Change can be a hard sell in the mining sector.
Just ask Fred Davidson. "Nothing is dramatic, it's all incremental," says the chief executive of Energold Group Corp., a 35-year veteran of the industry who has worked in 18 countries.
Case in point is Energold's mobile drilling rig, which allows miners to reach inaccessible sites using small helicopters, pickup trucks or even mules to get the equipment on site.
The technology lessens the environmental impact compared with more traditional prospecting methods that require building a road to the drill site, or dragging big rigs across the terrain. Reducing the collateral damage of exploratory drilling can have its advantages, Mr. Davidson says, given that it can take 10,000 prospects to build one mine.
Mr. Davidson says the industry didn't initially warm to his innovation, even though Energold has grown from six drilling rigs in 2006 to 270 in 24 countries. The mobile rigs now drill down 1,000 metres and are fairly simple, so that a percentage of locals can be hired to operate them.
"It's taken us eight years to get it accepted by the industry that these things are highly effective, because the average geologist looks at them and they look like a bit of a biplane compared to a jet plane," he says.
"It's a very small industry and it's somewhat limited, especially in the last four or five years, by the lack of drilling out there," he says. "Everybody's been under the crunch financially, so it's been stalled to a degree."
That inertia in the drilling world has also carried over to the industry's approach to innovation.
Greg Baiden, chief executive officer of Penguin Automated Systems Inc. in Sudbury and a former professor of robotics and mine automation at Laurentian University, says many small companies that produce breakthrough technology are swallowed up by bigger corporations long before they get a chance to go public.
He points to Optech Inc., of Concord, Ont., which produces camera survey instruments for mapping. It was bought by the U.S. conglomerate Teledyne Technologies International Corp.
"Teledyne is a big construction company," Mr. Baiden says. "They go around buying up all the little companies and none of the little companies end up on the stock market."
While there is a lot of activity in Canada's mining-tech world, he says most investors want to buy mining stocks, rather than mining-tech stocks.
Mr. Baiden intends to raise interest in Penguin's new robot system at the Prospectors and Developers Association of Canada's International Convention. Braveheart uses computing and sensing networks in conjunction with artificial intelligence to determine mineral locations. But he has doubts about his success.
"Every single mining investor we've heard says we want to invest in the mine, we don't care about the technology."
Mr. Baiden says that attitude is hindering this country's chance to compete as startups fail to secure stock market funding and therefore lose out on the potential to become bigger.
That's not to say there aren't some exceptions to that rule. We did find two analysts willing to provide two stock picks in the mining supplier sector.
Maxim Sytchev, managing director, industrial products, National Bank Financial, Toronto
The pick: Finning International Inc. (FTT)
The Vancouver-based outfit is the world's largest Caterpillar equipment distributor, a company whose share price is up 70 per cent over the past 12 to 15 months.
Mr. Sytchev says that with the industry on the cusp of a rebound, particularly in the copper hotbeds of Chile and Argentina, Finning could be well positioned.
With the price of copper at its highest level in five years, and companies such as Chilean copper mining company Codelco – one of Finning's largest clients – and others buying new mining equipment for the first time in three years, Finning could profit.
William White, chairman, IBK Capital Corp., Toronto
The pick: Peat Resources Ltd. (PET)
Toronto's Peat Resources Ltd. has introduced blockchain technology to improve its supply chain of conflict-free metals from the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is home to some of the world's highest-quality cobalt.
Peat believes that using blockchain will allow it to access data from any point in the supply chain, complementing the paper trail already in place. This will help Peat to be well positioned as the global demand for cobalt continues to rise.