Talking to Elizabeth Lewis-Gray, one gets the sense there is little the managing director of Ballarat’s Gekko Systems doesn’t understand about the mining industry and its place, relevance and importance to Australia’s economy and society.
She’s very clear and passionate about the future for Ballarat; indeed for regional cities across Australia; for mining and manufacturing; for the environment. Innovation and the digital economy are what we need to be pursuing, she says - not in a fuzzy, vague notion of possible outcomes, but in actual, demonstrable development.
Gekko Systems was established by Lewis-Gray and her husband Sandy Gray in Avoca in 1996. The company moved to Ballarat in 1999. It’s now established in four continents.
Beginning with innovations in ore-crushing jigs, Gekko now provides innovative flow sheet and integrated recovery solutions for gold processing and low-energy mining ventures. The company is taking the technology it has developed for the mining industry into new fields, including a bio-digester for recycling animal waste from piggeries and dairies.
Elizabeth Lewis-Gray is the chair of the METS-Ignited, an industry-led, government-funded growth centre for the mining equipment, technology and services (METS) sector. She is a passionate supporter of the arts and other community projects in Ballarat.
Elizabeth Lewis-Gray spoke to CALEB CLUFF at the headquarters of Gekko in Learmonth Road..
Ballarat is at a stage where development is starting to have an impact on people in a way it hasn’t previously – new, huge estates; retail in the CBD declining yet new malls are opening. How do you think we are placed for a proposed increase of 50,000 in our population by 2030? Do we have the infrastructure? Is the planning adequate?
I obviously don’t have the answer to the planning issue for Ballarat. I do think the city is doing a really good job on the Creative Cities Strategy, bringing to the city more artists, but that’s only one piece, although it attracts tourism.
It changes people's mindset about whether we are a country town or a sophisticated, global city. It’s important that Ballarat sees itself as a sophisticated, global city.
What I'm really keen to see is a vision for what the business environment is like in Ballarat.
I've certainly spoken to Angelique Lush (City of Ballarat development and planning director) and Justine Linley (City of Ballarat CEO) about what our vision is for being an innovation-capable city, a digital city.
Actually setting a vision for being a smart city or having that digital capability and linkages and the learning that comes with that, because if we're not connected into the digital world – and we've got some really great assets like the IBM Centre and the Federation University linkage, which is has been incredibly successful here, I think we have some real opportunities there – we’ll miss out.
One of our problems having conversations, open conversations, with these places is that they are so guarded. We say ‘tell us your story’, and they won't talk to us, or they talk to us after the event. They need to market themselves, otherwise nobody knows about it.
And no one links into it.
I don’t think that we've linked into that capability well enough in Ballarat, and I don't think we've set a good enough vision for what Ballarat, as a global centre for industry and innovation, looks like.
That is a real opportunity for us. Ballarat as a city to live in and to work in has so many benefits and attractions.
For Gekko, we’re here because we get access to fantastic staff, particularly in engineering. There has been a very strong engineering base here, so we get really good quality staff who work hard, who are passionate, who are competitive globally and I think particularly competitive within Australia.
We price ourselves – because we're a custom-build shop – we price ourselves globally and we do cost comparisons all the time. We're competitive, even against China and even against places like South Africa where the currency is really depreciated, we’re still competitive because we do things smart. And because our people have that attitude.
Is that a good reflection of education and training in engineering in Australia? Or are you pulling people from all over the world?
We've obviously got offices overseas, offices in Johannesburg and Vancouver, Perth and Moscow. But we mainly pull people from across Australia.
I do think that it is the quality of education, but it's also the ‘hands-on, can-do attitude’.
Our staff go around the world to work, and they're installing equipment. They're not sitting in the office asking other people to do it; they are hands-on-deck, they jump in and do the work, and that's really highly-regarded globally.
So people are very happy to have our staff. And our staff who come and live in Ballarat, which is a city that has, for their families and their community, great access to schools, great access to hospitals. It’s a small city; you don't spend much time travelling; so your quality of life can be really good. These people come and live in Ballarat and then they travel all over the world. For them it's a great career opportunity.
Tell me the story of Gekko.
We started in Avoca in 1996 and then moved here in January 1999. We've been around for 21 years.
But the business has expanded exponentially. How have you achieved those results? Is it a part of the mining boom?
Our business is quite lumpy. So one of the complexities of managing this business is you can manage it to grow quite a lot and then you have to pull back a bit, and then grow quite a lot again. That is the nature of the mining industry. What it does is it makes you fit. You can’t be off your game.
We’ve not really expanded, I don't think, along with the mining boom because we have specialised in innovation, and innovation in the mining industry typically takes about 20 years. People are very cautious.
I thought they would leap at these opportunities.
