Start-up and multinational companies test prototypes in underground mine
A chance is all that is needed for a mining technology company to launch a product or service that will change the industry.
The NORCAT Innovation Mill’s Underground Technology Testing Centre in Sudbury gives early start- up businesses and other companies the chance they need to bring their ideas and innovations into a real-world working environment and showcase what they can do to make an impact on the industry.
“It’s a unique facility,” said NORCAT CEO Don Duval. “We’re the only nonprofit organization globally that has a fully operating mine that provides both start-up ventures and multi-national companies the resources, expertise and equipment to enable them to design and test prototypes. For start-up companies, it is important to have that first reference customer to validate and get feedback on their technology in an operating environment.”
The testing centre has approximately three-kilometres of underground drifts to develop and test technologies, and a 5,000-square-foot surface facility housing meeting rooms, food service, common areas and residency opportunities. The former Fecunis Mine is located in Onaping, 40 kilometres north of Sudbury, and is easily accessed via an adit as opposed to a mine shaft.
NORCAT offers services and resources for research, technical design, engineering, mining, and product development. Through its partner, the Fortin Discovery Lab, there is also access to 3D printing, CNC machining, electromagnetic compatibility testing, injection molding, electronics design and subject matter experts.
There is also co-location working space with month-to-month flexible license agreements or longer- term residency options including dedicated office space and amenities along with state-of-the-art technology and infrastructure, including meeting and workshop rooms, videoconference infrastructure, wifi and storage facilities. There is even full service kitchenette and reception facilities, common areas, drys for men and women and onsite health and safety facilities.
Clients meet with NORCAT to figure out what they require to launch a new product. NORCAT then provides all the resources needed to make it happen. Duval and the staff are most proud of the way the facility acts as a global goodwill and networking centre
“Beyond the work the companies need to get done, we are creating a place where like-minded technology ventures can come together to share ideas and share knowledge in a peer-to-peer environment that overall has a beneficial impact for the mining sector.”
Josh Marshall is an assistant professor in the faculty of Engineering and Applied Science at Queen’s University and director of the Mining Systems Laboratory. His group is working on a project focusing on tools and techniques for underground mapping and localization with applications for fleet management, robotic vehicles and mine surveying.
The NORCAT centre served as a realistic underground environment to collect data using a small mobile robot equipped with a host of sensors, and to test some algorithms currently under development. Marshall’s group liked the experience enough to come back last summer for more experiments.
“As a researcher, having access to a facility like this at a reasonable cost, and with its trained support staff, is invaluable to ensuring that innovation in mining technology can continue to thrive in Ontario,” Marshall said. “It provided us with a representative underground mine environment in which to conduct research without the risk and logistics associated with testing in an operating mine. The centre provided us with an opportunity to demonstrate credible results without the need, or safety issues, associated with deployment in a production environment.”
Due to demand, NORCAT is investing money in the centre to keep it as the global destination of choice for companies looking to bring innovative ideas to the mining industry.
“In the last 12 months, NORCAT has made significant investments in infrastructure and equipment to ensure we continue to be a world-class underground technology testing centre,” Duval said. “We have seen a lot of growth from clients with the launch of the Innovation Mill. It has exceeded our expectations. We will continue to make significant investments in the centre over the next 12 months.”
The mine also serves as a centre for training and development, with the flagship program being the underground common core program.