Vital Metals Limited (VML) is a new challenger, a non-traditional mining company that has built an innovative, agile, and smart operational platform that enables the company to move at pace and take opportunities as it arises, faster than any of the competition.
The current Managing Director and leadership team formed a private company, Cheetah Resources, in 2018. The naming of this company reflected the philosophy of the founding team to move at pace. In 2019, the Australian Stock Exchange-listed company Vital resource Ltd (ASX: VML) took over Cheetah and this is the company as it is seen today.
Through years of experience in the industry, coupled with experience outside the sector, the high-performing leadership team is proving that there is a better, smarter way to mine, extract and produce Rare Earth Elements (REE). Vital Metals Limited (“Vital” or “the Company”) is the operator of Canada’s first rare earth mine, with production underway at the Company’s Nechalacho Project, located in the NWT, Canada. This is only the second Rare Earths mine in the whole of North America.
Mining at Nechalacho’s North T Zone has been completed as part of the Company’s Stage 1 production strategy. Vital has crushed and sorted the ore before sending it to a local facility for extraction.
VML is completing the construction of its own, purpose-built Rare Earth Extraction (“REE”) facility in Saskatoon, with the first production of RE carbonate expected in June 2022.
Vital has commenced further drilling at Nechalacho, as it works to develop its stage 2 mine plan for a larger scale, longer life rare earth project.
Vital’s other projects include the high-grade Wigu Hill rare earth resource in Tanzania and the Kipawa project in Quebec, Canada. The combination of these projects will provide the company with the capability to be the first producer of commercial quantities of both light and heavy rare earth outside of China.
A Company Built by Visionary Leaders and Experts
ASX: VML’s mission is to become the most trusted and preferred independent global player in the supply of both light and heavy rare earth, outside of China.
The company is highly motivated by its purpose of contributing to a greener planet and reducing global emissions, guaranteeing the supply and quality of light as well as heavy rare earth, critical to renewable energy, emissions reductions, the transition to electric vehicles, as well as miniaturization, robotization, and artificial intelligence.
The executive team of VML are all rare earth project development and operational specialists but have also brought in their fresh ideas from their non-mining experience. The CEO worked in the progressive construction industry before moving across to mining.
Having worked on previous rare earth projects VML understands the key challenges involved in bringing rare earth projects into operation, as well as the common mistakes that companies made in the past. This formed the basis of a development strategy and design of VML’s new innovative operating platform.
Since finalizing the takeover, VML has set about rewriting the rule book on how rare earth projects can be developed successfully and with minimized impact. The theory has now been proven in reality, with the VML team completing its first mining campaign at Nechalacho within 2 years of acquiring the project, instead of the industry ‘norm’ of 5-10 years
A Trailblazer taking VML Towards New Frontiers
VML’s Managing Director Geoff Atkins started his career in the project management and construction industry where he was responsible for large-scale commercial, industrial and residential developments. He brought this external knowledge and innovation mindset to the mining industry to challenge the traditional ways of doing things, both commercially and operationally.
Geoff believes in developing a clear purpose, vision, and differentiated strategy for the business. He claims that the culture of the business is part of the differentiation and has taken a values-based approach to the company’s ways of working.
Geoff takes a long-term view on building business to last – a commercially viable and economic mining operation, balancing this with the short-term demands of the financial markets.
He says that the team genuinely listens to all the stakeholders to minimize impact and deliver the best balance in outcomes for all involved. They have respect for the local community’s input and feedback, which is building their reputation as a caring, considerate organization. Their objective is not necessarily to be the biggest, but the best and smartest, to be the first on the wishlist when opportunities emerge anywhere in the world.
Geoff and the leadership team see VML as more than just a mining company. It is a contemporary, innovative platform business, borrowing from the digital platform model, ready to quickly scale in size and ecosystem when the opportunity arises.
Strategizing the Market Needs and Adopting Disruptive Approaches
Geoff claims that VML is taking disruptive approaches to transform the metal and mining industry. Some of them are listed as follows.
