Smith has been an Account Manager at Cisco for 13 years, and involved in the IT industry for 32 years. His role at Cisco is to guide mining companies on how technology can help transform existing processes with the goal of saving money and/or increasing productivity. Prior to Cisco, Smith worked with other technology leaders such as IBM and EMC. He graduated from the University of New Brunswick with a Mechanical Engineering degree in 1984.
Beyond Borders: What are the benefits of digital transformation?
Alex Smith: The main benefit of digitization is really bringing data and insights to the people that need them when they need them, wherever they are, so that better decisions can be made and equipment or processes can be automated. One example is the design and development of smart cities, where we try to make something as commonplace and time-consuming as finding parking much more efficient through digital technologies. Part of the solution to this is to help people not only pay for parking ahead of time, but also find the nearest spot to where they’d like to park. If you translate that to mining, gathering data from vehicles can help reduce the cost of maintenance and asset management, which facilitates better fleet management and the overall health of the vehicles themselves. This then helps optimize processes that these pieces of equipment are a part of.
How does mining compare to other industries in terms of digital transformation?
Alex Smith: I hope I’m not offending anyone by saying this, but mining is at the lower end of the scale. A lot of what I’ll call peer industries—which can include manufacturing, oil and gas, and even electrical utilities—started down the digitization path quite a bit earlier than mining. They’re seeing the benefits of this with lower costs and improved revenues and services to their customers or consumers.
Does this mean that there is a lot of low-hanging fruit in terms of projects that the company could pursue?
Alex Smith: I would say definitely yes. Looking at Barrick specifically, there are so many potential projects that have been identified that it’s been a matter of, not so much coming up with ideas, but prioritizing them to see which ones to tackle first.
What are some of those projects?
Alex Smith: Asset management is one of the projects with a larger potential return on investment, at least in terms of data I’ve seen from Barrick. I love talking about vehicles because they’re mobile equipment, and that adds the technical challenge of gathering information from something that’s constantly moving. Capturing that data about the health of components that are on vehicles and then routing it through some sort of artificial intelligence that can analyze the history of that type of device, or even the device itself, could be used to predict when equipment is going to fail. This artificial intelligence could then trigger a notification and schedule maintenance for that equipment instead of the mine experiencing a breakdown and work stoppage for a given process or work area where that equipment was being used.
How quickly do you think Barrick will be able to implement the first wave of digital transformation projects?
Alex Smith: There are many ways to tackle any challenge, and I applaud Barrick’s approach to getting some small wins as quickly as possible. The term for this is an “agile approach,” where you break down problems into smaller pieces and tackle those pieces instead of trying to solve a really big problem, taking six months to plan and another six months to deliver a result. The goal of the agile approach is to produce results very, very quickly in a matter of weeks, then figure out if you need to make changes and if there is anything you want to enhance.
The benefits of digital transformation seem significant, but what are some of the challenges faced by an industry that is transforming in this way?
Alex Smith: The number one challenge for any company to overcome is culture and the overriding desire to continue doing things the way they’ve always been done. It’s very comfortable to continue doing things this way. It’s more difficult to choose to learn to do things differently, even though the benefits may be there. That desire or human nature to stay where you are can be a big hurdle at all levels of a company, from the top executives all the way to individual contributors.
How can these challenges be overcome?
Alex Smith: The best way to overcome culture or facilitate change in culture is to have it come from the top down. In Barrick’s case, it has a strong leader in its Executive Chairman, John Thornton. He has decided that digitization is critical to the company’s success and its long-term survival, so he is driving the changes that need to happen from the top. This will help people overcome that initial desire for things to remain unchanged.
How will the partnership with Cisco help Barrick?
Alex Smith: The very first thing that we offered as part of this partnership was a methodology and a thought process to embrace digitization and to get started down this path. Another aspect of this partnership is that Cisco involves its ecosystem of partners. No one company can bring everything that Barrick needs and there are many, many companies whose experience Barrick can leverage. Some of them have focused on mining in the past and some of them haven’t, but they’ve helped with really interesting transformations in other industries. Barrick is, refreshingly, very open to looking at and borrowing things done in other industries.
Another thing that Cisco brings is an innovation center in Toronto and investments in a university chair for mining. We’d like to encourage that university and the students that may be choosing research projects to focus on things that are important to Barrick and maybe co-invent something very unique.
Then, of course, there’s technology, which includes how to connect people to everything from vehicles to any kind of wired or wireless device. We have collaboration technologies that Barrick has already started to implement and that are absolutely critical, since they improve decision-making processes within digitized companies. These technologies share information such as video, which allows you to bring expert eyes to an issue at an underground mine without actually having to send someone underground. We’re also exploring the use of analytics. Cisco strengthens Barrick’s capacity for analytics, networking and integrating disparate data sources that reside in the company.
The final technology we bring that spans everything is cyber security. The more and more connected a company becomes, the more important cyber security becomes to keep proprietary information safe.
One of Barrick’s values is partnerships, a word that you’ve used several times during this interview. How crucial are partnerships in an increasingly digital world?
Alex Smith: I think partnerships have always been important, but digitization really makes them even more important as companies become more data-enabled. That data comes from existing Barrick suppliers, some of whom you would describe as partners such as OSIsoft, Caterpillar and Sandvik. There are the large Original Equipment Manufacturer partnerships, and I think there are going to be new partnerships to access technologies such as analytics for predictive maintenance. That’s going to come from expertise out there in the mining industry and other industries.
What does the ideal situation look like for digitized mining?
Alex Smith: I think the ideal situation for mining, once it’s digitized, leads into the concept of continuous mining, where you’re mechanically cutting into ore, digitally figuring out whether the ore contains a high enough grade for processing, and backfilling the tunnels that you’ve just very precisely and knowledgeably carved. That’s a continuous process that can happen without moving people in and out of mines for blasting after drilling, and so on.