Annual Letter to Customers and Innovation Update
The publishing of an annual letter to customers has become a tradition for us over the past few years, first of all because the turning of the calendar is as good a milestone as any to communicate the company’s results in the areas of product and technology innovation. But more importantly, it’s a chance to pause and offer up a sincere ‘thank you’ to the companies allowing us to continue doing the work we do. So, to our current customers and those reading this report, thank you for your faith in our products and our people.
From ‘big-small’ to ‘small-big’
The daily churn of a manufacturing business like MacLean, serving the global mining sector, never lets up. Research and development, engineered design, manufacturing, commissioning, documentation and training, field service, aftermarket parts – the demands are unceasing when you sell and support mobile equipment that is purpose-built to perform in the demanding work conditions of an underground mine.
The start of new decade and the rapid approach of our 50th anniversary in 2023 provides a good vantage point to take stock of the past year while looking out to the next 50 years for MacLean and the mining industry as a whole. Over the past number of years, we’ve grown from an SME to a multi-national where we now for the first time have installed manufacturing outside of Canada (more on that below), along with a multi-continent branch footprint and a critical mass of some 1,000 employees.
What hasn’t changed is the entrepreneurial development philosophy around ‘safety first’ that shaped MacLean in its formative years and remains embedded in our corporate DNA. Case in point, when a group of broadly representative group of employees got together in person this past summer for a vision/mission/values workshop, designing for safety as the company’s reason for being, was resounding in its commonality. It’s the ‘why’ on a company history level as much as it is on the personal level, and it’s the foundation for the next generation of MacLean Engineering.
Investing in production capacity
The big news in the past year was the 15,000 square-foot expansion of production capacity at our Owen Sound, Ontario, manufacturing facility, along with the ramp-up of 55,000 square feet of production capacity at our branch in Querétaro, Mexico. Both moves are in response to bottlenecks across our southern Georgian Bay distributed manufacturing platform (MacLean plants in Barrie, Collingwood, and Owen Sound).
These re-investments in growth let the company better support our growing customer base in Latin America in particular, with fleets of MacLean mining vehicles now working underground across Mexico and down through Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Chile. With our Sudbury branch now pumping out not just rebuilds but full capital builds, we have a five-factory global manufacturing footprint — over 250,000 square feet of production capacity. The distributed model provides the benefits of access to a much broader labour pool along with closer proximity to customers in northern Ontario as well as throughout Mexico.
Layered on these increased production capacity investments, the past year also saw us invest in the initial steps of establishing our newest MacLean branch in the US gold mining hub of Elko, in northern Nevada. This area is home to some of the world’s largest gold mining operations, so putting down roots makes good sense as it provides a significant potential to partner with mining companies in this region for the deployment of mobile equipment technology focused on electrification, automation, and digitalization.
Investing in innovation
Speaking of these three big pillars of mining innovation, we’ve talked a lot publicly about the first, electrification, following our EV Series product line launch in 2016. But the other two pillars are the logical next or coincident building blocks for the often cited, mine of the future, today. We are addressing all three in an integrated fashion.
Since the 2018 purchase of an underground research and demonstration facility in Sudbury, Ontario, we have taken a number of significant steps to turn the asset and its above ground building into a true innovation hub. The test ramp required some modernization, while the surface building required some upgrades to house not only our Advanced Technology Team (AVT), but also eventually the classroom location for the MacLean Learning Academy where our employees and customers benefit from direct access to an underground training area that is integrated with a classroom and virtual training technology infrastructure.
The Advanced Vehicle Technology group embedded at the MacLean Research and Demonstration Facility numbers over 20 engineering staff working on remotely controlled to fully autonomous vehicle operation, using radar, lidar, and vehicle monitoring technology. When a typical day at MacLean involves printing up a 3D model of a mining technology prototype, the coding of a virtual reality training tool, or the curating of performance and maintenance-critical data from the MacLean on-board telemetry system through a cloud-based, real-time platform, you know things have changed not only for us internally but also in the industry we support. An added benefit of this facility is the ability to open it up for tours, which began in 2019, from visiting mining company and consulting engineer delegations.
MacLean’s investment in technology expertise and infrastructure is aligning the company with long-term industry changes in the areas of cleaner, smarter underground mining. This means removing diesel fine particulate from the underground environment, harnessing the potential of digitalizing the underground environment so that better operational and maintenance decisions can be made, and introducing increasing levels of autonomous operations to support safer, lower cost, and more efficient operations.
The MacLean technology leap is evidenced by our digital offer – vehicle telemetry hardware and software, virtual reality training tools, and our ongoing transition to a cloud-based platform for documentation, parts ordering, and training content - Documoto. Together these represent a step change improvement in our aftermarket support offer to our global customer base, and also offer up good examples of how digital twinning has necessitated the hiring of a whole new employee skillset (in-house programmers), an area where just a few years ago we had zero talent attraction and retention needs.
Even though the scope and the scale of all this investment is unprecedented in MacLean’s history, it still mirrors the vision the company has embodied since the 1970s – engineered design and custom manufacturing based on putting the operator and the application at the heart of the design process - the right amount of technology, introduced the right way, for the unique underground mining environment.
