21 Questions: Exclusive interview with Craig R. Lavrick

November 4, 2019
Craig R. Lavrick
CEO and Lead Consultant
at Dig Solutions LLC

It is rare for an individual to attest to a career of realizing true, impactful and sustainable industry change – preventing harm, saving time, money and most importantly – lives, while maintaining sensitivity to diverse cultural, geographical and political environments. Craig Lavrick is one such individual, and he’s far from hanging up his revered hard hat or his steel-capped boots.
Born in pioneering Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, surrounded by heavy mining equipment, it was there in ‘gold country’ that Craig’s curiosity ignited. His ability to appreciate, coupled with his passion to innovate has resulted in an impressive tally of accomplishments and improvements within drilling, including mechanics and technology, safety, training and development, operational productivity and risk management.
Renowned as a proactive changemaker, Craig’s quest for real, safety-first innovation is widely appreciated and respected. His inclusive leadership style and willingness to facilitate organizational learning empowers personnel and fosters cohesion. Craig leads with steadfast focus, commitment and absolute accountability in a thorough, forthright and inclusive manner. His ability to anticipate challenges, devise solutions and innovate with safe and technical precision are just some of his lauded strengths.
Coring Magazine caught up with Craig – to pick his brain, share a laugh and learn more about his most exciting venture yet – owning and operating a global minerals exploration consultancy, Dig Solutions.

Grigor Topev: How did you get started in the drilling business?

Craig R. Lavrick: My father, Robert ‘Bluey’ Lavrick was working in the industry as a rig mechanic. I remember being an inquisitive five-year-old, tagging along with Dad to the rigs in Kambalda, Western Australia to ‘help’. We’d return home, covered in grease – me more than Dad, but only just.
My Dad was so adept and could seemingly fix, build or operate anything. He wasn’t afraid of extremely hard work, passing that baton – or wrench to me. Academia wasn’t for me, so I left school at an early age to follow my Dad’s footsteps. I commenced my mechanical apprenticeship, working at my parents’ engineering firm in Olympic Dam, South Australia where the business was the sole service provider to Western Mining Corporation’s (WMC) light vehicles, trucks, generators and all important drill rigs. I completed my one-year post trade and then assumed the role of Drill Helper/Offsider soon after. The rest is history, and what a history.

GT: You’ve traveled a lot during your eventful career. Which location has left the strongest impression on you and why?

CL: Tough question, as I’ve traveled to and worked in over 50 countries during my career – each leaving its mark. The Philippines withits selfless, welcoming and warm people is the standout; as people make or break a place for me. Many other countries exude a similar vibe, but Filipinos have the edge on hospitality with a capital ‘H’. Africa is a close second.

GT: Traveling to and exploring locations deemed extreme and dangerous has no doubt led to some interesting tales. Please share one such experience.

CL: Frequent, extensive travel has been my norm. So much so that until recently, I had two concurrent passports – meaning one of my two passports would be processing at an embassy to obtain a visa, whilst I traveled on the other visa. One eye-opening and heartpounding experience occurred when traveling through Eastern Europe. I was stopped at the border for a customary immigration check. Without thinking, I presented both passports when requested – a rare moment to even have both in my possession, however, doing so did not work in my favour. The situation escalated quickly as I didn’t speak the language, nor did the horde of Kalashnikov-bearing customs and immigration officials speak a word of my native tongue, and they remained convinced that ‘Mineral Exploration Specialist’ was just a front for a cartel kingpin. Without a translator or someone to vouch for me, I spent a sleepless night in a heavily guarded, bone-chilling, bleak holding cell, awaiting my local colleague to explain who I was and rescue me.

GT: What are the upsides and downsides of being a drilling professional?

CL: Travel is a boon and a curse. The opportunity to explore remote, spectacular and even harrowing locations is what drives many of us within the industry. The upside being the chance to immerse yourself in and sample a taste of our globe’s diverse cultures and landscapes. It’s an honour and a privilege to be welcomed into remote communities and to be treated like family. The downside is simply the travel. Mineral exploration itself is undertaken at remote sites, where the journey to and from can amount to days and prove taxing, and that’s before even commencing the work which typically involves long and eventful days in trying and extreme conditions. There’s a lot of time away from home. Previous roles I’ve upheld required me to travel up to 85 % of the year, which doesn’t leave much time to connect with dear family and friends.

GT: While at BHP Billiton, you researched and penned the Global Drilling Standard or GDS. Can you share its development, publication, and whether it’s available to buy?

