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John Ford: Automation in Coal Mining

John Ford has used his Engineering Doctorate to help dig the country’s coal industry out of the dark ages. In three years, he spearheaded a major and long-awaited overhaul of mining automation systems. He is convinced this was only possible because of the freedom offered him by the EngD.

Privatisation in 1994, pit closures and 175,000 job losses over 25 years had presented the industry with a number of challenges. John, who joined the old National Coal Board as an apprentice in 1978, and undertook an Open University Degree and an MBA during his colliery career, witnessed it all.

A series of promotions saw John become Electrical Operations Engineer at UK Coal Mining (UK) Ltd’s largest deep coal mine, Daw Mill in North Warwickshire, and then the company’s Group Automation Engineer with corporate responsibility for all automation systems. He says: “At this time we had a personnel director who had experience in the car industry. He suggested we work with Warwick University, whom we hadn’t had dealings with before. So Warwick became involved and it was then suggested that the essence of what I was doing could form the basis for an EngD.”

John’s doctorate, sponsored by EPSRC and UK Coal, focused on the exploration and implementation of new techniques of automation in the coal mining industry. He explains: “We had fewer and fewer people underground and we needed a better way of moving information from underground to management and equipment manufacturers, wherever they were in the world. As a nationalised industry we had become very bespoke.

We had kit that was 25 years old and no longer supported by the people who made it. We just did our own thing but after privatisation we could no longer just go our own way. We had to look for potential technology solutions from other sectors and make them work within the coal industry.”

John’s role involved the successful design, procurement and implementation of the only intrinsically safe system for Group 1 hazardous atmospheres in the world. The £5million system is unique in that it can remain switched on in the presence of methane. It is not reliant on any one manufacturer and can be accessed from anywhere via a standard web browser. Mines rescue teams, particularly in the US, where 12 miners were killed in an explosion in West Virginia in January, are now learning how the system can help them before they go underground.

John, aged 43, says: “I really don’t think the system would have come about without the EngD because there would have been no central person driving it. Most managers have day to day responsibilities, but with the EngD I was able to work at group headquarters in Doncaster and take a more strategic role.”

A few months ago John moved on from UK Coal and is now working in the research division of the Mines Rescue Service in Moira, Derbyshire. Nevertheless, the doctorate experience continued to underpin his work, regulated by the European Union and Health and Safety Executive.

“I would certainly recommend the EngD at Warwick. I think it suits people like me who are already in industry and have the power to get things done. The past four years have given me a different outlook and have really shaped what I will do for the rest of my life.”

John Ford