As part of Sudbury.com’s ongoing Discover Series, Mike Commito, director of applied research and innovation at Cambrian College, who is often referred to simply as Dr. Mike on campus, is sitting down with researchers and entrepreneurs in Sudbury to spotlight the innovative work they’re doing in our community and beyond.
This past month, Dr. Mike sat down with Ryan Siggelkow of Hard-Line. Siggelkow has been with the company for nearly two decades and has done everything from assembling printed circuit boards by hand to working in the warehouse.
In his current role as senior vice-president of technology, Siggelkow works to ensure that Hard-Line continues to be a leading supplier of automation, teleoperation, and remote-control technology in the mining industry. Their manufacturing facility is based out of Dowling, but their products are all over the globe.
As the company continues to thrive, they’ve opened up a downtown office to consolidate their ever-growing technology division. Located in one of downtown Sudbury’s oldest buildings, it’s fitting that a company that is helping to bring the mining industry into the 21st century is occupying a space that was originally built when minerals were first discovered in the area in the late 19th century.
After Siggelkow gave Dr. Mike a sneak peek of Hard-Line’s new space, they chatted about how he got into the business, what type of products and solutions the company provides to the mining industry, and what is on the horizon. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Mike Commito: You’re the senior vice-president of technology for Hard-Line, but before we get into what you do, can you tell us how you got to this point in your career?
Ryan Siggelkow: I have a bit of a unique entrance into the business. My father is one of the founders of the company, so I was given an opportunity out of high school to try working and seeing if I had interest in the industry and what my interest might be. So I took that opportunity right out of high school, after doing some co-ops during high school, and joined the company. From there I just loved every part of it. I started by building printed circuit boards by hand. I was doing a little bit of sales work. I did everything from shipping and receiving to warehousing and working in the field a bit on machines and travelling to customer sites. Then working in processing, all the way up into projects. When I started doing more work leading projects and leading customer sites that’s when I got really interested in the business. Seeing customers have all these problems that need to be solved and then be able to come up with solutions and show them what we can do for them and then bringing it to them to see it installed and functional was of real interest to me. Which brings me to where I am now. Hard-Line itself actually started as a service company. We had service work all over the world and then we moved towards more of a manufacturing company, but now we’re actually transitioning into a technology company, where we see technology being the focus of the company. Now that I’m leading the technology division of the company, it’s very interesting to be a part of.
MC: In the mining industry, Hard-Line is renowned for is its Teleop technology and solutions. Can you explain what Teleop is?
RS: Teleop is an after-market solution. We don’t sell the vehicles themselves, our customers will have the vehicles. We’ll go to the site and install the packages to convert to it electric or electronic control. We’ll put our solution on the vehicle so it can be controlled remotely and that would be the first step. But the Teleop would be where an operator sits in a chair far removed from the vehicle, so there’s a Wi-Fi or LTE connection between the vehicle and the infrastructure somewhere that the operator is stationed. It could be installed underground, it could be installed on surface, it could be installed in an office over the internet somewhere far away, even to the point where we’ve done demonstrations, driving vehicles here in Sudbury from Toronto, Las Vegas, Montreal, Vancouver, and even Australia. We’ve run a vehicle here in Sudbury from Australia, which is pretty impressive. We have one customer now who is driving vehicles at their mine from about 500 km away from an urban centre. So now they don’t have to fly their operators in and out.
MC: Teleop helps mining companies break down geography, but is operating a vehicle in Sudbury from as far away as Australia the goal or are we just looking to reduce much shorter distances?
RS: Going over the internet, there’s a latency element to it, so Teleop control is a little more difficult over long internet distances, but going to automation makes it less important because the latency doesn’t transfer to the operator. What we see more of is those short hauls, where they can actually have operators sitting and not have to fly in, not having to make that commute. We have some sites where their mine is two hours from town, which is a daily commute for the operators who are there. That’s more than four hours a day that is out of their lives. If they can run from town, two hours away, that’s massive for the operators in terms of work-life balance. We see more of that coming in. Being able to run from further distances, is probably less easy to justify at this point, but it is interesting that the technology will support it if the application is there.
