This cloud-based software wants to make open-pit mining cleaner
“The mining industry has not evolved in over 30 years,” says Maria Echavarria, COO of Opencontour, a cloud-based software that supports mining corporations. “We’ve had five main software players, none of them cloud-based. Since then, the technology has built up many legacy issues, exacerbating the usefulness gap.”
The outdated capabilities are compounded by another problem looming over the mining industry: the number of engineers able to use the “overly complex” software is rapidly diminishing.
“We’re not seeing the number of mine planning engineers graduating from colleges that we need to in order to keep up as is,” Echavarria says.
Those few that do enter the field are immediately bogged down by months of software training, she says.
“They’re spending most of their time learning this outdated software rather than doing the job,” she adds. “Every job may have a slightly different use of the software, making the learning process last too long.”
Opencontour’s solution is simplification. Instead of a hodgepodge of tools and capabilities spread across a variety of software all siloed from one another, Opencontour is a one-stop-shop software, including everything from mine scheduling to cost-benefit scenario outputs. For companies, that means buying one license (on a per-seat basis) instead of four or five.
Innovating the mining landscape wasn’t always on Echavarria’s to-do list. Her background is almost as far away as you can get—she’s spent the last 15 years managing call centers and debt collection agencies. However, she says her work experience is not as unrelated as you may think.
“I’ve always been very interested in working in and with industries that are overlooked, that require innovation yet have very little of it,” she says. “Call centers and debt collection, like mining, all fit into that category for me; they have an important place in our economies and society, but they’re often ignored.”
Echavarria says she sees improvement as a personal responsibility.
“I have two goals: externally, I want to help show that these industries are more than their reputation,” she says. “Internally, I want to influence the strategies we take to ultimately make better decisions.”
When it comes to mining, Echavarria immediately saw room for improvement in sustainability practices.
“The way to reduce the mining industry’s negative environmental impacts is through software innovation,” she says.
When she graduated with her executive MBA in 2021 from the University of Utah, she enrolled in a second master’s program, the Master of Business Creation, and joined the team to help take Opencontour to market.
Opencontour is specifically for open-pit, or “opencast,” mining—the most common and disruptive form of mining. The process involves removing the top layers of earth and rock over a wide swath of land in order to reach the extraction target, often rock or minerals. The result is a massive, often circular hole, narrowing as it deepens to form a funnel-like shape.
The largest open-pit copper mine isn’t too far from Opencontour’s offices; the Kennecott Copper Mine just outside Salt Lake City holds the record at nearly a mile deep and 2.5 miles wide (big enough to see from space).
"Instead of a hodgepodge of tools and capabilities spread across a variety of software all siloed from one another, Opencontour is a one-stop-shop software, including everything from mine scheduling to cost-benefit scenario outputs."
Creating open-pit mines like this often means generating waste rock while also polluting the air and endangering plant and animal life in the impacted areas. The Kennecott mine isn’t a stranger to that kind of fall-out either; in 2014, the area suffered landslides at the site, triggering multiple earthquakes.
“It’s a big expense on the land even if done correctly,” Echavarria says. “And making mistakes can be costly not only to your company but to the surrounding environment.”
That’s where Opencontour’s planning technology really kicks in.
“Engineers using our software can design the overall mine face and schedule of the project, of course,” she says. “But what makes us very unique is the ability to run multiple iterations on a plan and truly evaluate different scenarios against a variety of factors, including net present value.”
Such versatility means that open-pit mining projects can be executed more efficiently, not only speeding up the project’s total time but also allowing the planning team more opportunities to take safer and smarter routes.
“The number of variables we can run through using our software in 20 minutes has, in the past, taken similar teams four-plus hours,” Echavarria says. “That doesn’t leave room to see every option and can lead to sacrifice.”
Though their current focus is on open-pit mining, Echavarria says Opencontour has eggs in every basket. If it’s making mining more environmentally friendly, she says a new methodology for their software isn’t off the table.
They’ve already started leaning in, notably through heap leaching, a chemical extraction process.
“In 2019, we partnered with a group in Colorado that used this method to obtain ore,” she says. “Heap leaching didn’t have a software capable of modeling the process or managing the solution inventory or metal extraction until our product was released. This group needed help understanding the recovery of cost and tracking everything that was happening on-site. Using the Opencontour technology, like with open-pit mining, we’re able to significantly reduce the costs just by leveraging our existing tools.”
Echavarria says they’ve extended into a third kind of mining, vertical extraction, as well. Contrary to the open-pit style, vertical-extraction mining drills directly down into the ground—“it’s basically borehole drilling,” Echavarria explains.
“Vertical extraction is an example of the new mining technology that we’re staying on top of,” she says. “We’re working with different companies to support them as they work toward less invasive projects. Here, instead of having large expanses of land taken up by a mine, there are instead small holes where ore can be extracted and then filled again straight away.”
Echavarria says Opencontour is the first of its kind on many mining planning projects, often without competition. The industry, she says, was content to stay complacent.
“It’s very costly to overhaul your software at all, even more so to one from the cloud,” she says. “So internally, there is that barrier to change. But the bigger roadblock to innovation in mining is external; the focus in recent years has been on looking for alternatives altogether.”
Scattering the spotlight meant mining processes on all fronts slugged along as they were: outdated and unsustainable.
“To make a change, we really had to push,” Echavarria says. “It is a matter of priority.”
So far, being a first mover seems to have paid off. While Opencontour has not raised any external capital yet, it has successfully launched to market through profit from software licensing.
“It’s all been organic growth,” she says. “We have existing clients here in the US and also in South America, and we plan to continue to scale up.”
Echavarria is confident that the more engineers hear about Opencontour’s capabilities, the more will sign on.
“We’re expanding the solutions we offer every day,” she says. “We plan to include short-range planning soon for projects that require that kind of approach. Overall, we’re committed to introducing this new methodology for mine planning, where engineers, no matter the project, can reduce the time and complexity in their day-to-day while also making their work safer for the miners and the environment.”