CL: In late 2005, I began compiling what would eventually become the GDS while at Western Mining Corporation (WMC). I researched global safety standards and equipment innovation while attempting to define best practice. In mid-2006, BHP Billiton acquired WMC and I continued to develop the GDS alongside respected colleagues the late John Emerson – an industry stalwart, dear family friend and mentor, and the very talented Kimberly Scully. The GDS evolved from my unwillingness to accept that multiple incidents were occurring at sites, so I resolved to act and rectify the situation. At the time, multiple policies and procedures were in place – all developed with the best of intentions, yet most were confusing and some contradictory. Our group (BHP Billiton) and the industry were in dire need of a singular, standardised operating guidebook to follow and reference. And so, the GDS was launched. I’m proud it has been adopted by those who deem safety and innovation the priority, including major miners, Anglo American, Barrick Gold, BHP Billiton and Gold Fields, as well as countless drilling companies. It’s encouraging, although every mining house and drilling company should adopt it as a universal minimum. The key to continued success is to operate with discipline, without exception or exemption. Real, effectual industry change cannot occur or be maintained if exemptions are made. Truly safe production doesn’t come cheaply – it’s an investment, and requires realistic, long-term strategies to realize benefits. People are our greatest asset. We must invest in them, keep them safe from harm and implore them to do same with self, team and community. Note that the GDS is free, and was developed to improve industry standards via a working safety document, distributed to all. I’m thrilled to share it. Email me at craiglavrick@digsolutions.org.

GT: Apart from the GDS, what other ideas of yours have been implemented or are you planning to implement in exploration drilling?

CL: I have so many ideas! My mind is abuzz with thoughts of how to work smarter and safer to realize greater results, and do no harm in any of our operations, not just drilling. It is achievable. I’m excited to share that we’re on the cusp of profound and positive industry disruption to manage drilling operations differently. I’m currently mid-development with a third party, having already achieved mind-blowing success rates. I can’t reveal much right now, but check in with me if you’re curious to learn more.

GT: You were involved with the highly successful Australian Government- and industry-funded, Deep Exploration Technologies Cooperative Research Centre (DET CRC), which ended in 2018. A new CRC has since commenced, the MinEx CRC. What was and is your role in the two groups?

CL: I was invited to both groups through the large miners I worked for at the time – BHP Billiton, Barrick Gold and Gold Fields, and most recently South32 via my consultancy, Dig Solutions. My role was and is to share and provide expert drilling advice while guiding and mentoring the group’s enthusiastic university graduates through their drillingrelated programs. I consider it a privilege to be involved with the two groups, as every member is committed, driven, and open to ensuring our industry continues to evolve and prosper. We are excited about exploring new ways to drill better, safer, and smarter to yield the results that we all strive for.

GT: Renowned for your drilling industry expertise, you’ve collaborated with many manufacturers, software programmers, instrument developers and solutions providers. In your opinion, what’s proven to be the most useful or impressive product in recent years?

CL: There isn’t any single industry product that can be deemed ‘most useful’ or ‘most impressive’, as success in mineral exploration relies on a collaborative approach consisting of a combination of products, software, and progressive mindsets (and action plans) to yield what I consider a successful end result. Silver bullets don’t exist in drilling; short cuts and quick fixes don’t work, as there are countless parameters to consider. Interestingly, nine out of ten drill rig issues aren’t drill hole-related – they’re surfacerelated issues.

GT: What professional and personal qualities differentiate drillers from the rest of us?

CL: Drilling isn’t for the faint of heart. Despite advancements in technology, drilling is still a physically and psychologically intensive career path. Isolated locations, extreme weather and long days of physically demanding work require a certain personality, and fitness, both physical and mental. Many drillers are unfairly labeled due to the exploits of a certain wayward few, but that attitude is shifting. It has to – mine sites are stringent environments, with zero tolerance to any safety breaches such as alcohol and drug consumption, lack of or inappropriate PPE, vehicular rules and behavior, etc. Today’s driller has evolved, and for the better. As innovation continues to drive technological change, so must the operator. Good drillers are willing to learn as well as teach or mentor, despite their status within the industry. (‘Old dogs’ are often, but not always, the hardest to teach new tricks to.) Exceptional drillers are patient, even-tempered and always on the lookout for an opportunity to improve, whether that’s by improving processes or safety, harm prevention, or innovation.

GT: What are three common drilling issues and how do you resolve them?

