News travelled pretty fast when Ian Hamilton first came up with the idea for a wireless embedded sensor in mining equipment. It was one of three on a whiteboard in his office that he thought might have legs. One day the phone rang and a person Hamilton didn’t know from a company he did, BHP, said: “I hear you guys are looking to develop a technology.”
Hamilton was running a company called Encore Automation, which he’d formed in Kalgoorlie about 20 years earlier. He’d relocated to Perth a few years beforehand, pursuing an interest in radio frequency identification (RFID) technology on the margins of his primary business.
“Yeah we are,” he said. “It’s just on a whiteboard at the moment.”
But the major miner had a problem – a global, costly problem – and Hamilton’s rugged mining sensor looked promising. The caller was persistent. Hamilton would later get a similar approach from Rio Tinto, which placed significant orders for the GET Trakka technology.
A second idea on Hamilton’s whiteboard would morph into a comminution mill tracking system.
The little Balcatta company formed and grown on the back of the two products was soon also on the radar of major international equipment manufacturers and, for different reasons, large producers of mining consumables that were increasingly looking to inject digital technologies into their product and aftermarket models.
GET Trakka’s tale speaks to the power of simple ideas and is a reminder, today, in a period when start-ups are multiplying in response to mining’s ESG and production challenges, that minnows can and do succeed quickly in a market long seen as a bit of graveyard for small firms.
“Before Get Trakka I started a company in Kalgoorlie called Encore Automation and that basically started out doing instrumentation, because I’m an instrument technician by trade,” Hamilton says.
“I started doing servicing and then product sales, just to get a bit more leverage, and then basically expanded that into systems integration and smaller, niche projects.
“It’s where I cut my teeth on the innovation side … Doing projects where there was a combination of instrumentation and process control.
“I had got interested in RFID. I did a project for a mining company in Kalgoorlie in about 2006-2007, and it involved doing some investigations into the application of RFID into their systems.
“And it just sat with me at that time.
“And then in 2008-2009 when I relocated the business to Perth, I thought I really want to pick up on that RFID theme and … take it above and beyond asset tracking.
“I basically went around and spoke to various contacts that I knew through my years of work in Kalgoorlie. I essentially interviewed the miners. I spent about three or four months asking people where they saw RFID fitting and where their potential high-value asset tracking options were.
“I started to get some early concepts in place.”
Hamilton says he wanted to bring his young, growing family to Perth. Fly-in, fly-out workforces continued to alter the fabric of the industry and large mining towns, and other mining centres such as the Pilbara had large procurement and innovation teams in the state capital.
“Perth was the new Kalgoorlie,” Hamilton says.
He incubated GET Trakka inside of Encore from 2009 to 2013. Then it was time for a decision.
“We had some big miners interested in it. I had put some seed capital in with some early investors. They were keen to see it keep going. So I got serious and raised some fresh capital, and then spun it out of Encore.”
A mountain to climb
Hamilton heard from BHP, Rio Tinto and others that the loss of steel ground engaging tools (GET) from excavator, shovel and loader buckets was a massive problem.
“They would break off into a truck which, if it was carrying ore, would drive down to the crusher and tip it in.
“The steel teeth and components are quite large and they’re extremely hard steel, so they don’t give. They don’t break. So it would jam the crusher. That can shut a crusher down for a few hours or a few days, causing a loss of production.
“It’s also a significant safety issue. If a GET component gets jammed in a crusher, they often would have to lance it out with an oxygen lance … under tremendous pressure. It can get spat out. The crusher mantle drops down in an uncontrolled manner.
“And sometimes if the crusher didn’t jam and the crusher bowl was rotating around the tooth could be automatically spat back out. So some of the mine sites were building large steel nets around their crusher to catch these very, very heavy projectiles; weighing several hundred kilograms.
“And then there was damage to the crushers.
“So it was a widespread problem. There’d been several attempts with different technologies over the years to try and mitigate the situation. But no one had been successful because it’s an extreme environment for putting any equipment onto a digger. It’s very difficult to detect a breakage or a loss.
“And so it was a big challenge. It was a mountain to climb for sure.”
Hamilton and his team devised a way to embed tiny battery-powered RFID sensors into the GET steel.
“We turned what was seen as a negative – the steel effectively being a Faraday Cage – into a positive.
“We worked out a way to turn the surrounding steel into an antenna. It became symbiotic.
