Faces of Suncor: Kirk McClain and Iftikhar Huq
Training has come a long way in our industry thanks to innovators like Kirk McClain. In charge of developing training for our shovel operators, Kirk and his team needed a solution that didn’t take shovels offline when training new recruits, but still offered the full experience of working with the equipment. “Fort Hills only has five shovels, so taking one out of production to do hands-on training is very impactful and expensive,” explains Kirk.
Because of this, training typically occurred during downtime periods either before shifts or during lunch. And this caused some trainees to feel rushed through their program. So, when Kirk and his team were approached by a vendor about using Oculus goggles and a handheld controller instead of a shovel, everybody started talking. “Folks are really excited to take the training,” says Kirk, who began his career as a high school math and science teacher before coming to Suncor as an equipment operator. “It’s fun and effective and we’re seeing a big improvement in people understanding how the equipment works before they even sit in the seat.”
Now, Kirk leverages his skills to lead and coordinate training initiatives in the mine, which he acknowledges has become one of the most technologically-advanced areas in the company with drones, digital imaging, virtual and augmented reality. The major benefit, according to this 30- year industry veteran, is that the training provides a safe environment to learn. For example, an electrician can practice a repair procedure where permitting isn’t required, and production quotas aren’t rushing their learning.
The training program can be stopped or started at any time and can move between explore, teaching, and evaluation modes.
“Our kids already have this type of technology in their computer games,” says Kirk. “But there are so many more neat ways to apply it and unlock its potential.”
Part of the next chapter of Suncor’s journey involves harnessing emerging technologies. Iftikhar and his team are hoping to transform oil sands mining and extraction by using hydrocarbon solvents (instead of hot water) to extract bitumen and eliminate wet tailings. It’s called non-aqueous extraction (NAE), and the process could dramatically reduce our operating costs and operational footprint, and progress mine reclamation.
“This project is unlike anything we’ve ever worked on,” says Iftikhar, who began his career at Suncor in 2013 and has over 15 years of experience in optimizing systems, production planning, clean energy technology development, and greenhouse gas reduction strategy. Traditional approaches to advancing new technology typically take years, but Iftikhar’s team has already brought several versions of NAE to the testing stage in less than six months.
Solvent-based extraction methods aren’t new; in fact, similar solvents have been used in agriculture for years to remove oil from canola plants after harvest. And other oil sands producers are developing similar technologies, which could lead to collaboration opportunities down the road. “The challenge is operating the technology at a commercial scale so that it can be used safely and reliably for the large amount of oil sand we process,” says Iftikhar.
This is where his job gets really interesting. To develop technology like NAE, Iftikhar and his team use emerging digital technologies, like 3D printing, to build prototypes that speed up time in between development and testing. They’re also developing digital twins (virtual models), and later will use virtual reality and augmented reality elements to support training once the technology is ready for start-up and commissioning in the field. “This could shorten deployment cycles to less than 10 years versus the typical 20 to 30,” he says.