Up In The Air

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-By John Boley

Asking “how’s business?”, the last thing you expect as an answer is “I don’t know”. But that’s what we got from Nathan Falconer, managing director of Winmax Drilling, a specialised diamond drilling contractor providing remote-location core sampling services to mining and exploration companies.

In the weeks after the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the spotlight has been thrown on the nuclear industry and the wider resource industry of uranium exploration and exploitation. As nearly all of Winmax’s contracts for the next six months concern uranium, it was understandable that Nathan should be so uncharacteristically uncertain.

Certainly the fallout from Japan’s nuclear crisis has hit Australia’s uranium producers, even if it is a short-term effect. John Borshoff, chief executive of Australian uranium miner Paladin, told media in the days after the Fukushima plant failed that uranium-centred businesses had become a sideshow to the Japanese crisis “which, though understandable as this is the nature of nuclear, is nevertheless having a highly destructive impact. The media frenzy, the stakeholder positioning feeding on misinformation and hyperbole is astounding.”

Michael Angwin, chief executive of the Australian Uranium Association, commented to reporters that the share market reaction, wiping up to a third off the value of many uranium-related companies, had been predictable, but that there are 502 nuclear reactors active or under construction worldwide that all need uranium to operate. “The factors which were driving the demand for Australia’s uranium and the demand for nuclear power last Friday are still the same today,” he told ABC.

However, Nathan suggests he is not unduly worried as Winmax could fairly easily switch priorities to other forms of drilling. The Winmax service is so specialised there is not so much competition as a problem meeting demand, particularly in Western Australia (home to Winmax’s head office) and Northern Territory (where they have a yard and, at present, 70 percent of their rigs). The company is not active in the east at present but has been doing some work in South Australia.

Nathan stresses that Winmax is not solely about helidrilling: “we are very capable of doing land-based surface work.” Nevertheless, heliportable drilling has become popular of late. In the last 50-60 years, he explains, a lot of the ‘easy’ places have already been fairly exhaustively exploited and now “the mining companies are being pushed into more remote areas.” As they go, “they are being educated about helidrilling and its cost and it’s opening a market for them to go and explore.”

The cost of excavating tracks and land to get to remote places “can be upwards of two to three hundred thousand dollars” and Nathan reckons the cost of putting a chopper on can be basically about the same. There are, however, some distinct advantages to approaching by air. “First off, you don’t have to go through the EPA to get clearance to dig all these tracks to get to these places.” Winmax can fly in from the nearest access point, often just a 10-15 minute flight, “and just start drilling”. He stresses the potential time savings – especially if you factor in a drive of maybe an hour or more each way by ute for the crew – and increased productivity. And with almost all of Winmax’s clients being ASX-listed, there’s a small matter of ensuring the stock market hears about results just as soon as possible.

Heliportable drilling involves transporting a disassembled drill rig by helicopter to a precise (often difficult to access) location. The ground crew then assembles the rig piece by piece until it is operational. Normal drilling can then be carried out in places few other drilling companies can reach.

Winmax works in conjunction with Remote Helicopters Australia. The two companies have developed a mutually beneficially relationship and are in a position to present a full package to clients. The company works closely with its clients to ensure minimal environmental impact.

The relationship between chopper company and drilling company is of paramount importance, and by working in conjunction with RHA, the trust and efficiencies gained benefit both the client and Winmax.

Winmax currently has Alton HD900, Boart Longyear LF70 and MD600 rigs, heliportable and customised to also complete everyday surface exploration drilling work. The compact design of the HD900 has minimal environmental impact and it can operate in difficult terrain. These rigs are track mounted and are ideal for all surface exploration work. Lightweight, modular and manoeuvrable, they reduce the need for developing expensive site access. Faster set-ups, hole re-entry and demobilising means these rigs can be over the hole and drilling sooner.

Winmax says its focus is on providing clients with clean and concise mineral core samples, while at the same time reducing drilling costs through increased productivity. The savings in drilling costs are passed on to clients. Drilling crews work closely with both geotechs and clients in the field.

On the environmental side, helidrilling can be said to minimise the disturbance to any location and make it easier to clean up after exploration because the impact is limited to the site itself without the need for local access roads or a camp. It is often something of a privilege, says Nathan, for his crews to work in some spectacularly beautiful natural locations that tourists would find it hard to get to – prodiving staff with an extra bonus. After all, not everyone gets to commute to some of Australia’s most inaccessible sights on a daily basis.

Turnover among the rig crews is minimal and a sense of teamwork and trust is essential in the business. Safety is always paramount, and in such remote locations assumes even greater importance. Winmax believes that the key to a safe working environment is employee awareness and knowledge of safety at all times. Through extensive and continued training and good communication, staff are well prepared and aware of the importance of occupational health and safety issues. Training and documentation is recorded daily through drilling reports, and minutes of toolbox meetings are available to clients upon request.

It is widely anticipated that the hubbub over nuclear power and uranium production will quieten down – as one leading industry analyst said, disasters like Three Mile Island and Chernobyl failed to impact long-term plans for the spread of nuclear power. Market sentiment may take a while to improve, but it is only to be expected that exploration will soon be more or less back to normal. Meanwhile, Winmax remains ready to drill for anything, anywhere, any time.

Making Sense of Management

Management is the art, or science, of getting things done through people. Sounds fairly straightforward – except for the fact that people are not robots waiting to do our bidding. People have their own minds, motivations, and goals. So how do managers keep operations – and the people behind them – running as planned?

November 21, 2018, 3:45 AM AEDT