CL: There is a tendency to deem a hole problematic at the point when either equipment or the hole fails. Many downhole issues or problems arise at the surface, and can be minimized, or avoided altogether. Ninety per cent of so-called downhole issues can be attributed to surface-related error or human error, such as:

1. Caving: if a hole is appropriately tended with correct drilling fluids, constant hydrostatic pressure and zero swabbing during tripping, etc., the hole will react accordingly. Poor surface-related drilling practice is typically the cause of caving; not down-the-hole issues. Importantly, tending to the hole from surface to completion, and not when a problem occurs, can and should yield success.

2. Burnt bits: I’ll be candid. Most, but not all burnt bits are caused by distracted drillers at the controls. I cannot reiterate this enough – most drilling issues are surface-related (i.e. the driller not paying attention, a dry mud tank, inexperienced or inappropriate bit stripping, downhole equipment in poor condition, and so on).

3. Stuck rods: again, this is largely driller-induced. Maintaining a good filter cake on the drill hole wall, as well as constant monitoring of drill hole hydrostatic pressure will eliminate this. Also consider the speed at which pipe is being tripped. Greater damage is incurred the faster pipe is tripped, otherwise known as swabbing. The more you swab, the more problematic it becomes. Lastly, shear zones or faults must be treated with respect.

Aspiring to the apex – Craig Lavrick in the Chilean Andes

GT: What’s your take on the steel wedge’s installation success rate?

CL: It depends on the application. Correct setup is key to successful deep directional drilling. I’d utilize a window or casing wedge to establish a parent hole to eliminate future wedge issues, as non-retrievable and one-trip wedges tend to ‘fall over’ within the hole. Typically, the issue is with incorrect landing, or drillers overlooking the efficacy and use of a carbon plug to slowly move past the wedge while tripping in. Utilizing a window or casing wedge may require downsizing hole diameter, drilling P-size to at least 1000 m (3280.84 ft) if attempting 3000 m (9842.52 ft) holes, serving as a perfect example of the rule of casing: being one third of the hole. Non-retrievable or one-trip wedge success rates are usually low, owing to inappropriate application. I rarely use them, opting to set up multiple daughter holes with directional drilling techniques that prevent wedge issues, such as aligning multiple holes with longer bends. As with all drilling, every hole should be individually assessed and treated accordingly, as there are situations when non-retrievable or one-trip wedges should be utilized.

GT: What are the pros and cons of directional drilling?

CL: Directional drilling is centered on the art of practicing patience. It takes time to learn the process and to be successful. Effective drilling programs utilize blended drilling crews with various expertise – stalwarts to supervise, lead and instruct, and less experienced young bloods to learn and later impart their skills and practice to the next generation. It can be prohibitively costly to invite too many inexperienced personnel at any one time.

Directional drilling advantages:

• greater success rate, reaching multiple targets from single parent holes
• pinpointing deep targets through controlled drilling techniques
• reduced environmental impact and footprint
• reduced costs via maximized holes (no drilling multiple top sections).

Directional drilling disadvantages:

• very expensive without expert and appropriate guidance
• specialist style requires constant supervision
• specific conditions and methods (competent ground, diamond drilling)
• slow penetration rates – from 3 m (9.84 ft) to 21 m (68.89 ft) per day
• multiple daughter holes require extensive site prep and water supply.

GT: Coring Magazine’s main interest will always be drilling innovation. In your expert opinion, what are the reasons for the lack of new down-the-hole tools released in recent years?

CL: There’s a lot of research and development being undertaken in the background, but the economy has deferred final development of prototypes and eventual launch and release of innovative equipment and products. Currently, there are several manufacturers and think tank-type groups exploring all available options, however, funding (or the lack of) will always be a hurdle. Mining companies rightfully demand compliance, but retrofitting equipment and training and developing people takes time and costs money. Many contractors are unable to absorb such expense, and only a handful of mining houses are willing to invest or contribute via sponsorship or buy-back programs. We all need to embrace innovation in some way. How can we expect a different outcome tomorrow if we continue to do the same thing each day?

GT: Persuading mining companies to hire drilling consultants is difficult, yet persuading a drilling company to hire said consultants can be even more of an uphill battle. Why, and what’s been your experience?