- Innovation- New smarter, faster ways of doing things that reduce costs and minimize impacts. This is demonstrated through the use of ore sorting technology at its current Nechalacho operation to produce a beneficiated product without the need for process water and chemical reagents on site.
- Customer First approach- The operational model has been designed to meet the needs of the end clients and resolve the traditional issues with the supply chain.
- Adopting an agile approach to project management that can dramatically reduce discovery to production timelines
- Applying learning from other industries, such as the tech sector approach to building digital platforms and ecosystems
- Focus on the importance of company culture- a clear values and behaviors framework to ensure the organization does the right thing.
- Community! Minimizing impact! Maximizing benefit!
5G as a Trigger to Unleash Competitive Services
Geoff mentions that the industry’s embrace of 5G is still at an early stage. Several proof-of-concept trials and demonstrations are seen from major 5G vendors with actual mines, but the deployments haven’t ramped up to large-scale rollouts yet.
He adds that the high bandwidth and low latency offered by 5G can deliver services to mines that would previously have been unachievable. With 5G, connectivity at mining operations has gone from providing simple internet access to powering complex infrastructure, equipment, and the IoT. It opens up a new level of machine learning, data analytics, fixed asset IoT and cloud computing that will result in greater automation and operational efficiencies.
According to Geoff, low-orbit satellite constellations providing 5G connectivity can deliver 5G to remote operations once latency becomes competitive. The great thing about satellite providers is that the ‘pay to play’ cost could come down for remote operations; connectivity can be rented and not installed, thus avoiding large upfront costs that can be a burden for smaller operations.
Agile Operating Platform to Fast-Track Discovery and Operations
Geoff reveals that VML’s innovative culture and challenger mindset led to the design and implementation of a new, agile operating platform that has fast-tracked discovery to operation/production timelines from a 5-year average to 2 years (despite a pandemic).
He says that they are adopting a Kaizen, continuous improvement approach with a leadership team that has the intellectual curiosity to see if there is a better, smarter way of doing things at every stage of the value chain.
Overcoming Adversaries with Innovation and Development
The rare earth industry is inherently complex, with multiple stages along the supply chain coupled with extremely rigid product specifications and low impurity levels, states Geoff. This presents unique challenges for the development of rare earth deposits and meeting customer needs with the operational specializations varying markedly at each step in the supply chain.
Meeting the clients’ exact specifications for REE is challenging with each step in the supply chain having to meet exacting and unique standards. This means that there is not the same ability for substitution as you might find in other industries. Rare earth is a specialty product that requires vastly different approaches and skillsets than what is employed in other sectors of the mining industry.
Geoff claims that Vital Metals understands the unique nature of the rare earth supply chain and has adopted a unique approach to developing these deposits which has resulted in vastly reduced timelines from discovery to production, as well as an approach that minimizes capital costs but still delivers the high standards of quality that the customer requires. He highlights that Vital has not only achieved these fast-tracked timelines for such deposits but it has been achieved in the middle of a global pandemic. The associated travel restrictions resulted in the remote, virtual management of the project development and mining operations.
‘Customer Satisfaction as the Biggest Recognition
According to Geoff, the confidence placed on the company by its customers provides the greatest level of recognition that Vital has achieved. Vital has already signed some long-term, sizeable offtake agreements. These customers are relying on the company’s ability to deliver products at the specifications and volumes that they require and so their willingness to sign agreements with the company is an important recognition of what Vital has been able to achieve.
A Glimpse into the Future
With rare earth critical to renewable energy, emissions reductions, the transition to electric vehicles, as well as miniaturization, robotization, and artificial intelligence, demand for rare earth is forecast to grow significantly over the next 10-20 years, says Geoff.
Furthermore, with global rare earth production currently controlled by a single market in China, countries are focused on establishing and growing diversified rare earth supply chains that can produce both light and heavy rare earth from a single source. He concludes that VML is in a unique position to capitalize on this urgent need for diversification and is a reputable, trusted producer of both light and heavy rare earth.