Sylvain Brisson was born and raised in a small community in Quebec, Canada. After college, he spent five years as a welder fitter, before being offered a job working on the ‘drills’ in 1988.
Initially, he wanted to return to university, but quickly he got hooked and never looked back. He started at the bottom as a drill helper, then he was promoted to a driller and later to a supervisor, before taking on his first specialized drilling job at Cameco’s McArthur River. Successful results lead to a challenging two-year tunneling project in Switzerland.
Back in Canada, Sylvain was promoted to a field supervisor then to an underground operations manager, focusing on special projects. In 2007, he joined Hy-Tech Drilling in Smithers, British Columbia. A few years later, Sylvain joined a team to start a brand-new drilling services company in Central Canada. After four years of growth, it was time for Sylvain to begin making a difference to the entire industry.
In 2013, he became president of Drillco Mining and Exploration, an innovative drilling equipment manufacturer. Their first project was a mini raise bore and then they had the crazy idea of creating a modular system based on clean-tech and advanced technology that could operate in surface, underground and heli-portable configuration. Today, after eight years and many sacrifices, Sylvain’s company is finally taking off.
Grigor Topev: How did you start out in drilling?
Sylvain Brisson: I grew up near some of the major mining camps in Canada knowing and seeing many friends and people I know working on rigs and making careers in the industry. In the spring of 1988, I was offered a job as an underground drill helper, decided to give this a try for a year or two, save some money and go back to University to become a metallurgist. After a few months on the job, I was hooked and never looked back.
GT: You have been working in the drilling industry for more than 30 years. Please share a positive or a negative field experience that you will never forget.
SB: By far, my best experience was managing a contract in Switzerland on the Lötschberg Tunnel. This was the turning point in my career, seeing the level of required expertise, precision, accuracy, efficiency and how differently Europeans were operating. This experience really made me see things from a new perspective and to this day, it was by far the largest influence in my career – it took my blinders off, really opened my mind and allowed me to look at things in a different way/ outside the box. Likely, it would have never happened had I not worked in both Cigar Lake and McArthur River where I was trained and gained valuable experience on specialized drilling by some of the best in the industry.
GT: You worked as an Underground Operations Manager at Boart Longyear for almost 20 years. What is the most important drilling-related lesson that you have learned during this time?
SB: I started with N.Morissette Drilling, which later became the underground division for Boart Longyear. N.Morissette and Boart Longyear were the very best, which allowed me to work with top professionals from the industry and on some of the most challenging projects.
I had to earn my way up, starting at the very bottom. However, I was blessed and fortunate enough to have some of the managers believe in me and my potential, groom me by putting me through just about every position, and allow me to learn and become well-rounded in every aspect of the job. Without this, who knows where I’d be? It also allowed me to move my career ahead to where I am today.
GT: What was it like to be a part of Boart Longyear during their ‘golden’ years? Share your thoughts on Boart Longyear now and then?
SB: It’s hard to beat the awesome feeling of knowing that you are working and learning from the very best. For the longest time, I did not see myself anywhere else, thought I’d be retiring with them. But new opportunities came up to advance my career, so I moved on.
It looks like Boart Longyear is climbing their way back, but it’s going to be tough with the shortage of good quality industry people. I think we can all learn from Boart Longyear, for becoming the industry leader they were.
GT: Tell us more about the specifics of underground drilling. Which are the most important factors that make underground drilling operations successful?
SB: Underground is vastly different in so many ways from surface drilling. There are countless challenges because you have to constantly adjust to your environment. To give you an example, for many years, the industry has been trying to make a good rod handler. While some are good quality, they are still crude, bulky and limited to what you can do with them.
Equipment design remains one of the biggest challenges and there is still lots of room for improvement.
GT: What piece of drilling equipment, surface or down-the-hole, has impressed you with its design, functions or features?
SB: Directional drilling is a science in itself, especially on deep hole drilling. Tooling-wise, I still think Boart Longyear is the industry leader on innovation and make real advancements.
GT: Could you share a serious drilling problem which you overcame?
SB: Working on the project in Switzerland was challenging drilling but doing it in a very tight time frame required changes in procedures, processes and equipment modifications – extremely challenging work but very rewarding.
We had to drill ahead of the miners. We had less than five days to move two rigs (one rig for core samples and one destructive) with all BOP’s (blow-out preventers) from surface, drill a 21 m (68.9 ft) standpipe and 2 x 250 m (820.21 ft) H-size holes, for core samples, geophysics, water permeability tests, pressure grout with both holes using a full BOP stack and move out. Certainly, this was one of the greatest accomplishments I have done in my career.