CL: Consultants from any industry must demonstrate how and why they’ll impart real and noticeable change. A skilled drilling consultant bridges the gap between miner and drilling contractor to foster strong relationships and deliver success. As major and junior miners push for faster discoveries and efficient operations, many drilling operations are still being managed by inexperienced geologists. This makes zero sense to me. Drilling operations must be managed by suitably experienced, appropriate personnel. For example: Exploration Greenfields and Brownfields drilling environments typically allocate between 50 % and 80 % of annual budgets to drilling, yet most often appoint a geologist to lead a drilling program. I simply cannot fathom this logic. Geologists should not be managing drilling operations, period. Incredibly, miners and drilling contractors don’t always source and appoint appropriate personnel, resulting in costly mistakes. Geologists do not make appropriate drilling operations managers. My consultancy, Dig Solutions achieves drilling success by imparting 30+ years’ experience to lead and manage finely tuned, safe and effective operations with less downtime and more meters. It’s all about obtaining meters safely and efficiently using confident personnel.

GT: What’s your yardstick for measuring drilling professionalism? What differentiates the good from the bad or ugly?

CL: Take note of onsite morale. If crews seem positive and work effectively, it’d appear their needs are being met. But never assume. Enquire, to be certain, ensuring every literal body feels supported as an integral crew member. Then consider the opposite – a fractious, disengaged, seemingly unsupported crew. I gauge a company’s professionalism by its crews, and whether they’ve been afforded appropriate training – basic, competency-based, and ongoing according to the latest safety, technology, and process.

GT: Has any drilling company impressed you beyond expectation? Why?

CL: Yes, and often. Impressive companies embrace change and believe in people. The industry continues to evolve but far too slowly. Reverse-circulation rig rod handlers were implemented in Australia in the 1990s, yet the rest of the world has been slow to embrace this basic safety necessity. Unfortunately, non-compliant companies are overlooked at tender and miss out on work. I’m perplexed when asked if rod handling is required on diamond drill rigs or safety rotation cages. It’s a no-brainer. Time to wake up, people!

GT: What, if any, mistake do you see large drilling contractors committing all too regularly?

CL: Focusing too much on ‘boom’ growing companies too quickly without factoring in the cyclical nature of our industry with its ups and downs.

GT: Why do you think mining companies tend to mine underground drilling themselves, yet use a contractor for surface operations? Is it safe to assume if a miner hires a Drilling Specialist that drilling operations will equal quality of service provided by a contractor?

CL: Is it safe to assume if a miner hires a Drilling Specialist that drilling operations will equal quality of service provided by a contractor? No. Drilling Specialists are not equal in their focus and leadership. Some concentrate on production, some focus on safety, and others zero in on financials. Small wins will be obtained from each, but a savvy approach capitalizes on it all, upholding compliance, maintaining discipline by using data, documentation, and financials. Many specialists concentrate solely on the hole in the ground. That’s too focused, with all that needs to be considered, planned, and agreed upon before attempting a hole in the ground! (Remember: nine out of ten hole problems are surface-related). Successful mining comes about when drilling operations are managed correctly, – the operative word being correctly. As I mentioned previously, between 50 % to 80 % of drilling budget are funneled into the ground. For me, the goal is to be operationally efficient, while maximising all aspects of the drilling process, with safe production at a lower cost per meter always being the target.

GT: Currently you are a CEO and Lead Consultant at Dig Solutions. Why did you decide to establish the company?

CL: First reason: sheer necessity, as I was unexpectedly deemed redundant by a global mining house and one time too many. It’s part of our cyclical industry, but it’s unsettling and demoralising. Second reason: it was time. Living in the US, I had to decide, rather quickly, whether to return home to Australia, (my mining house-sponsored visa was about to expire), or carve my own path. I went with the latter, partnering with my wife, Joanne to form Dig Solutions, and we haven’t looked back. We choose who to partner with, deriving great pleasure from our clients’ appreciation and respect of our unique, specific, and expert offering. We enjoy the freedom of independence, imparting real, sustainable change while upholding our professional and personal mantra of doing no harm, embracing innovation, and actualizing it at every conceivable moment.

GT: How you would like to see Dig Solutions evolving?

CL: Our primary focus has been on partnering with mining companies to improve and maintain mineral exploration operations. However, Dig Solutions also assists third-party suppliers with downhole solutions. As an expert end user of every conceivable solution out there, Dig Solutions partners with small and large entities to develop, hone, and deliver products to a wider market, hungry for sustainable improvement. Dig Solutions will continue to partner with driven, innovative, like-minded professionals to push for change and we welcome anyone into our fold who wants to do same. Call or email to learn more.

GT: Consider surface and down-thehole equipment. Where do you foresee diamond drilling in the future?

CL: Is diamond drilling the future? We need to think on a broader scale. What other methods can be employed to achieve diamond drilling’s typical result yet at 50 % cos reduction while increasing safe production? I’d like to convene a group of like-minded individuals to dig into and explore and future opportunity and possibilities. Who’s with me?