Austmine 2023 Champion of Innovation Award winner Dale Elphinstone has no fear of change, having seen plenty of it in 50 years as one of the Australian mining industry’s genuine pioneers.
He says the industry’s decarbonisation shift is going to take “patient capital” on both sides of the fence: miners and suppliers.
“There’s going to be plenty of blood noses on this journey,” he says.
“There’s already been some, and there will be more yet.
“We’re now putting a pretty substantial investment into battery electric vehicles.”
If it seems like Elphinstone is winding back the clock it’s because he is. The founder’s name on a factory in Burnie, Tasmania, producing underground mining support vehicles and specialised surface equipment is synonymous with Australia’s most successful mining machine manufacturing enterprise.
Dale Elphinstone started working out of his father’s farm shed in 1975, modifying Caterpillar surface mining equipment for underground conditions. Fifteen years later his company was producing some of the world’s top-selling underground loaders and trucks, all using Caterpillar components. Elphinstone would sell off the business to the US company between 1995 and 2000.
Now the brand is back on equipment being sold around the world and Elphinstone’s daughter and son, Kelly and Adam, are leaders in the Elphinstone Group, including the William Adams Caterpillar dealership.
“We’ve been into this [battery electric vehicle development] about 18 months,” Dale Elphinstone said after receiving the Austmine recognition.
“We really don’t have anybody that’s heavily experienced in battery electric and that’s absolutely deliberate. We don’t want people who’ve got preconceived ideas about how it should be, because you get the best outcome when you have an open mind.
“I’ve seen us change the direction three times in the last 18 months – one of them was last week – and it’s all for the better.
“We’re going to get a better outcome; a more standardised product [and] a more efficient product to manufacture.
“We’ve manufactured products in Australia competitively for 40 years without subsidies.
“If we want to stay competitive, and manufacture in Australia and export products to the world, we’ve got to think about how to build these new products cost effectively and get the most out of the investment put in.”
Elphinstone knows all about the expectations mine owners and contractors have for the productivity and reliability of new equipment replacing incumbent models in mines and, typically, vows no shortcuts will be taken.
“But there is going to need to be on the customer side some patient capital as well,” he says.
“It’ll take investment [and] it’ll take tolerance because we get things wrong and that’s already occurring. But that’s how we learn and we advance.
“And I think by working together in five-to-10 years’ time we will have products that are not only more productive, because electric drives are just simply more efficient, but we will have lower cost of operation of the machine because they’ll be simpler and with a much, much better environment for people to work in.
“It feels like a bit of a revolution going on out in the world at the minute but I’ve just been around long enough to know that this is not going to be a revolution, it’s going to be an evolution.”
He cited the 25-year journey of large autonomous mining vehicles to meaningful market commercialisation and penetration less than a decade ago as an example of that evolutionary progress.
“This will be quicker than that,” he says.
“There’s a lot of stuff happening in this space and I hope I’m around to see the end of this.”