Swick Mining: Of innovators and disruptors

June 29, 2018

by Kent Swick, Managing Director and Jenna Aziz, PR Co-ordinator

History

Swick Mining Services has been operating for over 20 years and was founded by Kent Swick in 1995. Kent is a fourth-generation driller with a drilling heritage that goes as far back as his great-grandfather drilling water wells across the mid-western plains of the United States during the Great Depression.

Kent Swick’s father, Lloyd first arrived in Western Australia in 1964 and was a pioneer in using mud-rotary drilling methods to drill and develop water bores throughout the Pilbara and Kimberley regions of the state. In the 1970s, Lloyd Swick helped develop major bore fields surrounding the Pilbara townships of Tom Price and Newman which allowed the surrounding mines and communities to prosper in the once-barren landscape. Kent recalls,

‘As far back as I can remember, I was visiting operating drill rigs and around them in the workshop. I grew up listening to drilling stories and witnessing the odd animated ‘discussion’ about who was the better driller. My whole family was into water-well drilling and then RC drilling as that came into existence. In fact, even though I enjoyed the work, it was something that I was very determined not to do with my life over the long term. I tried to escape the industry after I got my degree but eventually got drawn back to it, this time it was in an underground environment and therefore something new.’

Having graduated with a degree in mechanical engineering, Kent worked in civil construction on major railway projects before commencing work in an underground mine as a maintenance manager for a large global equipment manufacturer, whose equipment was on a maintenance contract at the site. It was there that Kent developed a strong understanding of underground mining processes and the equipment in use. Kent continues,

‘After a certain period I knew that working for a large organization, despite its benefits, wasn’t for me and I wanted to branch out on my own. So back in 1995 I bought a secondhand underground blast-hole drill, that anyone else would have thought was  scrap, and rebuilt it to a good operating condition and started contracting. My mother Rosanne and my father Lloyd were silent partners with my wife Tanya and I, and we commenced a long and sometimes difficult journey from that small start-up to get to where we are today.’

In just over 20 years, Swick Mining Services (Swick) has gone from one operating rig to nearly eighty, and is well known as an expert underground diamond coring contractor.

Swick sits in the top five mineral drilling contractors globally and is rapidly approaching a very significant milestone of drilling its ten-millionth meter of diamond core since commencing that drilling division in 2004.

Strategy

Kent’s vision for Swick was to somehow develop a competitive advantage in an already well-serviced and developed industry.

‘As we started as an underground production drilling business, we soon found that we were competing with a pool of mine owners and other mining contractors that all had the same equipment, and we were being used as a top-up provider when required – not as a key contractor. The inability to achieve long-term contracts was frustrating me so I took a serious look at entering the underground diamond coring business.’

Researching the equipment being used in the sector, Kent realised that improved rig design would be the key to developing a new kind of service that would give the company a competitive edge.

‘When I was looking at the underground diamond-coring equipment back then I found it quite archaic, as even the best-in-practice drills were skid-mounted, and I was used to mobile mining equipment that was on wheels and was self-propelled. I knew that even if I bought the best available new rig we would still be just the same as everyone else and so be the last on and first off in regard to work. I needed to come up with a rig that would position us at the front of the pack and make us first choice.’

At the time, the usual practice of underground diamond drilling had been constrained to using a drill rig that incorporated four separate yet interconnected skid mounted components. These included the power pack, water pump, feed frame and the control panel.

‘The skid-mounted rig had a number of inherent design disadvantages which reduced its effectiveness,’ Kent says. ‘The inability to drill all hole angles safely and the skid rig’s lack of mobility to move quickly between sites meant that its capability was limited,  and what’s more, support was required from mine-site operations to prepare sites and to help reposition the skids.’

In 2004, Swick began developing a new concept that would overcome these intrinsic design issues. The new idea would not only produce a rig that would offer improved productivity and safety, but would also add value and versatility to the mining industry. The design concept focused on building a rig that would be highly mobile and self-sufficient in the underground mine environment.

Kent states, ‘I had a small, single boom jumbo that was too small to get decent blasthole contracts, but I thought it would make a great diamond-drill platform. I combined that with some best-in-practice diamond drilling components and then we had the basis of a new, mobile underground diamond drill.’

The new design has ‘all major drilling components mounted on the one mobile carrier, with the same mobility as a development jumbo, which can move itself and setup on any drill hole in a fraction of the time as a skid rig. The carrier also runs on solid, but flexible tyres so it’s impossible to get a flat.’

RC drilling for Talison Lithium at Greenbushes, Western Australia

Today

Swick Mining Services operates from its head office in Perth, Western Australia with operations across 17 sites in Australia and 3 sites in Europe (Portugal) and the US. Swick provides drilling services to some of the most well-known and respected mining houses in the industry, including: Barrick, Newmont, Kirkland Lake Gold, Northern Star Resources, BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto.

‘Our rigs and support equipment have been developed to now be able to drill more than 1500 m in depth with an NQ2 core size and we have crews with the ability to hit a 10 m x 10 m target at that distance. Going back to when we started coring underground, 500 m was a deep hole, now it’s just amazing what is being done underground.’

Safety and training

Swick currently employs approximately 560 personnel across its drilling operations and support services. Kent says that the company’s culture, productivity and safety are key attributes that attract employees.

Kent says ‘The first rig was built in 2004 and since then we have built a total of 64 mobile rigs at our own manufacturing facility in Perth, Western Australia. I am really proud to see these rigs now operating in other parts of the world.’