MC: We hear a lot about 5G these days and how it will change how we communicate with wireless technologies. How is Hard-Line preparing for the advent of 5G and what will it mean for your company?
RS: It’s hard to say so far. Currently we work on Wi-Fi and LTE. 5G coming in, there’s still some uncertainty around the bandwidth requirements and the roaming capabilities on the technology. As it gets more widely used, we’ll work with the suppliers to make sure that it can be configured in a way that our system will work on it. The one thing about our system is that it’s a little bit backwards from all the normal users of a 5G or 4G network, where when you’re using your cell phone you’re taking in a lot of data, downloading pictures and stuff to your device, you’re not really sending much. There’s not a lot of upload requirements, whereas our vehicle is completely the opposite. The actual information going into the vehicle is very minimal, but the video feeds and the sensor data going back from the vehicle is a lot higher. It’s almost exactly backwards from what the manufacturers are designing the systems to do. We worked with a couple manufacturers already to have the system where our system can work on it.
MC: What are some exciting things you’re working on now that you can share?
RS: There is a big release coming that we’re doing a full product launch at MINExpo (in Las Vegas in September 2020). We’ll say that it has to do with a machine and a complete process of that that’s going to be fully autonomous and completely automated. That will be our next big release.
MC: When it comes to innovation, do you have a personal philosophy that you adhere to keep yourself and Hard-Line on the cutting-edge?
RS: There are two methods that we use. The first one that we use is just trying to think a little differently. Everyone kind of does it the same way. There are feasibility studies on how things should be designed, usually in the same direction, but we certainly try to think about it differently. “What if we could have operators in another city? What does that mean for the feasibility of these projects and the ability to automate vehicles or add more vehicles?” and try to bring that to our customers has been a big part of our innovation. But also looking at other industries and what they’re doing. There’s a lot going on in the automotive industry, there’s so much going on in automotive manufacturing and plant manufacturing and trying to take some of the ideas that they have and incorporate into our methodologies in mining has been of interest to us. Seeing how the process of mining, bringing material from one place to another, how that can be automated and how different parts can tie to together is one of the philosophies we use.
MC: Hard-Line is a technology provider, but you’re also a local employer here in Sudbury. Where are you pulling your workforce from?
RS: Our company does a lot of different pieces, so everything from manufacturing to administration and even our own marketing and advertising department, so we’re pulling from the International Business program at Cambrian, that we’re actively involved in. We pull from the marketing programs as well. From the universities, we’re doing lots of work with the computer science and mechatronics programs there. Trying to work with the universities and colleges on curriculum, what the students are learning these days, but those are the main programs. Our field technicians, electronics, mechanics, electrical, little bit of all the trades, a little bit of technology, a little bit of business administration, a little bit of everything from all the different levels.
MC: We’re in your downtown Sudbury office and your manufacturing is north in Dowling, but your technology is all over the world. Can you talk about Hard-Line’s global impact?
RS: We started in Sudbury originally and then moved to Dowling shortly thereafter. Our head office is in Dowling, our manufacturing facility and most of the administration is out of Dowling. We just opened our office in downtown Sudbury about six months ago. We’re moving all the technology and innovation personnel into downtown. We also have a sales and service office in Salt Lake City, Utah, Santiago, Chile, and Lima, Peru, that we actually employ local people from the Chilean, Peruvian, and American markets to support those markets. The local support for our customers is very important down there, so we have local technicians who travel in those jurisdictions. We also have distribution in other parts of the world, Mexico, Australia, Asia, and the surrounding African areas. But as far as the technology goes, we have installations all over the western hemisphere, North and South America, all the way through Africa and Australia. Less so in Asia, but growing and seeing how our technology that we’ve developed here in Sudbury can compete with companies all over the world. More and more we’re seeing delegations come to Sudbury to visit companies in the area and hearing them, you see there’s a lot of innovation coming out of Sudbury and being world renowned for that is pretty exciting.
Mike Commito is the director of applied research and innovation at Cambrian College. You can find all of Dr. Mike’s Q&A’s in the Discover series. Follow him on Twitter @mikecommito.