What Can We Learn From Innovation in Mature Industries?

How much do we know about innovation in mining (and other mature industries)? Last week I gave a keynote speech at the CEEC Workshop aiming to facilitate a paradigm shift in comminution.

CEEC is the Coalition for Eco-Efficient Comminution. Communition is the process of smashing rocks as part of the mining process. The workshop gathered 40 top people in the field to discuss how they can dramatically reduce the energy used in this process. Currently, communition uses about 50% of the power on minesites, so reducing power usage could have a fairly large impact.

I talked about three ways that you can find disruptive innovations. You can come up with a 10X improvement over the performance of the current process, you can come up with a completely new idea, or you can come up with a new business model.

We had a great Q&A after my talk, and one of the questions was what have been the great innovations in mining?

I did some research on this question after I got back home from the workshop and found this:

The book is called Managing Innovation in the Minerals Industry. It’s an edited book, so apparently no one person knows that much about it. And it’s all of 82 pages long. So the collective knowledge isn’t that great either.

However, a couple of the chapters are actually pretty good. They led me to some more recent sources, which show that the innovation situation in mining is actually better than it might first appear. One is this excellent talk (pdf) from Chris Twigge-Molecey. I also found an interesting article by Paul Bartos (paywalled, sorry…) that lists the major innovations in mining over the past century or so. He has twenty, which is about the same as manufacturing over that time. One that he includes also came up in the discussion after my talk – flotation.

Flotation actually makes for a pretty interesting innovation story.

In the late 19th Century, miners figured out how to get small amounts of precious metals out of large amounts of worthless rocks. This process is called precipitation, and at the time it was commonly used with gold. The first step was to crush the rocks (comminution!), then dissolve what’s left in water or some other liquid. They would then add a chemical that would bond with the gold, which would make it heavier than the liquid, and it would sink to the bottom.

The precipitate then goes to a smelter where heat is applied to separate the gold from the chemical that was added.

This worked for a lot of different metals, but it didn’t work for zinc. Mining engineers put a lot of effort into trying to find a way to precipitate zinc. In their book The Big Fella: The Rise and Rise of BHP Billiton, Peter Thompson and Robert Macklin describe how Guillaume Delprat was one of the people to figure out how to solve this problem at the Broken Hill Silver Mine:

… the remaining sulphurous material contained the zinc, which at the time was worth almost as much as the silver and lead together. But it was worthless until it could be separated out. More than ten million tons of these potentially precious tailings ranged tantalisingly around the line of the lode.

But that stil left the zinc to be recovered, and in this he recalled a system used in Spain to extract copper from pyrites by dissolving the metal in water and then extracting it from the solution.

At the mine head, he worked with his chief metallurgist, A.D. Carmichael, and his associate, the brilliant Leslie Bradford. ‘Boil the stuff and see if it will go into solution,’ Delprat told Carmichael. The chief was sceptical, but Bradford responded immediately. The result was not encouraging. For some unknown reason, the zinc, with a much great specific gravity than water, would not sink. Carmichael was triumphant: ‘It’s no good. I told you so. It won’t go into solution and I can’t keep it down.’ Delprat studied the beaker. Then he poured it into another glass vessel held by Bradford. Again, the zinc-impregnated scum defied gravity and rose to the surface. Suddenly, the significance struck Delprat like a physical blow. ‘Why, we’ve got the two separated,’ he said. ‘That will do just as well as getting into solution.’

The science behind the phenomenon – the action of carbonic acid to produce gas bubbles that held the mineral on the surface – would not be understood for some years, but for the moment it was enough that it worked. And, when combined with the work of a Melbourne brewer, Charles Potter, together with Leslie Bradford’s and later E.J. Horwood’s refinements, the flotation process unlocked a new bonanza. By 1911, BHP had produced 500,000 tons of valuable zinc concentrates.

Mopani Copper Mine

There are some important innovation lessons in this story:

  • The flash of insight is based on 20 years of knowledge. This is very much like the story from Gordon Gould, one of the people that invented the laser (quoted from The Myths of Innovation by Scott Berkun):

    In the middle of one Saturday night… the whole thing suddenly popped into my head and I saw how to build the laser… But that flash of insight required the 20 years of work I had done in physics and optics to put all of the bricks of that invention in there.

    It was the same with Delprat – he had 20 years of work in the mining industry, and wide experience. The flash of insight definitely came to a prepared mind.

  • The big innovation was an idea. The innovation wasn’t in floating the zinc – this had almost certainly been done before. The innovation was realising that getting zinc to float had the same end result as getting it to sink – it was separated. It was the change of perspective that led to the technology. Too often we get hung up on the tech, but it’s the new perspectives that are game-changers.
  • The same idea came to multiple people at about the same time. Flotation is often attributed to Delprat. But he had important help from Carmichael and Bradford – particularly in getting the idea to scale so that it was actually usable at volume. And Potter had essentially the same idea simultaneously. Here’s how Derek Thompson puts it in the Atlantic:

    The world’s most famous inventors are household names. As we all know, Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, Alexander Graham Bell invented the phone, and Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin.

    Except they didn’t. The ideas didn’t spring, Athena-like, fully formed from their brains. In fact, they didn’t spring fully formed from anybody’s brains. That is the myth of the lonely inventor and the eureka moment.

    “Simultaneous invention and incremental improvement are the way innovation works, even for radical inventions,” Mark A. Lemley writes in his fascinating paper The Myth of the Sole Inventor.

There are radical innovations even in the most mature of industries. And they often come from developing new ideas, or new business models. The insights from a new perspective are the ones that change the game.

The group at the CEEC Workshop was impressive: they were dedicated, and highly knowledgable. I’m looking forward to seeing if they can develop and execute a new idea that really does change the comminution process. I hope they do!

(Flotation photo from flickr/photosmith2011 under a Creative Commons License)

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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