“We actually boosted the signal by putting a radio transponder inside the steel. So that was our breakthrough. From there we ran our algorithms and we could detect when a component fell off.”
Sensing the right time
Hamilton had “dusted off the original whiteboard plan that we had” and was reviewing prospects for a SAG and ball mill sensor system when the industry jungle drums caused his phone to ring again.
“By that stage we had sensors, we had receiver modules, we had databases, we were doing reporting, so I thought it was a good time to look at that,” he says.
“Lo and behold, the managing director of a company in Perth, which was Donhad at the time, contacted me and said, we understand you’ve developed a sensor system for ground engaging tools and we would really like to come and talk to you about where we can use your sensor system in comminution.”
After some trials involving staid GET manufacturers who didn’t want an upstart’s product inside theirs – despite the clear industry safety and other gains – Hamilton thought a partnership with a strongly positioned local company had appeal.
“I said [to Donhad], funny you should mention that.
“That’s actually something we identified a few years ago as being of interest.”
The chance to broaden GET Trakka’s portfolio and income base was pursued. MILL Trakka would become a piece of a broader puzzle being put together a long way from Perth.
New York-based private equity firm American Industrial Partners had paid circa-US$1.2 billion in 2016 for Australian mill consumable business Molycop, which would acquire Donhad in 2018.
American Industrial also became the owner of a Queensland-based mining GET and other products company, CR (once known as CQMS Razer), in 2018. A vigorous pursuit of complementary “smart” earthmoving machine technologies followed.
GET Trakka had strong dual appeal to American Industrial when it made its move on the Perth company in the second half of 2020.
An intriguing side note is that major Scottish mineral processing equipment company, Weir Group, shelled out more than US$1 billion for US GET manufacturer ESCO in 2018. The mining tech M&A heat was still rising in 2021 when Weir agreed to pay a whopping $200 million (with earn-outs) for a small Vancouver tech firm, Motion Metrics, with “early adoption of its technology in [ESCO] GET” a strategic focus.
Hamilton doesn’t see himself as some sort of visionary but it’s clear now he was a few steps ahead in the GET game, estimated to be worth up to $400 million a year.
He says his “vendor agnostic” technology was a hit with mining customers, if not initially with certain vendors.
“I remember writing in my original business plan that the manufacturers and the OEMs will be behind this because it benefits them immensely. Their components are not getting jammed in the crusher. They can get more reliability. They can get all this data. Initially, though, it was just too far out of their business scope.
“I think it was a bit too disruptive.”
In the post-acquisition phase, GET Trakka’s founder finished a one-year stint with CR and also spent time in 2021-22 with Molycop, which had aggressively pursued a digital tech and services focus. CR was bought by Sweden’s Epiroc at the end of last year.
It gave him a deeper appreciation of a complex and esoteric mining tech M&A landscape and, he says, the value of the Perth firm that independently advised GET Trakka on its sale to CR.
“I remember sitting around with our board and shareholders and asking who knew of someone who could take an advisory role,” Hamilton says.
“One [board member] suggested a guy called Ivan Gustavino. Another one said he knew of a guy who did some work on the sale of a tech firm to a major mining equipment company.
“We had two names but no connection – no company.
“When I Googled Ivan Gustavino and Kheong Chee I found they both work for the same company.”
Hamilton says he and other board members were initially “nervous” about the size of the company, Atrico. “There was a boutique element,” he says. “They’re a small team.
“But then we just spent half an hour with them and I was convinced.
“We had a shareholder who cut his teeth with one of the Big Four … Arthur Andersen, I think. And he said, you need muscle when you’re at the table. You have got to have the firepower.
“But anyone who has spent a bit of time with Kheong and Ivan at the table knows those guys know how to cut a deal.
“They could be a lot bigger if they wanted to be: 10, 20 or 30 people. But they just stick to their knitting and are very, very disciplined with what they do.
“They just do it really well.
“I have now been involved in a few transactions, including on the buy side. I found that was a really interesting exercise to be on the other side of the table and see how it was being handled; what was being said and promised.
“Some of these difficult and complex deals sound great when you’ve got your adrenaline pumping and you’re all high-fiving each other. But when you’ve got to live it that it’s a different story.
“They [Atrico] just know from experience what does and doesn’t work.
“GET Trakka was such a clean deal and everyone was happy after the dust settled.”