Technology has become part of our everyday lives, evolving faster than most people can keep up with — or want to keep up with. Although the mining industry is slower than most to implement new technology, development is occurring at a very fast pace.

New technology generally coincides with higher prices. In today’s mining environment, where cash conservation and productivity are the driving factors for most companies, technology is often deferred to save money. So it begs the question, should companies invest in technology in the current market environment?

The answer is, “It depends.” With budgets tighter than ever, two key questions need to be asked to help inform a decision: What is the return on investment for any given technology? And what metric/data set will your organization hold itself accountable to for that technology?

Automation has become the buzz word for the mining industry. This has become the gold standard for mines around the world. In fact, Accenture’s study on “Using autonomous equipment to achieve high performance in the mining industry” states that autonomy provides the most value in performance, safety and labor.

Mines are working toward autonomous equipment, automated equipment diagnostics and automated processing. Together, these things have the potential to save mines a tremendous amount of money over time. But what about the drilling contractor? Is automation a means for driving productivity and safety?

A lot of the work that is being automated on the mine site is predictable and consistent. But drilling contractors deal with a lot of variation from one hole to another that requires more direct operator control over the equipment. Pure automation is most definitely something to strive toward but isn’t available today, at least not as a cost-effective solution.

Nevertheless, there are solutions in the industry that help with the automation of at least part of the drilling process.

Among them are innovations in rod handling, which significantly reduce a driller’s exposure to the risk of hand injuries by totally or partially automating the rod tripping process. After all, hand injuries account for 60 percent of all injuries on a drilling site, and half of those can be attributed to rod-handling incidents.

Leading manufacturers including Boart Longyear, Atelier Val d’Or and Duralite continually refine the state of the art toward perhaps the eventual elimination of hands on the rods on drill sites without reducing productivity. Boart Longyear’s latest offering, for example, provides for safe and semi-automated handling of the coring drill rod on both short and long holes, and in all types of footprint and drill site setups.

Similarly, advancements such as a fully electronic drill control interface deliver both increased productivity and a safe work site. The interface allows the safe and efficient operation of underground drilling equipment via an independent control panel — thus increasing safety on-site by moving the driller away from moving parts and hydraulic hoses.

What’s more, the ability to facilitate unattended drilling increases productivity by allowing the rig to compete a 3M rod run during shift changes and rest breaks, and also allowing drillers to catch up on other tasks. Complete control system integration enables immediate feedback of drilling conditions, and data logging is provided for easier reporting and analysis. Self-monitoring valves provide real-time status information, and error messages reported on screen provide assistance with any troubleshooting.

Clearly, the balance between productivity and safety must be carefully considered when weighing solutions in any market environment. But if technology can improve on-site safety, that might be all the ROI you need to demonstrate.

Monika Portman is director of product management for Boart Longyear. Contact her at