What you've got to understand is firstly they (the miners) are all engineers, so by nature that makes them cautious. Secondly what they spend in terms of capital is enormous, and if they get it wrong the risks are really high, so they're much more likely be ‘fast followers’ than to be frontline innovators.
We're lucky in Australia. We have a lot of junior and medium-sized companies and they're the ones who are prepared to take the risk, because they'll get some cost benefit. The person who's running it can actually get a sense of what the innovation is.
So innovation is very challenging in the mining industry. We're only 21-years-old and the innovation cycle is 20 years. I would say we're only just beginning hit our straps and get recognised in the industry now. It's been quite a tough challenge to get people to buy innovation, to install innovation, to make innovation work.
What's happening now is the mining industry, particularly as the digital age is coming, is recognising that they have to innovate faster, otherwise they're just going to get wiped away by the competition.
We're still running a very heavy innovation program. And that's partly because my husband is an inventor and most of my career as managing director is stopping him inventing because it’s so time-consuming (laughs).
We've got quite a lot of projects on at the moment. We've been very fortunate. We had an enormous project, an $85 million project, that has been installed and is still being installed in the Arctic Circle in Canada. That's allowed us to take some of the funding from that and reinvest it in what we see is the future.
What are you doing up there?
We designed and manufactured a complete gold-processing plant.
The reason why the customer chose Gekko was our energy footprint was 30 per cent lower. They're operating at the Arctic Circle in the middle of nowhere, so the cost of energy for them is incredibly high; and also because it's so cold they have to build their plant in a shed. One of our design features is that very small footprint, we have very low head-heights.
When they went to build the shed it cost them $30 million less to use our equipment, because it was small and they could fit it within a smaller shed.
We shipped that out last year and it's been installed and the second component of it is being installed in January.
And is that plant using a new form of processing?
Our whole flow sheet, the process, is relatively new for the mining industry.
It was proven up here in Ballarat, at the Ballarat Goldfields plant. They’ve got one of our processing plants, installed in 2004. Installing that proved up a whole bunch of our technologies and also our flow sheets, which goes to show that it is still important to have a mining industry in Victoria, for us, because you know if we can get local support and do stuff locally - it is a proving ground.
Then we miniaturised it, so we could eventually take the processing plant underground, rather than processing gold on the surface. So that's the sort of long-term innovation. Here we are 12, 13 years later and we're still in the process of proving up that technology, but we’re getting a lot of interest globally from the majors; they're looking at that sort of technology.
So that's exciting, and that's the reason why that company purchased that equipment, because it had those particular features.
One of the things about Gekko is we've always sold fairly major pieces of plant, but it's a very difficult business to manage, because you’re doing big licks of work and then it’s quiet, so we're moving our strategies to be much more focused on data, the digital world, providing services that would help the mines on a systemic, continuous basis.
At the moment we're reinvesting in an innovation program, which on the one hand helps us diversify from mining a bit, so that we're not so exposed to those fluctuations; and on the other hand helps us work with the mining companies on a more day-to-day basis rather than piecemeal.
Can you describe that shift in real terms?
So there are a few things that we're doing.
One is with with collaborating with a number of research institutions. We're now in a partnership or an alliance with Curtin University and we are commercialising a technology for them which we call ‘Carbon Scout’, which is a way of measuring performance in gold-processing plants in automated performance.
It's an automated sampling system which gives data we can analyse, and then they can automatically adjust performance. I mean that sounds like it's pretty obvious, but actually there’s not that many mines in Australia that have automated data.
They do it manually?
Pretty much: they have these big tanks with carbon in them, and they go with a bucket or a cup; they take it and measure it. That's how they determine how the performance in the plant is going.
So this will be automated but it also gives us access to data, so we can do analysis for them. And then having established that sampling unit, we can start adding features to it to start measuring more components of the processing plant.
There are something like 900 gold mining operations around the world and Australia is the second-largest gold mining country in the world, so we think it’s got a pretty good opportunity; we’ve already got something like 90 customers who are interested in looking at that technology.
It follows that if you use that technology across a number of companies then you can demonstrate your data is consistent more easily.
Absolutely, and we can start monitoring the trends in the industry, how things are working.
But that's a real shift for Gekko, because Sandy (Gray) loves doing things himself. He would never have thought in a million years that we would work with a research institution to develop and commercialise their technology.
One of the things that we have to offer here that makes Gekko unique is we're a one-stop shop. We have a test facility here: a metallurgy laboratory, an assay laboratory that we run for Ballarat Goldfields we work as well.
We've got design capabilities; we've got flow-sheet design capability; we can manufacture it, we can install it, we can operate it. We’re very vertically integrated. There's not many family-run mining technology houses around the world, and there's not many that are like a one-stop innovation shop; we're good at marketing and we know how to commercialise stuff.