GT: Could you share some tips and tricks that can help boost drilling production?
SB: While working with Boart Longyear, I used to test and work alongside their engineering department on tooling development. I remember making charts while drilling and seeing where time was spent during a shift and realizing that we were spending maybe at best 30-40% of the time actually drilling, with the remainder was spent pumping, handling tubes and rods. A good cutting bit that can give you great meterage makes a huge difference, but we still spend a great of our shift not cutting rock.
Drill bits have come a very long way, but tooling and different methods still have room for improvement. We still need to maximize drilling time and reduce handling time as much as possible.
GT: What are the most common mistakes that drilling contractors can make when choosing a drill rig?
SB: Purchasing equipment that is too small for the job to be done. Typically, equipment starts losing efficiency at around 60 – 70% of the drill rating, and selecting a piece of equipment that is rated only for the holes to be drilled results in productivity loss on the last 30 to 40% of the hole
GT: What is your message to nowadays mineral exploration drillers?
SB: Not everybody will like this answer, but pay attention to your basics, and have the drive to learn more than just being an operator. Drilling is a science and we are continually learning new things every day and, in my opinion, this is what makes our career so interesting.
With over 30 years in the business, for me, every day is still a new adventure and I know I will learn something new. My desire to learn is what drives me and what took me where I am today.
GT: Being frank, are there aspects of today’s drilling business that you consider wrong or even immoral?
SB: The world has changed a lot since I got into this business. There is a strong industry-led movement to explore and operate in an environmentally responsible and productive manner. When operators and companies are irresponsible, I think this is wrong.
GT: When talking about drilling contractors, what quality would help a company stand out above the others?
SB: Be progressive, be a leader and stay ahead of the pack! Use industry-leading equipment, hire and train professionals. Make your employees feel that they belong and make a difference. A healthy culture within your company is key and the ability to quickly adapt will help with your success. Maintain a vision for the future.
GT: In 2013 you founded Drillco Mining. Tell us more about your transition from drilling contracting to manufacturing?
SB: Going from always working on operations for somebody else or having someone lead you to making the final decisions was a huge leap of faith. Going into manufacturing and everything that comes along with it was like going back to school. While I really enjoy the business part, system design and operations are still my favorite things to do.
GT: What is the most significant factor that differentiates the Drillco drills from all the others?
SB: I think it’s the ‘think outside the box’ principle that differentiates Drillco from the other manufacturers. We are innovative and create cost-effective solutions for the drilling industry.
GT: Do you consider manufacturing other drilling products besides drill rigs?
SB: With the drilling industry booming, I really haven’t had a chance to think of anything else. Knowing how I work, once the routine settles in, I am confident something will pop up for sure.
GT: Proper drill rod count has always been an issue, which is critical when performing special operations like fishing, wedging, cementing, steering, etc. Any solutions from the manufacturers that would eliminate the manmade mistakes?
SB: Artificial Intelligence (AI) is the future. Using AI, logic, algorithms and computer software and programming will improve most areas of drilling.
GT: Talking about R&D, what does it take to implement new equipment on the market? What sort of testing is involved and how should it be done?
SB: If you can afford it, test it yourself. Unless you partner with a very large and progressive contractor with deep pockets and a goal to help develop new equipment. Most contractors need to drill to make money, pay their bills and don’t have the time and patience to work on developing equipment. This makes R&D testing very difficult to complete with contractors in the field.
We now have our own equipment out in the field being tested and this makes a huge difference. We released our first drill with full data logging and telematics and will be starting to work on AI and automated drilling sometime this year. The Drillco equipment was always built and designed with that in mind and we are ready to move forward… very exciting times!
GT: What tips and tricks can you give drilling contractors in order to minimize drill rig stand by?
SB: Following proper equipment maintenance programs is a huge factor. Training and mentoring drill operators is essential, so a strong culture of safe productive drilling is achieved.
GT: What is the situation with intellectual property for drill rigs? Which drill rig components are likely to be patented? How can manufacturers protect themselves from copycats?
SB: In my opinion, this is a huge issue in the industry. When you start applying for patents and protection, you realize that it’s not that easy to protect what you have and that can be quite onerous. You need to determine what key components are worth protecting and focus on what makes your equipment different.
GT: What are the technical innovations that the industry needs moving forward? Will automation and AI become the standard for drilling rigs?
SB: With the severe labor shortage, limited capacity to train (with the industry either being crazy busy or too slow to generate revenues) I believe Telematics, AI and Automation are the future of the industry.
We just released our improved data logging with telematics for testing and have already started working on AI components. I hope to be one of the industry leaders in this space.
For more information visit: www.drillcomining.ca
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