Speaker spotlight: John Vagenas

2 August 2019

In our latest Q&A, we interviewed MetPlant 2019 keynote speaker, John Vagenas FAusIMM, Founder and Managing Director of Metallurgical Systems on his presentation titled “The seven stages of digital transformation”.

John Vagenas is a specialist in metallurgy, process design, simulation and digital technology and has a proven track record leveraging technology to help plants solve their operational problems to maximise profitability, efficiency and compliance.
Read more on John Vagenas.

Yours is the first keynote address at the 2019 MetPlant conference John? What can delegates expect?

I was delighted to be given the opportunity to speak at this year’s MetPlant conference. Digitalisation within our industry has really gained a lot of momentum over the last few years and we are now entering a phase where adoption rates are increasing sharply. Delegates can expect an honest and candid discussion on the different phases of the digital journey. Based on the work I do with mineral processing plants all over the world, I have some great examples I can share of barriers that are often encountered, and how they can be overcome. I also plan to highlight some of the reasons our industry doesn’t currently gain maximum benefit from digital technologies, and what is required to do so.

In your experience where do most operations struggle the most with digital transformations?

There are two key barriers in our sector; firstly apathy. Often, the business case for investing in digital technology assumes that the organisation already has a solid understanding of its operational data. However, this is rarely the case. Through our work we often identify, very early on in a project, that not everything is at it seems. The second key barrier is resistance to transparency. Our industry is unique in the sense that risks in reporting plant performance are not mitigated by governance frameworks. This creates a culture where people know they can effectively sanitise or alter data to fit their requirements without risk of discovery.

You have achieved a great deal professionally at a young age. What advice do you have for young professionals entering the minerals sector?

The main piece of advice (and one I received myseIf as a graduate engineer) I would give anyone entering the minerals sector is: be a Specialist before you’re 30. Engineering is an industry of specialists, and it is impossible to be an expert at everything. Identify an area of your profession that you enjoy and do everything you can to excel at it. When given an opportunity, take it, apply your enthusiasm, and make sure you don’t let people down as you may not be given another chance. The reward for good work is more work!

How many “stages” are there in most transformations and which one is the toughest?

In my address, I will outline six key stages – and a few sub-stages. Typically, we see businesses start with a high level of corporate optimism, which I call the “we can do that ourselves” stage, before encountering some initial failure. Developing technical enterprise grade software is not a fast or simple process, and like everything else in our work, it is best to leverage existing technology where it is available. When organisations fail to apply some technical pragmatism, they will inevitably progress into the spiral of failure where considerable time and money is wasted. If this phase can be avoided, or escaped from, we find that the journey then follows a predictable path. Make no mistake – going digital is a contact sport!

How important is data integrity to decision making?

Without data integrity and transparency, data-based decision making will never be achieved. The other essentials are the inclusion and use of contextual data and the ease of accessibility. When we combine all these into a single solution, we can enable a switch in culture towards data-based decision making.

Do you feel as an industry we are too conservative when it comes to adopting new technologies?

Yes, absolutely. Many of the plants we work with have been using the same systems and processes for many years, and are very reluctant to change. There is an inherent conservatism in our sector, but fortunately, many operators are starting to realise that they absolutely need to invest in digital transformation initiatives in order to maintain a competitive advantage.

This is your first time presenting at an AusIMM conference despite being a Member (and recently admission as a Fellow) for many years. What are you most looking forward to at MetPlant 2019?

I’m really excited about getting together with like-minded, technically-focused people from within our sector, and discussing digital transformation. AusIMM events, and particularly MetPlant, always provides a unique forum for metallurgists, operators and engineers to network and share ideas, and I’m very much looking forward to being a part of this year’s conference.

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