It's like a little innovation hub. There's not many other places where you can design something and look out the window and see it being built, and I can look at it and see where the problems might be.
Interestingly enough we've got more people coming to us who are just interested in using us as an innovation design hub, commercialisation hub. We’ve also signed up with the CSIRO in a unit they've been working on for 15 years, which actually measures gold in the slurry.
Tell me more about that process.
Gold comes in tiny quantities, so this is really exciting. A lot of the gold mines around the world don't know what recoveries they’re getting. They don’t know the grade of feed they're putting in and they don't know the grade of the output they're getting. They have to take samples and then go and assay them, and the assay samples might come back a week later.
So they don't have real time information. When you've got a billion dollars worth of equipment and investment getting that processing plant operating, time is important.
So that's another really exciting technology that we're in alpha testing phase with the CSIRO, and we're looking to to take that to a couple of Australian sites to test.
That will be a data collection site and we’ll be selling it as a service, as we are with the Carbon Scout. And we're getting a lot of interest from the mining companies. These things take time - interest doesn't convert to dollars and sales straight away, so it's a long-term investment for us.
So we’ve got those two technologies we're commercialising for someone else and doing on a licenced basis; and then we also have three of our own technologies we're developing: one is the bio-digester which is really exciting, and we've got a State Government grant to help us do that, and we think that's got fantastic potential.
What that means is that we can actually focus on Victoria, we can focus on the dairy industry; we can focus on the piggery industry here.
I went to the bio-waste conference held in Ballarat in February, and there were a lot of great ideas – plasma gasification and so on, but so little seems to have come of that.
That’s our experience in a lot of areas.
One of those areas is automation robotics and mining – everyone's talking about it. And digitisation – everyone knows they’ve got to do it, but the actual doing is much harder than talking about it.
I think this is one of the things that Gekko brings to the table. We're very good at doing stuff and a lot of that reflects our design team’s capability. We have a ‘can-do’ capability here, we believe that we can just do stuff and we do it pretty effectively.
And again my husband Sandy, he's just a natural inventor. He can convert ideas into reality.
What is Sandy’s background?
He was a windmill mechanic and a jackeroo. He left school early. He's a genius, I think. I call him the Elon Musk of the mineral processing industry. When I met him, he was running a small alluvial goldmine up near Avoca and reading physics books at night. He’s just got one of those minds. He's not contained; he hasn't learned a whole lot of rules that he’s got to stick by. It's exciting.
The future in these industries is exciting, isn’t it?
I chair the Federal Government growth centre for the project for the mining supply industry, METS Ignited, and what's important to understand is that is an $86 billion industry.
People don’t know about the mining supply industry in Australia and how significant it is globally. We certainly rank probably in the top three in the world. When we lose automotive manufacturing and people mourn the loss of it - that was a $9 billion manufacturing industry. Mining equipment is a $16 billion manufacturing industry.
The whole industry is $86 billion, services and supply, but the manufacturing component is $16 billion, so it is almost double what the automotive industry was – and we export 20 per cent of it, so it's highly competitive globally. Australia has by far the largest startup industry in mining supply in the world.
We don’t hear these conversations.
Victoria is probably the largest manufacturer of a lot of that METS industry. We haven't had the conversation because ABS statistics never measured it. They've got a little bit in heavy manufacturing, a little bit in light engineering and a little bit in services; so it wasn't until we collated all the data and said, ‘actually the supply industry is at a competitive advantage’.
For me it's a that's a passion, for people to understand that mining is not in this country just about digging things up. I mean mining is massively technologically advanced, and Australia is technologically advanced in mining.
The STEM-based industry and the value manufacturing we put around that and export out of that - so we export $20 billion a year in METS. Compared to the gold industry which is $16 billion. And that's the second-largest gold producer in the world.
Australia sits as probably one of the top three in the world in terms of METS innovation. Australians also don’t understand is that Australia is a world leader in mining and it's one of the few areas that we are world leader; so we bring digital capability, technological capability into Australia through mining.
If we didn't have that industry, we’d be struggling to bring some of our top end people. Even the automotive industry are looking to come in, because Australia has really been the first in terms of autonomous vehicles on the mines. They are looking to come and do a lot more trials because we’ve set up the principles and the structures around a lot of those technologies.
People like to bash mining, but actually it's one of the reasons – it's probably the reason – why Australia has one of the highest standards of living in the world. I'm not saying that mining companies are perfect, because they are not, at all.
Gekko gets funded by those big jobs and it's amazing. And then it's tough; and then it's amazing and it's tough...
We wouldn't be where we are if we hadn’t had those opportunities. We wouldn't have the capability to do modular design and manufacture, and chemistry and biology, and to shift into something like a bio-digester, you actually need to develop those capabilities first before you can shift into other sectors.