How the mining slowdown opened a door for a Chilean tech firm

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

As Chile's mining industry slowly reemerges from the gloom in the commodities market, the issue of productivity has become the topic of discussion.

One of the factors contributing to that discussion is technology and how to incorporate more of it into the industry, not just for technology's sake, but also how to use it to increase productivity across the sector.

Chilean firm TrackTec has been making inroads in this sector, first by helping mining industry providers and now directly working with the industry in solving some of the issues that will be crucial in the future.

BNamericas sat down with Pablo Borgeaud, TrackTec's general manager, to learn more about the company, its plans and his views of the adoption of more technology by the mining industry.

BNamericas: What is TrackTec?

Borgeaud: TrackTec started 10 years ago as an importer of equipment, seeking good quality technological products, importing and selling them, focused on the mining industry on issues of transport safety. For example, we were among the first to partner with [advanced driver assistance systems] Mobileye, which is now used in all trucks. Thanks to the mining boom there was high demand for these products, also called third eye, as well as other devices of this kind.

What happened then was the concern that many of these devices generate different alarms for the driver, meaning that if there's a risk of crashing an alarm goes off, if it goes off track, another alarm goes off, and so on. Some of our clients were asking what to do with the information created by these devices, so it would be available online, not just as alarms for the driver, but also as an input for analysis and the decision-making process, for example, in fleet management.

That's when Tracktec decided to develop a hardware unit that created a device that integrated different information devices, basically like a motherboard that receives inputs from different sensors, after which we developed software that receives, stores and processes that information which is then delivered in accordance with the needs of the decision-making team.

The idea is not to deliver huge volumes of information, but rather information with high levels of detail according to the client's needs.

In addition, this motherboard is able to trigger certain actions remotely, for example, shut down the engine, deactivate some function, etc., and it is completely flexible, according to the needs of the client.

BNamericas: Who do you work for in the mining industry?

Borgeaud: We work a lot with mining services providers, for example Tamarugal, Vecchiola, Bechtel, Ameco, Atlas-Copco, Tramaca, etc. We have some 40 clients or so, most of them mining providers.

But we also have some specific projects with mining companies. For example, together with a geotechnical firm, there's remote monitoring of the pit at Los Pelambres, which creates an alarm system that indicates when a piece of equipment needs to be moved. The pit is full of piezometers and radars that allow the generation of models to know whether the pit is moving or not, so they asked as to integrate all of these devices and send them the information.

We completed a first stage with the piezometers successfully and now we're working with the radars. We also have a similar project at Antucoya, where we're monitoring the heap leach on a test run.

The second aspect of these types of projects is that we can ask these devices to take certain actions. For example, if a device detects some unusual activity, we can ask the other devices to increase their monitoring frequency, so we can not only capture the information, but we can connect the devices so they can interact.

BNamericas: How receptive is the mining industry to this type of innovation?

Borgeaud: There was a time at which the industry tried to introduce technology without asking too much of the technology. Now, the industry is demanding that these projects actually deliver value, and there's formal evaluation that measures what will be delivered and the benefits that will be achieved, and that suits us a lot because we're capable of delivering those benefits.

Today there's a bet on technology thinking about of productivity. Before there were talks about innovation but with no specific goal attached, but now people are demanding what the technology promises even more. And that's an opportunity for us because we have very competitive prices.

The issue of productivity in mining is very important, and one of the main pillars in the productivity agenda of Codelco is to introduce technology to increase productivity, and that's where we think we can help, to reduce costs, and to make the decision-making process faster.

BNamericas: And what about your competition?

Borgeaud: There are companies that do parts but not all of what we do. There are global players that are capable of integrating the information for the mining industry, but their costs are a lot higher.

BNamericas: And how do you manage to have low prices?

Borgeaud: We don't come from the mining industry per se, but from the transport and providers industry, and in those industries our prices are very competitive. Now, when we go to the mining industry directly with our same prices they think that we're basically giving them away, but no, those are the prices that we have.

And that's a huge advantage to us, because cost overruns in the mining industry are a reality, and now the industry isn't willing to pay them, and by delivering what we're promising, it's a good opportunity for us.

BNamericas: What are some of the risks of adopting this technology?

Borgeaud: I think the risks are for those who are afraid of losing control in the automatic integration of technology, or fear losing jobs, because the business is changing, the way of managing business is different.

What technology creates is some uncertainty and it's up to the leaders of organizations to decide what to do with it. I've seen good technological projects that haven't come to fruition, despite having positive evaluations, because of the fear of change that the introduction of new technology generates.

BNamericas: Can your technology be applied to other sectors of the economy?

Borgeaud: The concept of integrating information, processing and making it available can be implemented across all sectors. We've decided to focus on transport and machinery, and on the mining industry from the second half of last year. Perhaps in the future we could expand to other sectors, but we think that in those two sectors [transport and mining] there's a lot of work to do and we want to focus on them. We don't want to expand a lot, we like the concept of being a boutique company that works with few good clients, with which we can develop interesting projects that create value.

BNamericas: What about going abroad?

Borgeaud: Today we're in advanced talks in Argentina and Ecuador. Our concept is not to get there, open up shop, do some advertising and see who do we sell our service to, but to replicate what we do in Chile, meaning go to interesting projects more than a specific sector or country. We'll decide [on expanding] this year and if the opportunities are good, it will happen most likely.

BNamericas: The mining industry is talking about growing again, are you seeing it?

Borgeaud: Yes, we're seeing it; we have a lot more activity now. Our people in the field feel there's a recovery in terms of mining projects. Now, when this finally picks up, it's likely that there will be higher demand, but since productivity is already the talk of the town, we already have demand.

I don't see the mining industry reticent about doing these kinds of projects. And what's more, in some projects it has been the industry itself that has looked for us. So for us, the drop in activity in the mining industry has been an opportunity, because without it, the same big players would be here, overcharging by doing the same that we do. The mining slowdown opened a door for us.

About Pablo Borgeaud

Pablo Borgeaud is a civil industrial engineer from Chile's Universidad Técnica Federico Santa María and has an MBA degree from Universidad de los Andes.

He has been serving as TrackTec's general manager for over a year, having previously served as director of the company.