Dr Bob Johnson outlines how the company he founded continues to transform mining through innovation

The Maptek HQ building in Adelaide.

Empowering mining professionals by putting desktop software into their hands has underpinned the success of Maptek for four decades.

The global mining technology provider, which celebrates its 40th birthday in 2021, has transformed the industry since founder Dr Bob Johnson realised there was an opportunity to apply computers in mining.

Today Maptek is experimenting with machine learning and artificial intelligence to support the mining operations of the future.

In the late 1970s Dr Johnson, a University of NSW academic and avid rock and mineral collector since childhood, founded Earth Science Computer Services to plot deposits for mining companies.

Business doubled year after year for 4 years but the process of doing the work for others while renting computer time was exhausting, especially with a young family.

Dr Johnson sold the company and after continuing to work there under new ownership for 18 months decided to branch out on his own - and do things better.

‘What we’d realised was that we created a market, we created an industry almost, but the way we were doing it wasn't ideal,’ Dr Johnson says.

‘By the time I sold the business I could see there was a better way ...the geologists can do this work themselves.’

‘So Maptek was formed with the deliberate purpose of packaging the software for the customers to use.’

Today Maptek has offices throughout Australasia, the Americas, Europe and Africa and manufactures high spec laser scanning instruments in Adelaide, South Australia.

We’ve evolved from a software developer to a mining technology provider with products spanning mining types, commodities and applications.

Dr Johnson says the experimentation cycle Maptek will experience in the next 5 years is guided by the theme associated with the 4th industrial revolution.

‘We’re seeing the most spectacular outcomes arising from our research and development around artificial intelligence and machine learning for domain modelling. The work will drive a dramatic change to the way geologists and engineers work and will be key to automating mines.’

Maptek solutions provide the link between the geological, spatial design, execution and measurement details of a mining operation and the business outcomes and profitability of customers.

‘Our customers' success is our reward,’ Dr Johnson says. ‘I enjoy hearing our customer success stories because we played a part in them.’

‘We built our reputation on being honest and trustworthy, and becoming essential for their success.’

‘That and employing people who are better than yourself have been integral to who Maptek is today.’

Dr Johnson shares insights into what motivates, drives and excites him.

How do you come up with good ideas?

The ideas never stop coming! I wish they did sometimes. I’m a reasonably good lateral thinker and I have a fairly diverse range of interests. So when I see something I think, ‘I could do that.’ Most of the time, I can't! I wish I had a better education. I should’ve listened more in physics, more in chemistry, and especially during mathematics classes.

How much and what do you read?

I don't read much fiction anymore but I enjoy biographies. I do read a lot of magazines, journals, newspapers. I live on the stock market and my finger is always on the pulse. I read two or three newspapers a day from around the world. I grasp the information quickly, then let my imagination go from there.

Many of the opportunities and consequent successes you’ve experienced involved taking big risks. How do you decide when a risk is worth taking?

Success is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration.

When I feel there's a good outcome such as potential benefit for a lot of people, then there’s value in putting in the effort. A good example is when we decided to start building laser scanners in the late 1990s, which was a massive risk. I know nothing about physics and was totally dependent on other people for success, but I could see the benefit.

I thought that if you can actually do surveying just by standing in one spot there was merit in trying. I'd done a survey course as an undergraduate, so I knew about surveying and could see the paradigm shift of remote survey.

We're seeing the same situation now with drones and that's going to proliferate in the same way. Many people have benefited from laser scan surveying and that has been very rewarding.

I also proved that the business textbooks aren’t always correct about sticking to what you know! If we’d stuck with software, we wouldn't have researched and built hardware. We had tried working as a reseller for another manufacturer and then decided to use our own ideas and build our own equipment.

In this 40 plus year journey, if you could go back and do one thing differently, what would that be and why?

I wouldn't have sold my first company, Earth Science Computer Services. I sold that because I was exhausted, with too much work and had a young family. I used the funds generated from the sale to set up the next company though.

If you continually reinvest your profits you can grow the business organically and that creates a secure working environment. Unlike many software companies in our space, Maptek is not at risk of takeover or failure because we stuck very firmly to our financial model. In essence this means being debt averse and spending the money to grow the business.

What do you see as the next big thing in mining?

I think automation and taking the people out of mines is going to be dramatic, even though it has already started. Many big companies deploy autonomous trucks but in the next stage we’ll need to use communications to improve the way humans interact with all machines and all processes on site.

Ultimately the computer modelling that we do will actually drive the automation, because you need to have the knowledge to progress. The robots will need to get the information on what to do next from all the modelling work our systems provide. And that's why machine learning is so important because the quality of the models to drive the automation will be robust.

Hear Bob Johnson reflect on the first 40 years