Q&A with Ben Cordier from The Coal Authority

Materials World magazine
10 May 2019

The Coal Authority Technical Lead – Chemistry and Process Engineering, Ben Cordier*, talks to Idha Valeur about the IOM3 CEng in a day workshop, transferrable skills and combining digital and traditional skills.

Tell me about your career and what your daily job looks like

I studied chemistry at the University of Bath, UK, followed by minerals engineering at Camborne School of Mines, UK, and the combination has enabled my career to be quite varied so far. I started my career with Rio Tinto, working in production and technical project roles as a metallurgist at Ranger uranium mine in Australia. This was followed by being a process engineer at US Borax’s borate mine in the USA, and finally as a process development engineer for the Jadar lithium and borate project in Serbia, based from the USA.

More recently I have diversified my career into mine water treatment, where I have been in process engineering roles with the Coal Authority back in the UK. The authority is involved in the treatment of mine water from abandoned coal and metalliferous mines in the UK, and the waters being treated are as diverse as the ore bodies they come from. I currently manage the authority’s team of geochemists and process engineers, supporting the operation of more than 70 mine water treatment schemes and aiding the technical development of new treatment schemes across the country. Given the number of operations, projects and stakeholders we interact with on a regular basis, I rarely have the luxury of a typical day, but I find this to be one of the things that keeps the job so interesting and engaging.

What skills are important to your job? And which are the core transferable skills a new starter would need?

Definitely communication. One of the hardest things to do as a technical professional is to effectively communicate technical solutions to an audience which is either non-technical, or from another discipline. It’s a skill you learn the hard way, mostly by having discussions that don’t go so well, so a little humility doesn’t go amiss either.

Someone starting in a production or operations role, as I did, will find that the so-called soft skills will be invaluable. The gulf between design/textbook behaviour and an actual process can be pretty wide, so the ability to build relationships with the people operating and maintaining the plant on a day-to-day basis is crucial if a new engineer wants to understand how a system behaves, so they can improve it.

What skills or areas for improvement did the CEng in a day workshop help you with?

When I attended the CEng in a day workshop, like many attendees, I already had my application and documentation [for Chartership submission] filled, but was really struggling with preparation for the presentation. I found the discussions and coaching in the workshop really helped me to understand what the interviewers would be looking for in the presentation, so I could select the most effective subject matter and format, ensuring the relevant information was included. The presentation itself only lasts for 10 minutes, meaning efficiency of communication really is key. Even if you have great sponsors and mentors like I did, it’s unlikely that you’ll be going through the Chartership process at the same time as your peers, making the application process itself seem daunting and a little isolated. I think nearly all of the attendees at the workshop benefited from being able to talk through the process, going through any issues they were having and helping each other. The extra guidance and peer support certainly had the desired effect for me, as I passed my professional review interview three months later, becoming a Chartered Engineer in March 2019.

How did you prepare for the application process?

I prepared by seeking advice from my professional institution and talking to others who had gone through the process already. They were extremely helpful as the process was typically for evidence submitted by those producing designs, and this isn’t what our role is. I, therefore, had to consider the evidence I had and ensure it was relevant to the objectives and explain why our role was at the requisite level.

I then prepared for my interview by being really honest with myself and reflecting upon what areas I could be perceived to be weaker in, as I recognised this was where I was likely to be questioned in depth.

There is a strong emphasis on developing digital capabilities at the moment. How do you feel this balances with more traditional skills required in your work?

Modern mining is very data driven and processes are increasingly automated, so I don’t think it’s possible to cleanly separate the digital from the traditional anymore. Digital tools enable me to manage and interpret data more efficiently, undertaking process assessments and calculations in a fraction of the time they would otherwise take. But behind each one of those tools is data gathered in the real world, from a dirty process with real people running often temperamental machines. I think we will always need to have the traditional skills on which the digital tools are based, to understand and manage the uncertainty, as well as make sense of the information that the digital tools provide.

How do you approach your own continued development?

I find I have to be quite disciplined about putting time aside for CPD. I love a bit of new tech and enjoy really getting into the detail of how things work, so when something catches my attention I often make a note of it for later, so I can get on with my day. Unfortunately, it’s then the easiest thing in the world to put off that learning opportunity, to deal with this issue or that. Having a bit of time each week dedicated to research and learning helps me focus through the week, but also makes sure I’m able to keep developing my knowledge base.

What has been your greatest work achievement so far?

I remember undertaking a project on a plant that was thought to be running at capacity but, as is always the case, more throughput was needed. The project brief boiled down to ‘do what you can with the old plant, then scope out the size for a second one’. By collecting a lot of data, digging deep into the process fundamentals and spending a lot of time in the plant with the operators, eventually we increased the capacity by 50% by running the plant in a different way. After that, we didn’t need to build a second plant and saved a significant amount of capital. It was a very technical problem, which was ultimately solved by a soft-skill solution, with plenty of discussion and engagement, which I’m quite proud of.

What is next for you?

We have a lot of challenging projects in the pipeline and I’m really looking forward to helping them develop. We are also working with some great organisations developing really interesting and innovative technologies that might make future operations more sustainable, efficient and cost-effective. Plus we have been developing technologies and products of our own in recent years, so there are exciting times ahead.