Get sharp or get out

DRILLING Technology Innovation Group (DTIWG) chairman and BHP Billiton operations team leader John Emerson warns that shrinking lead times and poor standards in drilling will continue to undermine the industry if innovation does not occur.

With drilling costs accounting for up to 40% of total exploration expenditure and 5-10% of mine production costs, innovation in drilling is critical to reducing costs and improving productivity.

With growth in drilling across the globe in greenfields and brownfields exploration, there has been a rise in the cost of exploration drilling, according to Emerson.

“There needs to be a global pickup of technology in the drilling industry to improve the information that is being recovered from the drill hole,” he said.

“By capturing information from the drill-hole you can pass the information to people that understand the data which increases productivity by not having to repeat the process at a later date,” Emerson said.

“We would like to see the technology and computational capability advance further to a stage where down-hole data can be downloaded daily and stored so that engineers can use that information at a later date.

“People need to be moved away from equipment with increasing automation so that their roles will change into data collection profile.”

Concerns such as these led to the development of the Drilling Technology Road Map (DTRM) a program set up to identify projects that will optimise productivity in drilling.

Road map

Participants in the DTRM included leading research bodies, mining houses and drilling contractors from across Australia.

The DTIWG was formed to action the outcomes of the Road Map and regularly review and update the document.

“Basically, the working group is trying to get better value for drilling dollars,” he said.

Drilling contractors need longer lead times and more input assistance from mining houses to ensure they can supply what mining houses want, according to Emerson.

“Mining houses need to maintain a high standard by not putting production first, and need to leave longer lead times to support the contractor,” he said.

“This will ensure the right approach is being taken.

“Both parties need to sit down and negotiate the best way to achieve what is best for the mining house.

“The high demand for drilling means people are accepting lower standards and mines need to ensure the industry does not drop the standard of work being done.”

There is also a problem with the slow pick-up of technology in the industry.

“There is a lot of technology used in other industries which is not being embraced by the industry,” Emerson said.

“Examples include automation, robotics, wireless technologies, communication and more advanced hydraulic systems,” he said.

“Innovation is needed to occur in the enhancement of existing technology such as bit designs, fluids and hammer designs for RC drilling.

“Companies will have to evaluate whether they will embrace down-hole technologies and provide a suite of services to the mining houses, similar to what is occurring in the oil industry.”

The drill and blast side of the mining industry is a lot more advanced than the exploration side of drilling because of its association with the production environment.

“While exploration is at the forefront of industry it hasn’t had the focus to demand the innovation that is needed. But that is happening now,” he said.

There is also a need for the drilling sector to change its mindset from a ‘boom-bust’ mentality, he added.

“Contractors need to make sure that they are still in the industry in years to come,” Emerson said.

“If they don’t embrace new technology and drilling costs keep rising, mining companies won’t get value for their dollar and will be forced to control the process.”

Personnel issues will also affect the long term viability of the industry.

“At the moment personnel shortages mean companies are losing money from having drill rigs unmanned,” Emerson said.

“To attract and support the new generation you need to look at the facilities and communications that are available to them,” he said.

“If the drilling industry does not move to meet these needs we will continue to have a shortage.”

Emerson is also a member of the Resources Infrastructure Industry Skills Council (RIISC) drilling standing committee.

“RIISC has identified that there needs to be changes in the drilling industry and there is currently a rationalisation to come up with a number of core competencies from which we will roll out a number of technical competencies required for drilling,” Emerson said.

“We have had significant enhancements over the past 20 years through the efforts of a lot of individuals and the road map is a commitment by the mining houses to ensure that drilling technology advances across the globe.”

Key contact:

John Emerson

BHP Billiton Minerals Exploration Division

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