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Mumbo Jumbo

"Gemcom is a global provider of scalable planning and production business solutions to the mining industry. Gemcom partners with its clients to increase mining efficiencies, reduce risks and maximise profitability". (www.gemcomsoftware.com)

"Catena Systems is the first technology provider to supply a complete mining value chain solution to the mining and metals industry on a global basis." (www.catenasys.com)

"Maptek provides a total solution to mine site technical software requirements. From exploration and planning, through mining and processing, to delivery of product to the customer, there is a need for accurate data collection and analysis. Maptek offers a complete mine to market service, backed by a worldwide support network." (www.maptek.com.au)

"Micromine offers the most complete, integrated range of exploration and mining software products available from any company." (www.micromine.com.au)

"Surpac Software International (SSI) is a team of people dedicated to producing leading edge mining and exploration software products." (www.surpac.com.au)

"MINTEC, inc., based in Tucson, Arizona, has been in business since 1970. Our 32 years of continuous service to the mining industry, as well as our expansion internationally, indicate our stability and commitment to serving the world's mining community for many more years." (www.mintec.com)

There are others, but these are probably enough to tell the story. How do you tell which of these are true, which are exaggerated, and which are just trying to impress you with meaningless words?

Well of course, there isn't any easy way to tell them apart. Even when you see and use the products, it can be a difficult task. One of the problems is that although there are some genuine differences among the underlying technologies that are used (for example Surpac's use of strings or Datamine's relational tables), these tend to be hidden by the marketing gloss. Every supplier produces pretty coloured 3D views of open-pit or underground mine designs, with nice spiral ramps and faulted ore bodies. Every supplier seems to have the 'best' set of modelling tools.

In fact, what we see in all of these products is the subset of things which are relatively easy to define and to program, and which were required by mining companies in the 1980s when they were actively developing many new projects. How relevant is such mining software to the present decade ? Indeed, how relevant was it even to the 1990s ? (I recall asking these questions at the 1996 APCOM in Brisbane when the market convergence was already obvious).

Some suppliers have of course gone beyond the pretty mine design graphics. What we see now instead is convergence in functionality of another class of application - the optimising schedulers.

So what is the next step ? There are serious signs now of cracks in the wall of mining software. many years ago it had already become obvious that there were too many competing players in this niche. Only one disappeared (Lynx) and even their products have re-surfaced from time to time. However, now it looks from the sagging share price that Gemcom's days may be numbered. The other major players are all private companies so it is more difficult to guess how well or badly they are doing. Surpac does indeed seem to be managing to survive surprisingly well - it has relatively little serious 'low-end' competition and its merger with ECSI was probably a wise move on the part of both companies, in view of their complementary products, services, and locations.
LATEST news on this - Gemcom has now taken over Surpac/Minex. Consolidation in the marketplace has started, though they may find it quite difficult to integrate all of the disparate software packages, with overlapping functionality but very different architectures.

However, the Datamine merger with Comlabs has not actually been front-page news - the first announcement was six months ago at a conference in Peru, and there has been virtually no press publicity. The extent of Mincom influence in Comlabs (and the Mincom history of the Catena CEO) suggests that this may be a precursor to straight asset stripping, and that Datamine could well end its days as a set of optional add-ons to Minescape. LATEST NEWS - Catena Systems is no more ! The merger has become unmerged, the chain has been broken. Click here for more.
EVEN LATER NEWS - Comlabs has been taken over by Mincom. Not unexpected !

Much will depend in the near future on the market impact of relative newcomers. Fractal Technologies (formerly Fractal Graphics) have a superb product in FracSIS/FracViewer which potentially could be the core of something much bigger that could knock spots off the existing mining software products. (LATEST NEWS - 2007 - Fractal have been taken over by Runge). However, the days of the integrated solution may themselves be numbered, as niche solutions become slicker, more professional, and more connectable. Companies like Rockware which have specialised in low-cost solutions may well lead the field in the future.

The development of connectivity standards is leading inexorably in this direction. In particular, the concept of Web Services, with data transfer based on XML - and its emerging exploration and mining dialect XMML - will inevitably lead to a pick-n-mix world where applications can be bought separately. This is the logical next step beyond OLE and ODBC - where it is already accepted that applications packages may use any of a wide selection of database management systems.

Where does this lead ultimately ? It is possible that within the next few years the so-called 'integrated' mining software package will disappear entirely, to be replaced by applications offered by a much wider selection of smaller companies. The commercial dominance of the established mining software companies may indeed continue but their role is likely to change: they will become systems integrators. In the same way that several of the suppliers since the 1980s included Whittle pit optimisation within their product ranges, in future they may select third-party modelling, visualisation, scheduling, blending, and other applications. This will probably be a very good thing for the mining industry as it could - at the same time - introduce both more competition and a broader range of software applications.

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Stephen Henley
Matlock, England
steve@silicondale.co.uk
www.SiliconDale.com



Copyright © 2003 Stephen Henley
Mumbo Jumbo: Earth Science Computer Applications, v.18,no.7