Fred Banfield and Susan Wick spent decades building Mintec before it was sold to Sweden’s Hexagon AB in 2014 and seemed to be enjoying their retirement. So it’s clear it took a different type of business opportunity in what Banfield describes as a “new environment” for mining software development to draw them back into the fold.
Eclipse Mining Technologies has an office 6-7 miles away from where Hexagon established its global mining headquarters on East Congress Street in central Tucson after buying a bunch of mining tech firms, including Mintec.
Mintec, formed in 1970, was the oldest in the old guard of mining and exploration software companies picked off by diversified international tech groups looking to drill into the mining market. Few remain independent.
“Retirement is boring,” Eclipse chair Banfield has said. He re-united with Wick more than two years ago to lend vast experience in the mining software market to a start-up team looking to add to Tucson’s growing reputation as a global mining technology hub.
Wick, CEO of Eclipse, describes the company’s flagship product, SourceOne, as a “universal mining industry platform”, contrasting it with the product platforms still being marketed by various mining software vendors.
“Product platforms are typically sold by a single technology vendor to tie their software suite, products, or offerings together. In contrast, an industry platform is purposely designed to store, share, and integrate data from any software program, from any vendor. SourceOne has been constructed with a holistic view of serving an industry, not a product line,” she says.
Banfield sees a range of factors contributing to a faster development tempo for a company such as Eclipse, compared with traditional mining software companies, not least the inside market knowledge he, Wick and other veteran industry leaders such as Barry Henderson and Brett Marsh bring to the start-up’s boardroom table.
“We were drawn to this opportunity because of the need in the industry for mining companies to be able to integrate and manage all their data more efficiently and securely,” he says. “With our long experience in mine planning tools and understanding of data in mining, we thought we were uniquely situated to solve these significant issues.
“Providing a path to this capability allows these companies to improve their operations, collaboration, and communication across the entire organisation. Through complete data integration, streamlined access to their data, and digitalisation of their SOPs, an entire site, and the whole organisation can realise true collaboration and share key data insights.
“This is a capability the industry has been clamouring for for many, many years.
“There are several challenges for a start-up enterprise. You have to have a good understanding of the specific types of data in the mining industry. In addition to standard formats like spreadsheets and word documents, specialised software products have unique data types. No two are alike. You also need experience in the mining industry to understand how the data is collected, processed, and utilized throughout the mining value chain. The development process is a long and tedious journey.
“Mines are generating enormous amounts of data as they rapidly move towards digitalisation and automating their operations. The integration of this data from disparate sources will be critical. Data transparency is becoming mandatory within mining companies. However, sifting through the data and determining what should be shared is still, for the most part, done manually and consumes a lot of time.
“The speed at which mining companies will have the capabilities and desire to roll out new software technologies at their corporate offices and mine sites will, by necessity, be faster.
“Constantly evolving technologies and business models will require mining company employees to develop new skills. The sector will have to increasingly compete with the IT sector to attract top talent from universities and industry in driving its digitalisation and automation initiatives.
“Market acceptance is likely to occur sooner out of necessity.”
Wick says SourceOne fuses benefits of different modern technologies into a “powerful solution … a centralised server designed to handle the data, workflows, and analytics typically required by a mining company”.
It could ingest and handle massive amounts of raw data similar to a data lake, and also resembled a data warehouse in its ability to store and organise data.
“Unlike typical data warehouses, SourceOne works with any type of data found in the mining industry. As a result, it is not constricted to the purpose it was initially built for, nor does it need to be redesigned for new uses,” Wick says.
“Influenced by blockchain immutability properties, SourceOne stores and creates permanent, immutable, and retrievable data points. The data is distributed to users, allowing any number of users to interact with the data at the same time and then synchronise their work.”
SourceOne digitalises and automates workflows, and creates tasks, like a business process management system. It provides users with the means to access data and related observations from a single place and they can also compare disparate data in the same charts or reports, allowing them to create predictive models.
Banfield said the mining industry was seeing more widespread, significant wage premiums as it fought skills shortages and an aging workforce at a time when talent was being drawn to other markets.
“The mining sector needs to foster innovation to remain competitive,” he said.
“Integrating technological innovation into its practices will reduce costs, increase productivity, and improve worker safety. Efficiency and productivity gains can be substantial, particularly for those companies operating in remote areas with high fuel costs.
“The costs of such technology are falling, sometimes rapidly, giving companies further opportunities to reduce and manage their operating costs in the face of volatile commodity markets.
“And as these technologies are increasingly proven to be commercially viable, the risks associated with their adoption decrease, and companies themselves face pressures to compete with technology leaders.”
Wick said product development would be a key to Eclipse’s growth.
“Our milestones are tied to our platform strategy,” she said.
“We are constantly expanding the digital foundation of SourceOne across the mining value chain, growing from our previous strong experience in the engineering space.
“As we integrate and relate data from multiple systems and functional areas, we’ll be able to improve business processes and drive cross-functional collaboration. To that end, we’ll be adding more clients and technology partners to our ecosystem who will be able to leverage the data within SourceOne and drive operational excellence.
“We will continue growing and developing our process automation capabilities and enabling our partners to deliver predictive and prescriptive analytical insights. These insights can easily be operationalised by the right personnel and at the right time across the mining organisation.”
Trade buyers such as Hexagon, Bentley Systems, Dassault and others have intensified the spotlight on value in the mining software and tech space over the past decade. Deal multiples have certainly escalated where the right technology is on offer, evidenced this year by Bentley’s $1 billion acquisition of Seequent.
“There is abundant interest and activity among private equity, venture capital, and other investment entities,” Wick said.
“Many of us working in this space receive weekly inquiries from research firms looking to understand better the market, competitive landscape, vendor ecosystems, and various technology offerings.”