Foraco is the world’s third largest mineral driller, working across 22 countries and five continents. What is the importance of Western Australia for Foraco globally?
WA is one of the key global mining markets, and it is paramount to have a presence in-country to access it. Foraco has around 100 workers in Australia and 60 in WA. We have very high standards of safety, training, equipment compliance and procedures which benefit the broader FORACO group when best practice is shared globally. At the moment, mining represents about 85% of our business, and water operations hover around 15%. In 2015, Foraco drilled the deepest hole in WA, at just over 3 thousand meters for KCGM in Kalgoorlie, the Newmont Barrick JV. Most of FORACO’s work is geared towards the majors, with Rio Tinto, BMA, FMG and Newmont as benchmark clients. We currently have 23 rigs in total, and given the improving tender pipeline, we are hoping to see this translate into higher rates of utilization as the market upturn gains traction.
You have experience working in America and Europe. How does WA’s performance compare to these locations?
Each global market has its own specifics and nuances. Western Australia requires a high level of technical competence and HSEC compliance, often with a high level of client involvement. One of the challenges we face is that everybody wants lower costs, but many of the burdens placed on us during boom times, with less skilled personnel, still remain. Over 300 drill rigs have gone into liquidation in the last 4 years; it is definitely a tough market out there for service providers. The pickup in the market will come from juniors, if they can get access to funding. Even though the majors are getting increased budgets and returning to grass roots exploration, they suffer from a lack of drill ready targets (due to budget cuts over the past four years), which can take 2 to 3 years to generate.
What kinds of developments are taking place to improve the safety hazards that drilling entails, perhaps in terms of automation, robotics or IoT?
The key to diminishing risks within our operations is to separate people from equipment with remote drill rigs. Last year we developed the ‘drill of the future’, which is a wireless remote control system to have workers stand away from the rig during operations, placing them out of the drop zone and removed from high energy sources such as high pressure hydraulics, air, heat, noise and vibration. This also provides the Driller with an improved field of view of the drill pad, given that they are standing 10 to fifteen meters away from the rig and can see where all crew are located.
At the moment our remote Reverse Circulation (RC) drill has operated for Rio Tinto for 12 months. This was the first rig we put out to evaluate if any changes were needed, but it definitely surpassed our expectations. We thought that the operators would present some resistance to the technology, but they much prefer to operate the rig from a distance. We are now manufacturing a second multi-purpose remote rig for the Queensland coal fields. Our MWD screen, which monitors 14 operating parameters from the rig can be dialled into from anywhere in the world through a mobile 3G network. This allows for more efficient training protocols and delivers much more downhole information for the client.
Another important development is the Foraco App. Previously, each rig would go out with 4 large file boxes of manuals, audit and inspection forms, training material, etc. If you had a Safe Work Procedure (SWP), you had to ensure the new one was signed in and the old one was removed from the paper-based system. This has all been replaced with iPads on all of the rigs, which automatically sync and update from the Cloud. The key to successful operations is having the right people, with instant access to the right information. The Foraco App supplies the technology and tools to enable crews make the right decisions each and every time.
Is there government support in place that allows companies such as Foraco to develop new technologies?
The internal cost to develop our remote system was about half a million dollars. Although there are government grants, they are very bureaucratic and time consuming to access. For a small company such as Foraco, it is unrealistic to invest all the necessary time to navigate through the protocol to access these funds. Bigger organisations with large R&D budgets are better placed to access these incentives.
Could you provide us with some details regarding the Australian Drilling Industry Association’s role within the mining industry?
ADIA had to restructure quite heavily after the mining boom. They have successfully navigated this transition, and can certainly move forward as the torch for the industry. They will need to work hard going forward to explain the value that member companies can generate for customers, who are using competitive tension more than ever to drive pricing down. If this trend continues, much of the improvements over the past decade in terms of safety, equipment upgrades, training and general efficiencies will be driven by the market, with a much poorer service industry as the unfortunate outcome.