For office workers with bad backs — or restless spirits — the introduction of standing desks to the workplace was a revelation: they could get up out of their chairs and work out some kinks while still being productive.
Now geologists are getting their own ergonomics revolution.
In June, the Sudbury-based startup CoreLift introduced to the market a mechanical core bench that can be raised or lowered to the desired height and set to a preferred angle, depending on the needs of the user.
General manager Eric Maag said CoreLift addresses a number of challenges, including health and safety, increased diversity in the workplace, and productivity.
Through market research, Maag and his team learned that about 30 per cent of workers moving core boxes — geologists, technicians, engineers — have experienced some form of injury.
If they could make equipment to improve those outcomes, Maag reasoned, they would be addressing a big problem.
“What we said is, ‘Why can’t we make a standing desk for geologists?’” Maag said.
“It’s very simple. It’s not the cool, crazy, high-tech software computer stuff. It’s just an easier way to move around core boxes.”
In most core-logging facilities, workers lift a box filled with drill core from a pallet and set it onto the core bench, which has traditionally been stationary, flat or angled, and made of wood. There, the core is examined and logged before the box is then lifted again and either brought to storage or discarded.
In early-stage exploration, drilling is minimal. But at operational mines, geologists are moving “hundreds of thousands of metres in a year of core boxes,” Maag said. With core boxes weighing an average of 50 pounds — or more if it's full of sulphides — it can take a physical toll.
“Operational mines are very high-volume, delineation-type drilling,” he said. “Anything where there’s a high volume of drilling, it’s much more applicable.”
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The CoreLift has a roller table to easily move core boxes into place, and end stops lock in the boxes from either side to prevent them sliding off the table.
Using an electric controller, the user can then elevate the bench within a range of 10 inches and set it at angles of between 0 and 40 degrees. A strip of LED lighting mimicking daylight runs along the length of the bench to help illuminate the core.
Maag said there’s even a spot where an overhead camera can be installed to take pictures of the core from a consistent height and angle.
At 16 feet long, the bench can hold between 15 and 18 core boxes at a time, but eventually, Maag said, the company would aim to create custom sizes to meet a variety of client needs.
Sault Ste. Marie fabricator Rector Machine Works does the manufacturing, while EOEC, also from the Sault, is providing engineering expertise. Sudbury’s x-Glo is supplying the LED lighting.
Watch the video below for a demonstration of the CoreLift's capabilities:
CoreLift debuted at the 2022 convention of the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada (PDAC) in June, where the company had on display a model of the product.
Made in partnership with students and faculty at Cambrian R&D, the device got high marks from both new and experienced geologists visiting the display.
“It was neat to see that the youngest people in the industry were probably the most… excited by this,” Maag noted. “They’re the ones who have lifted a lot of core boxes."
Assistive equipment like CoreLift can also be key to attracting a more diverse workforce, including women and people of smaller stature, Maag noted.
And then there’s the issue of productivity.
As mining activity in the North ramps up, companies are constantly drilling, and they need experienced people who can interpret what they're pulling out of the ground. But finding workers with the expertise to do that has been a challenge, Maag said.
“Productivity is an issue because they’re drilling like crazy, but they’re having a hard time getting good staff and keeping staff,” he said.
“If you can improve the productivity of the team on a smaller footprint — less people but more effective — that’s a big, big win for the mining company.”
Maag has firsthand insight into the industry and its needs.
He's the founder and president at Northern Prosperity Business Partners, a Sudbury-based firm that offers consulting services to companies in the mining industry.
It launched in 2017 when Maag decided to go out on his own after heading up the commercialization department at the Centre for Excellence in Mining Innovation (CEMI) and its $35-million Ultra-Deep Mining Network.
To that role he brought more than 20 years of experience, including as the service and supply lead representative to the Exploration Innovation Consortium of the Canadian Mining Innovation Council (CMIC).
He was propelled toward entrepreneurship out of a desire to apply his skills and experience in the private sector.
“I thought you could make a commercial business that supported commercialization of technologies in the mining space,” he said.
“So we started there, and we worked with some of the most innovative companies in town… all these cool, niche companies with cool technologies.”
Eventually, Northern Prosperity developed a specialty designing workflow at core-logging facilities, and it was that work that pushed the company toward its core bench redesign.
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To date, CoreLift has manufactured one prototype, which is shortly expected to go into an eight-week testing period with a major local mining company.
Feedback from that partnership and subsequent trials will be taken into consideration as the company tweaks its design.
Maag envisions CoreLift remaining a small company that offers a limited range of products that aren't currently available on the market, which increase productivity, boost diversity in the workplace, and improve health and safety.
It's already working on complementary products to CoreLift, such as a pallet jack that's purpose-built to move core pallets and a dolly for moving core boxes through the facility.
One person suggested equipping a shipping container with multiple core benches that could then be moved to different sites as needed.
Maag likes the idea and is eager to vet other possibilities that will make a lasting impact on the industry.
"I'm passionate about trying to help (mining) companies," Maag said. "I want people to be able to work in geology and do the physical things without hurting themselves…. I feel like we're doing some good."