The mobile rig was a stunning success and delivered on its promise of superior productivity, safety and versatility. Swick’s client base has also recognised the innovation – an innovation that has seen Swick grow organically to become one of the world’s largest mineral drilling contractors.

‘The company has a strong track record of developing its drillers from within, and with a very strong focus on training and development we are confident we have some of the highest-skilled crews in the industry. The key part of any business is its people, and we really try to make sure our crews feel supported and part of a bigger family no matter where they are in the world,’ Kent says.

Swick is committed to innovation, and this extends to its safety and training programs. Kent comments, ‘the company has specialty training programs for all levels within the organisation, but recognises the reality that for many, drilling is an entry-level position into the mining industry. With that in mind we recently developed a purpose-built induction facility with a simulated underground environment, which can mirror the daily activities of our underground crews but while being supervised. All the basic requirements of the job are outlined to new starters and all field-based employees commence via this facility over a full week at our headquarters.’

Swick’s safety culture and best practices are frequently recognised by the industry, and the company has been granted numerous awards including, most recently, the 2018 Mining Contractor of the Year Award by Australia’s Mining Monthly. This prestigious award is given to contractors that add value to their project or find ways to bring real cost savings, productivity gains and safety benefits to the industry.

Underground automated rod handling

Research and development

Swick has a very strong engineering capacity as seen in its in-house Research and Development team, dedicated test facility (including a high-powered dynamometer for rig and component testing) and a drilling test facility where large granite slabs are drilled regularly.

Over time, Swick has developed unique drilling systems, including the Hydra Latch core-retrieval system where core can be pumped back to the drill collar without the use of a wireline. This is very useful in the underground environment and reduces both non-drilling time and water consumption. Currently Swick is working on improved automation systems and focusing on maximising efficiency. The focus on efficiency means we are looking at how to ensure that the limited power available at underground platforms can be used to maximum efficiency thus reducing power consumption per meter drilled, which would provide a significant long-term benefit to clients.

Kent says that the company’s strong drive to innovate and to pioneer industry best-practices have made Swick one of the world’s largest mineral drilling contractors to date.

‘Our focus on improvement is relentless – we continually push ourselves to better every aspect of our drilling business. We have gone beyond the development of a powerful underground rig by adding operational drilling system innovations as well,’ Kent says.

‘Our dedication to achieving higher power and increased depth capacity allows our clients to have a wide range of scope available to be drilled by the same Swick rig. This saves the effort of mobilising differently sized machines for different programs, and the Swick drill crews only have to know and be certified on one type of rig.’

Orexplore and mineral analysis

While Swick continues to be a leading provider of premium quality mineral drilling services, the company has strategically sought to be part of the changing landscape of available mining technologies, and be at the forefront of the digital revolution. In 2013, Swick began funding a start-up mineral analysis company called Orexplore, which is based in Stockholm, Sweden. This company sought out Swick as a strategic partner when it was developing a unique core-scanning technology that could not only provide the geochemistry of a sample but also a 3D X-ray image of the core. Swick subsequently purchased the remaining shares and Orexplore is now a wholly owned subsidiary of Swick.

Orexplore has developed world-first scanning instruments and associated software that allows for non-destructive analysis of core, and provides a unique insight into the rock sample’s structure, texture, chemistry and mineralogy.

Orexplore has recently been launched in Australia, and can replace traditional laboratory services with accurate onsite analysis of rock drill cores, providing significantly more detail than is available from any other source.

Kent states ‘The Orexplore product is amazing. I have never seen a new product released to the market with this degree of disruptive technology. Geologists, metallurgists and engineers can now take advantage of a suite of instantaneous information to help discover, mine and extract valuable mineral resources.’

Core Shed at Tanami Mine

Case studies

As Swick fast approaches the ten millionthmeter milestone of diamond core drilled globally, it can count among its achievements some very significant individual case studies where long-term relationships have provided mutual benefits. Two such examples are outlined below.

The Tanami gold mine is situated in the Northern Territory of Australia and the mine’s owner and operator is the world’s largest gold producer, Newmont. Swick has been engaged with this project since 2007 and there are currently nine of Swick’s Mobile Underground Diamond Drill rigs and 67 permanent Swick crew at this site. Swick has just achieved the significant milestone of achieving 1.5 million meters of diamond core at the Tanami mine.

The Jundee gold mine in Western Australia is owned and operated by Northern Star Resources. Northern Star is a progressive and market-leading Australian gold mining house, which purchased the mine from Newmont in July 2014. Northern Star currently utilises 10 of Swick’s Mobile Underground Diamond

Drill rigs and there are 72 permanent Swick crew at this site. Prior to Northern Star’s acquisition of the mine, Swick previously worked at Jundee for Newmont, commencing in 2007. In total Swick has drilled more than 1.6 million meters of core at Jundee since 2007.

About the company

Swick Mining Services (ASX:SWK) is one of Australia’s largest mineral drilling contractors, providing high quality, high value underground and surface drilling services to a diverse group of mining houses in precious and base metals, and bulk commodities. The company specialises in underground diamond drilling, and has a reputation for pioneering innovative rig designs that deliver improvements in productivity, safety, versatility and value. Swick’s competitive advantage is underpinned by its strong engineering acumen and dedicated R&D focus. Swick has provided drilling services to many of the world’s largest mining companies, including BHP Billiton, Rio Tinto, Xstrata, Glencore, Newmont, Barrick, Vale, Gold Fields, Newcrest, Goldcorp and Agnico- Eagle Mines.

Swick also has operations in Canada and the USA, building a business with a strategy to provide high quality drilling services to the large underground mining market in the North American region.

Find them at www.swickmining.com or write directly to info@swickmining.com