Michelle Ash. IPI Photography

Michelle Ash admits she may have some “anarchistic tendencies.” When she got her start in mining in 1993 as a blasting engineer in Western Australia, she was thrilled by, in her words, “seeing my creations blow up and move mountains.” A couple decades later, her new role as Barrick’s Chief Innovation Officer has her blowing up something else: the industry’s standard operating procedures.

Ash is the first person to hold her title at Barrick — it was a role she was hand-selected for — and the job may be the first of its kind in the industry. But, she said, the Chief Innovation Officer position is just one of the latest examples of how Barrick has pushed to make innovation a priority for years.

“The company recognizes that if we continue to do the same things the same way, we will always get what we’ve always got,” she said, “and that the industry fundamentally needs to change the way we go about doing things because the competition’s getting stronger.”

When naming the position, Ash recalled, Barrick considered “chief digital officer” but ultimately discarded it because “we were thinking that innovation includes digital transformation, but also some technical, financial and other aspects.” For Ash, the role could not be a better fit; she has degrees in engineering, psychology and an MBA.

Barrick’s big-picture thinking is evidenced in Ash’s mandate, which has five components: mineral cartography, or finding and understanding ore bodies more completely; automating the extraction process and more cheaply and efficiently processing ore; developing relationships with communities, governments and other companies; creating new revenue streams from existing assets; and integrating “not only our business, but also up into our suppliers’ business,” Ash said.

Michelle Ash discusses the digital revolution in mining

She highlighted Barrick Technologies and Autec, two spin-off businesses, as one example of the work the company is doing. “We’ve got a lot of intellectual property, and especially processing technologies,” she said. “It’s not in our interest to keep that entirely in-house because it doesn’t get the same development that it does if other people are using it.” Barrick will take some of those technologies to other companies to help advance them further.

Ash has also spoken with people in industries like retail, medicine and transportation about everything from integrating supply chains to moving cargo via Elon Musk’s high-speed Hyperloop transport concept in order to identify ideas Barrick could adapt to its own needs. The company is currently piloting a smart watch program adapted from the aviation industry that monitors employees’ sleep patterns and considers its potential impact on job performance.

“We’ve got to get our head around being collaborative with those things,” she said, “and not locking them up.”

Next: The innovator
Alun Price Jones, Technical director at Cementation Canada