BEV network effect
By the first quarter of 2020, more than 30 MacLean battery electric mining vehicles (BEVs) will be working underground in Canada — at ten mine sites, across four provinces, with 50,000+ operating hours amassed to date. Canada is at the global forefront of mine electrification, and we expect other mining regions to follow throughout the 2020s, building on the learnings of the vanguard efforts by Newmont (kudos to the former Goldcorp), Vale, and Glencore in Ontario.
The onboard charging philosophy we designed into our fleet of production support units —ground support, ore flow, and utility vehicles — has been borne out over the past three years since the launch of our EV Series product line. For these mining cycle applications, this approach removes barriers to introduction (no additional charging infrastructure is required) and offers up the highest degree of flexibility for these duty cycle requirements underground.
That being said, heavier haulage and higher range applications within the mining cycle will require a different approach to mine planning and charging infrastructure. The progressive global rollout of all-electric mining will, to a large degree, be dependent on each specific ore body and its energy harnessing profile. In other words, how best to maximize the ‘free’ energy of down-ramp movements, and limit the battery draining requirements of up-ramp movements over the full life of mine development. As an increasing number of project evaluations are being conducted with a diesel-free base case, and with EV mobility technology options coming down in price and going up in availability, we’re convinced of the inevitability of the diesel-free underground sooner than later.
Looking out to the MINExpo convention coming up in September 2020, we will be unveiling the next chapter in MacLean BEVs, building on the launch of our fleet electrification program at the last MINExpo in 2016. Much has changed in the mining world and the global economic factors that drive activity in the sector, but the one thing that hasn’t changed is the business case for the EV switch. If the total cost of ownership (TCO) of a battery powered MacLean unit compared to an identical diesel-powered MacLean unit is essentially identical over the life of that vehicle, why wouldn’t you make the switch to a zero emissions, low heat, lower maintenance option, one that performs just as well and in certain areas, even better than the diesel version?
New products, new geographies
With the opening of a manufacturing facility in Mexico, we took the opportunity that the country’s bi-annual mining convention (Expo Minera) offered up, to launch our newest equipment model, the RB3 Scaler. This unit was designed specifically for the Latin American industry where ground support preparation often includes scaling with a dedicated unit. We saw an opportunity to bring a MacLean level of engineered design and application knowledge to this mining vehicle category, building off of an existing MacLean base unit, the RB3 mobile rockbreaker, which we have sold to underground mining operations across Canada.
The first international branch that MacLean set up was in the 1990s in South Africa. That country is home to some of the deepest hard rock mines in the world, so there are similarities with ultra-deep mining in Canada where specific geological conditions determine ground support and ore flow mobile equipment needs. Decades ago, MacLean developed a specialized secondary breaking unit to provide South African mining companies with a safe way to deal with high hang-ups in blocked drawpoints in their mass mining operations. This past year marked the return of MacLean’s manufacturing of this customized unit for a South African mining company, the SB-12 that, as the name implies, provides remote drilling and pinhole blast loading capabilities up to 12 metres in height. As we continue to build out our South African operation with a fleet footprint that now extends up into the DRC, it will be on the back of this and other specialty MacLean mining vehicles where custom design and a high degree of technical site support is the necessary combination for operational success.
From the Mongolian desert to the remote outback of Australia; from the first underground mine in the Dominican Republic to sub-Saharan Africa; from Canada’s high arctic to the Peruvian Andes; the MacLean fleet’s geographic spread is truly global and continues to grow. In fact, one of our largest fleet deployments is currently working in the Ecuadorian rainforest. This is a testament to the global nature of underground mining and the influence of Canadian companies therein. It also presents technical support needs that are both challenging and transformative for us. The next generation of mining is as much about changing the way miners are trained as it is about the introduction of new technologies. We definitely see this as two sides of the same paradigm-change coin and as a business we are paying close attention to both.
We now have three Aboriginal partnerships in Canada; one in Ontario, one in Newfoundland and Labrador, and one in Nunavut. These agreements are founded on the principle of sharing the benefits of remote project activity, which includes building transferable skills within First Nation and Inuit communities so that employment and business opportunities aren’t limited to one specific project with a defined mine-life.
This is a new area for MacLean as an equipment supplier in the mining industry supply chain. But with the number of early stage projects being evaluated in Canada’s north, we know that these types of partnerships will become the norm, so we are learning our way forward in this regard, always focused on building and maintaining trust as the foundation of long-term, mutually beneficial relationships with our First Nation and Inuit partners.
On the road again
We’re committed to sharing our lessons learned from the frontlines of mobile mining equipment innovation in the areas of electrification, automation, and digitalization. Please sign up on our website for product updates, performance data, and case studies, as they become available.
Our 2020 trade show line-up is set and it’s a busy one, starting with SME Phoenix at the end of February, followed immediately by PDAC in Toronto in early March, then CIM Vancouver in May, the Timmins and Elko regional shows in June, and last but definitely not least, MINExpo 2020 in late September where the international mining world gathers in force. If we don’t meet you on the road in person, we hope to connect with you online throughout the coming year.
Stay safe everyone,
VP Marketing and Communications
3 February 2020