SA Mines and Energy Journal : December 2010 - January 2011
DECEMBER 2010/JANUARY 2011 SA MINES & ENERGY JOURNAL PROFILE Few people can claim to have helped save lives while building a successful global business, but SA businessman Bob Johnson can. The Vulcan software that Maptek, his 3D modelling company, developed over three decades was used recently to rescue 33 miners trapped underground for 69 days in Chile, after the mine in which they were working collapsed. "The best thing we've ever had happen is for our software and our people to be used to rescue those miners, " he said. The miners' survival was "well worth 30 odd years of work. It beats everything, " said the founder of the company, which is headquartered in Adelaide and employs 270 people in 10 offices around the world. Maptek staff conducted laser scanning surveys of the mine area in Chile using the Maptek I-Site instrument and created an accurate topographic model. Vulcan was used to build the 3D representation of the mine's underground workings. Maptek geologists and engineers then helped design the direction and orientation of the three drillholes that made contact with the miners, one of which was subsequently enlarged for the rescue. Dr Johnson is a qualified geologist and is now chairman of the international group that devises computer modelling used by countless mining companies around the globe, including most of the majors. Maptek has played a pivotal role in Australia's mining industry, with most major mining companies in this country using its technology. "We are one of the reasons why Australian mining companies are so efficient, " Dr Johnson said. Dr Johnson credits being born in the right place at the right time with influencing his success. After graduating with a PhD from the University of NSW in the late 1970s, he found that there was little recognition that computers could be used effectively in the mining world. "In the 1970s computers were monstrous in size and I couldn't get a job with a geology degree and a PhD which had focused on computers, " he said. Dr Johnson treasures the letter he still has from a major mining company rejecting his job application, which stated: "geologists don't use computers" . In those days mining companies had rooms full of draftspeople drawing maps by hand. The application of computers to mining was open to anyone with the right vision. He ended up teaching geology students for three years. Keen to leave the university environment he then started a company in Sydney that provided computer- generated maps for Australian coal mines as a bureau service. Exhausted after several years of consulting, he realised his company could never hope to satisfy the mapping needs of Australia's miners and sold the business. He started a new company to develop and market mining software that could be operated easily by the geologists and mining engineers themselves. Dr Johnson had been watching with interest as computers continually reduced in size and price, all the while becoming more accessible to mining businesses. He identified the need for user-friendly software and Maptek was born in 1981. In 1986, Maptek's first office overseas opened in Denver, Colorado. Eight more followed and Maptek offices can now be found in the US, UK, South Africa, Chile, Brazil and in Australia in Adelaide, Brisbane, Newcastle, Perth and Sydney. Dr Johnson said he had moved the head office from Sydney to Adelaide in 1990 as he was keen to broaden the company's focus from the coal industry in NSW to other mining regions of Australia and the world. Adelaide was a central location. "The beauty of Adelaide is you can travel to every other city in Australia in a day, " he said. Dr Johnson said another critical factor behind Maptek's success was the quality of employees. From the outset he had determined he would only employ people who were passionate about their work and who could do a better job than him at writing software. "The trick with any business is to employ better people than yourself, " he said. "To be a success you need to surround yourself with good people and reward them properly. " He had also been careful to employ like-minded people who followed the company's motto: Our customer's success is our success. "Maptek is a collection of skilled people who like helping others, " he said. "It is part of our culture. " The success of the Chilean rescue operation vindicated his stance on employing the best. Dr Johnson said he was immensely proud of the three Chilean Maptek employees who had worked tirelessly and stuck resolutely to their opinions in the face of enormous pressure. Dr Johnson and Maptek have won numerous awards including The Engineering Excellence Award in 2005, Engineering South Australia Award in 2001 and the Intellectual Services prize in the annual Pilbara Iron Supplier Recognition Program. Last year Dr Johnson was named the University of Sydney Warren Centre Innovation Hero. But it is Maptek's involvement with the Chile mine rescue that Dr Johnson has found most satisfying after a 30-plus-year career in the mining industry. "We don't pursue awards. It's far more rewarding to see the Chilean miners come out of the ground than receive any award, " he said. Maptek has played a pivotal role in Australia's mining industry, with most major mining companies in this country using the company's technology Lifesaving technology KATE NASH looks at the extraordinary career of Dr Bob Johnson, geologist and founder of Maptek.