Why Brisbane is an innovator’s playground
Lachlan Campbell, Vice President of Marketing & Innovation at GroundProbe, explains what makes Brisbane the perfect incubator for innovation.
We were manning the booth at a regional mining conference in Nevada a few years ago when a man approached us holding his young son’s hand.
He wanted to talk to us at GroundProbe, he said, because our innovation had saved his life.
“I wouldn’t be alive today if it wasn’t for your technology and the work you guys do,” he said.
This blew us away.
The American man had been working on-site at a copper mine when a GroundProbe detected an imminent wall collapse and everyone was evacuated.
An hour later tonnes of rock and earth collapsed, but all the workers were safe.
GroundProbe is a global company, headquartered in Brisbane, which develops technology for the resources industry to detect tiny movements in mine walls. We use radar and laser monitoring, backed by sophisticated software, to help save people from collapses and to increase productivity onsite.
Where it all began
Not every PhD project turns into a global company.
But when you combine a multibillion-dollar industry facing a devastating problem with dedicated researchers in an innovative environment, it is what happened for us.
The idea of GroundProbe started when three PhD students from the University of Queensland and their supervisor teamed up with leaders in the mining industry to solve what was then an intractable, age-old problem. Ask anyone on the street and they will know about the problem of mine collapses that occur without sufficient warning for workers to get out in time.
The founders — David Noon, Dennis Longstaff, Bryan Reeves and Glen Stickley — invented a method of slope monitoring that used radar to predict the exact time and place of these potential collapses. This meant workers had advance warning of an impending wall failure, making mines safer and more productive.
This innovation from a team of researchers in Brisbane has spread around the world.
GroundProbe now has offices in 18 locations globally. Its slope-stability inventions are onsite in hundreds of mines in 30 countries. And it has had a life-saving impact. We have detected over 1000 collapses, many of which would have been fatal but for the intervention of the GroundProbe technology.
Brisbane’s recipe for success
It’s no accident this innovation was developed in Brisbane. The city has some of the finest universities in the country, a supply chain brimming with technology and a tech-savvy mining industry in our backyard. That industry supports innovative Brisbane companies to develop technologies that make mining safer, more sustainable and more profitable.
Most people in Brisbane don’t realise it, but our city is the global capital of mining technology. If you’re a mining company, Brisbane is your Silicon Valley, with Perth and Vancouver trailing close behind.
Our city is big enough to support an ecosystem of suppliers — whether it’s robotics, electronics, software, mechanical or electrical engineering firms — but still small enough that you can build relationships and a close collaborative environment between companies.
As a company, we made a conscious decision to support our local supply chain as we continued to grow. For example, in the past five years, we’ve designed and developed nine new products — each one of those products is arguably more complex than a car. Around 80 per cent of the parts are sourced from Australia and mostly Brisbane.
Supporting a Brisbane-centric supply chain means we can get quality support at short notice, we can have leaner manufacturing and inventory, and our suppliers all differentiate themselves with advanced manufacturing technologies and innovative ideas.
Like so many other companies, we could have chosen to manufacture offshore at a lower sticker price. Our Brisbane supply chain will never win on the cost of labour alone, but where Brisbane does differentiate itself is in the way we think and through innovative ideas. As a manufacturing industry applying smarter design, innovative thinking and advanced technology, our supply chain wins on value, customer support and quality.
I’ve been asked, what are the challenges we’ve faced being based in Brisbane? Oddly enough, our amazing climate presented us with a unique challenge. GroundProbe systems run 24/7 outdoors in the Arctic Circle in some of the coldest conditions on earth, and also at the top of the Himalayas in Tibet where the oxygen levels are less than half that of sea level. It wasn’t until I stood at the bottom of a mine in the extreme northern parts of Canada that I truly understood how harsh those conditions are. To make our systems operate in these environments, our product development team had to recreate those conditions in Brisbane.
We used to have refrigerated containers in West End that we would freeze down to -40°C, and we would pump the oxygen out of the containers to replicate those extreme conditions. When the team would open the door to the shed, it would literally start snowing as our humid summer air rushed in. But those sorts of challenges are what innovation is all about.
From Brisbane to the world
As we’ve expanded around the world, we’ve had to learn on the job about dealing with global trade barriers, the vagaries of taxation systems and distributing a support network for our customers everywhere from Mongolia to the Congo, so that if one of our products breaks down, we can fix it in less than 24 hours.
We’ve been very fortunate to have support not only from the industry, but also from all levels of government, including Brisbane Economic Development Agency, Trade Investment Queensland, Austrade and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.
Last year, GroundProbe was purchased by Orica, an Australian success story that is the world’s largest civil blasting company. They are a great parent company. They let us operate with enough autonomy to let our innovative culture flourish yet have accelerated our growth through investment and taking us to every corner of the globe where they operate.
We are continually driven to do more, and there are some big problems we want to solve.
For example, there have been some large tailings dam collapses globally which have claimed hundreds of lives and had enormous environmental impact. A real focus of ours now is to apply our thinking to tailings dams to make sure no more communities are at risk.
More generally, it’s clear that innovation is going to be crucial to the mining and resources sector going forward. Life as we know it today simply wouldn’t be possible without mining. Humanity is yet to invent viable substitutes for metals and silicon, and until that happens, mining will continue to play a vital role in everybody’s lives.
At the same time, I think most people would agree that sustainability is critical. The opportunity, then, is for innovative companies to develop technologies that further increase the efficiency and sustainability of the mining industry.
There’s no better base to do that from than Brisbane, where we have access to the brightest minds and the best human resources you could ask for. And when Brisbane companies focus on international markets and differentiate themselves with ideas, the opportunities are there for the taking.
We’ve had some big wins in the last few years. The Australian Financial Review named GroundProbe the Most Innovative Company in Australia and New Zealand in 2018, our SSR-Omni won a Good Design award, and internationally we are currently finalists in the global Institution of Engineering and Technology Innovation awards in England.
But our awards and financial successes will never come close to the emotional response we felt seeing that father holding his child’s hand, and telling his story of how a team in Brisbane saved his life through technology and innovation.
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