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Battery tech is the new gold for Kirkland Lake

California’s Artisan Vehicle Systems chooses northeast town for Canadian assembly, R & D hub

A leading edge California manufacturer of battery-powered underground mining vehicles is putting down roots in Kirkland Lake.

Artisan Vehicle Systems announced Oct. 31 that it's building a 60,000-square-foot Canadian headquarters featuring a service centre, vehicle assembly shop, and product research facility in the northeastern Ontario gold mining town to be closer to its biggest customer, Kirkland Lake Gold.

The company is talking about creating 60 jobs over the next two years as they put shovels in the ground within a year-and-a-half to build a state-of-the-art “Centre of Excellence” in the Archer Drive business park.

“Our goal and objective is anything that’s sold in Canada, we’re going to build in Canada,” said Mike Mayhew, Artisan’s director of mining, who is overseeing the development of the facility.

Mayhew said some may question why the manufacturer isn’t plopping a state-of-the-art shop in his hometown of Sudbury, an industry-renowned mining supply hub.

But his company’s relationship with Kirkland Lake Gold goes back seven years to former CEO Brian Hinchcliffe, who first introduced Artisan’s battery-operated vehicles to the mining company's flagship Macassa Mine.

More than 80 per cent of gold production at Macassa is linked to Artisan’s battery vehicles, with a track record underground of more than 200,000 hours of production.

“The reality is at the end of this year, I’ll have 40 pieces of gear with our powertrain on board (at Macassa),” said Mayhew, with the prospect of having a fatter order book in the future.

Artisan is a manufacturer of a lithium battery-powered underground load/haul/dump (LHD) dump vehicle and its newly unveiled Z-40 haul truck, claimed by the company to be the largest all-battery powered vehicle in the industry, will be introduced at the mine in January.

Just as in the automotive industry, battery-powered underground vehicles are the wave of the future in mining too.

As mines go deeper, ventilation costs go up, and companies are quick to embrace alternative technologies that curb emissions underground from diesel-powered equipment.

Mayhew said it’s important to demonstrate that Artisan will be available and hands-on in the performance of their vehicles at Macassa.

“We have a solid partnership and relationship with Kirkland Lake Gold in operations and we’re heavily engaged. The mine continues to expand. It’s a major investment on both sides,” said Mayhew, who declined to put a price tag on the cost of the facility.

But he said they’ll basically replicate the research shop they have in Camarillo, Calif., an hour from LAX airport.

The privately-held company of 70 employees – including six in Canada – has been engaged in automotive battery technology for 15 years before recruiting Mayhew, Stantec’s former vice-president of global mining.

For the historic mining town of Kirkland Lake, attracting an emerging high-tech player like Artisan is a great score.

In recent years, the municipality has been making infrastructure upgrades at the Archer business park and along the Highway 66 corridor to attract new business to town.

Economic development and tourism director Wilf Hass deflects all credit to Kirkland Lake Gold, who brokered the deal that attracted Artisan.

“They brought that forward and it came to the town’s attention eight to nine months ago, and we’ve been working with Artisan since then.”

Artisan is moving into a temporary storefront on Burnside Drive, leasing a former rail car refurbishment shop from the Ontario Northland Transportation Commission. The site offers rail access to ship equipment in from California.

Their proposed permanent home on Archer Drive will be close to the Rosko Forestry sawmill and literally on the doorstep of the Macassa Mine.

“It’s in a swap of land that allows them easy access into the mine site. It’s perfect for them,” Hass said.

Mayhew makes no bones that Artisan wants to be a partner in Kirkland Lake Gold’s growth curve. The new shop is a portal for future procurement opportunities.

The surging mid-tier Canadian miner globally expanded in 2016 with the takeover of Newmarket Gold in Australia – including its workhorse Fosterville Mine – combined with an earlier acquisition of St. Andrew Goldfields and its stable of mines and mills in northeastern Ontario.

“It’s a very strategic decision on our part and a commitment to Kirkland Lake-Macassa." Mayhew said. "We’re also expanding to Taylor Mine (near Matheson) with our first battery unit delivered in December. Of course, Fosterville is on the radar for the future.”

With the Centre of Excellence, they’ll be able to invite customers to go underground at Macassa to view the equipment in action.

The Kirkland Lake location is also a suitable perch to serve mining camps in Timmins, the Abitibi region of northwestern Quebec, and the Sudbury basin where Artisan recently sold a unit to Vale for use in the Coleman Mine, Mayhew said.

“The company is evolving, there’s a lot on the go and we’re making a lot of noise in the market.”

A job fair is tentatively scheduled for early December to find sales and administrative staff, welders, assemblers and other production people.

Hass said the town plans to participate in their recruiting campaign and will schedule an open house at Heritage North to offer local companies a networking opportunity to meet Artisan executives.

Both Hass and Mayor Tony Antoniazzi are impressed with the company’s vision.

“What we’re excited about is that they’re an OEM (original equipment manufacturer) and they’re a first-class company. We’ll work with them any way we can to make that move possible,” said Antoniazzi, who’s excited by the innovation aspect, the potential for Northern College to train workers, and the opportunity for local companies to piggyback on the Artisan development.

“If Artisan proceeds with the proposed building as an R & D facility, I can see that aspect of their whole relationship strengthening,” added Hass.

“Given the evolution of that technology, it’s going to be in demand with the other mines.”

To further assist in Artisan’s plans, Hass said the town is applying to FedNor and the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund to support the extension of services and utilities on Archer.

He declined to get into specifics but he wants the proper infrastructure in place by the time Artisan is finished construction on the building. There may be other investment assistance programs available to tap into to address the facility’s R & D aspect.

Artisan will join another coming development at Archer as an undisclosed company is working with the town to establish a package sorting facility, running 24 hours a day, which will provide 25 to 30 jobs.