovation has come from local companies.
We have success stories like DataMine, MicroMine, Surpac, Whittle, MapTek, Runge, Tritonics, ECS, Fractal Graphics and, in particular, Mincom. These are all Australian companies that have paved the way with innovative computer software for the mining industry. They have built systems that are used across the globe to design mines in coal and metals, open cut and underground and they are almost without equal in the world.
The mining industry needs these systems to mine efficiently with the heavy burden of today’s mining costs, native title costs, environmental responsibilities and soft commodity prices. This requires efficiency and efficiency comes from good workers using the right tools in the right way.
The value chain goes on. Trucks and shovel communicate by computers connected to radios to reduce queuing while maintaining grade and productivity. The shovel loads the truck and sends it to the tonnage and grade over a radio-controlled computer link. All the equipment can communicate with the workshop maintenance system to tell it how long each piece of equipment has been operating and all other data required to make informed maintenance decisions.
Leading the way
All of this technology is available today largely because of the hard work of Australian technology companies. One company deserving special mention is Mincom. This Brisbane-based company is majority owned by management and employees and turns over revenues in excess of $200m, with more than $120m in exports.
They have been leaders in geological modelling, mine planning, mine scheduling, maintenance, inventory, human resources and finance. These systems are completely integrated into what they call the “enterprise mining solution”. If Mincom is leading the change with a fully integrated solution for the mining industry, we should be proud that this is being done in Australia, by Australians.
But technology never stops and next year Mincom are coming out with a new suite of systems called MineStar. These have been jointly developed with Caterpillar and will completely automate truck and shovel systems in everything from grade control to automated maintenance scheduling. Technology like this will keep us strong and Australia will be at the head of the charge!
As long as barriers to exploration, such as the unworkable Native title Act, continue to depress our industry on home ground, the possibility exists that our technology exports may exceed the value of our actual mining exports. As our mining moves offshore, we become part of Australia’s export market.
Innovation in blasting
I have been seeking examples of momentous innovation in the blasting industry that I could mention and I can’t find any. The big one was the invention of explosives thousands of years ago. This saved us lighting fires against the rock face. The other one was the use of ANFO (ammonium nitrate-fuel oil mix) in 1960. That maintained our industry’s competiveness throughout some tough times.
I can find extensive examples of recent innovation in exploration, mining, metallurgy, R&D, risk management, capital raising, deregulation, environmental management, marketing, service industries, purchasing, IT and so on. But I can’t find any up front, hit-you-in-the-face innovation in the blasting business. This is not to say it doesn’t exist. The high attendance at conferences such as this reinforces the importance of innovation.
I did find it strange that while blasting is so clearly identified with mining, and is a significant part of planning and budgets, you are so shy about publicising your forward steps. This shouldn’t surprise me as the mining industry (or minerals industry as Sir Arvi Parbo prefers it to be called) is similarly shy about explaining the very significant contribution that has been made, is being made and will continue to be made to our nation.
Sometimes it is hard to blow your own horn. You know the significance of your achievements but they are a bit hard to self-promote. The entertainer Will Rogers once said: “Get someone else to blow your horn; the sound will carry twice as far.”
That’s one of the roles we see for the Australian Prospectors and Miners Hall of Fame project — to blow the horn for the entire industry.
Just like you and your respective business, we at the Hall of Fame project have been setting and perusing some BHAGs (Big, Hairy, Audacious Goals). One of the key elements of a good BHAG is it connects your goal to the core values and purpose of the organisation. The best BHAGs aren’t random. Nike’s BHAG in the 1960s was to crush Adidas. This fitted perfectly with Nike’s core purpose to “experience the emotion of competition, winning and crushing competitors.”
Sony’s BHAG in the 1950’s was to become known for changing the worldwide poor-quality image of Japanese products. This flowed directly from Sony’s stated core values of “elevating the Japanese culture and national status”.
Our BHAG for the Australian Prospectors and Miners Hall of Fame is to “open a $21m national showcase for the minerals industry on October 24, 2001”. This flows directly from the need to present a 21st century vision of our industry and to explain the evolutionary process and the benefits it has, and will continue to generate, for our nation and every single Australian.
We are doing this because, if we succeed, our minerals industry will be taken more seriously by all Australians and Australian governments. It will be seen as a nationally important source and focus of innovation and act as a base from which to develop internationally competitive, knowledge-based service industries, particularly in the high technology area.
Let me conclude by urging you to develop your own BHAGs and pass on some major breakthroughs for our industry. Ours is a vibrant and exciting industry that we are lucky to be part of. We adopt progressive ideas and technologies very quickly, impatient for further good news.
Our industry, in fact our very civilisation, depends on your further innovations so I wish you every success.