Marilyn Spink: Sought after Leader in Sustainable Mining

Marilyn Spink | PEng. head of project systems | Global Projects Ausenco
Marilyn Spink | PEng. head of project systems | Global Projects Ausenco

Marilyn Spink P.Eng is an award-winning professional engineer and expert in metallurgical & mining processes, having spent over 25 years managing the delivery of complex mine development projects worldwide. Today, she lends her considerable know-how to Ausenco as a Head of Project Systems, Global Projects. As the principal business partner, she heads an integrated team striving towards the implementation and continuous improvement of digital engineering delivery systems by leveraging a suite of project management and engineering design applications, including creating critical data interfaces with quality management & corporate ERP systems for enhanced and efficient project delivery.

Ausenco’s diverse group of global experts is dedicated to adding value to projects & redefining what’s possible. It is a company that provides services across the full project lifecycle, from preliminary feasibility studies to the construction of multi-billion-dollar projects and ongoing management, maintenance, and optimization. Marilyn is also an ardent advocate and inspirational role model for women in engineering. She is a progressive leader who aims to take her company to the next level.

Spink’s Creative Endeavours

Marilyn Spink’s non-traditional perspective on engineering goes beyond the obvious challenges for a female engineer – building a successful career in what has traditionally been a male-dominated field – engineering & mining! It’s also that she sees it as a creative endeavour. “Engineering is building things, right?” Spink says simply.

She began her journey with that need to build and then thrived on her ability to see the art and creativity engineering can express. “I did a lot of pottery when I was younger and always loved the high-temperature chemistry,” Spink explains. “So, I went into metallurgy and worked in the steel industry.” That early experience allowed her to see a higher purpose for the technical work engineers performed and the creativity they brought to the process. “I ended up getting bitten by the capital project bug,” Spink explains. “It was my first experience with how projects and engineering can do social good.”

In one of her early projects, Spink helped create one of the first steel plants in Kentucky’s declining tobacco belt, bringing much-needed employment to a struggling region. Mini mills recycling old automobiles brought the industry to the area and purpose to the community. Her tenure left long-term effects on the plant. “I saw what engineering can do to shift a community,” she remembers. “That community is prospering now because there’s a thriving steel industry there. We were just the first.”, she adds.

Maintaining the balance between mineral extraction and protecting the environment

Moving into mining and mineral projects for most of her career, Spink was able to see this effect around the world, working on projects in Madagascar and Tunisia. “People say we had some part in the Arab Spring,” she jokes, referring to a project that modernized the Tunisian state-owned steel plant. “Because the plant was modernized, it was making more money, and hiring more people. Those people could buy cell phones. When you educate and elevate people, they can rise against injustice.”

Creativity, in her view, is what will help mining thrive in a world that is increasingly aware of sustainability issues and the environment. “If society is going to move toward a lower carbon or net-zero economy, critical minerals will allow us to do this,” she says. “You can address a lot of the UN’s sustainability goals with mine design, and how you develop a project.” She believes that creative thinking is the key. “Mining is not an either/or,” Spink insists, referring to the perceived trade-off many people see between mineral extraction and protecting the environment. “It’s an and.”

Now Head of Global Project Systems, her focus is on shifting Ausenco to an advanced digital platform and adopting what she calls a “systems thinking mentality” for project delivery. Linear thinking keeps knowledge siloed and sequestered and often pushes problems into other areas. A systems thinking mindset sees everyone involved in a project collaborating more openly, with more centralized information. “Engineering and design are really about using imprecise information to make the best decisions at the time.” If different groups are working independently with their own information sources, progress is disjointed. “A systems approach is about having one piece of information in one location, so it’s a single source of truth.”

Mineral and mining projects are inherently iterative in their design and execution. With centralized, shared information, the efficiency of each iterative stage improves. “It is said that 70% of an engineer or designer’s time is spent looking for the information they need to do their work. If you could cut that time in half, it would be better for everybody.” At Ausenco, that commitment to teamwork and collaboration is tangible. For Spink, it was one of the first times she’s seen a company living its values.

Future Goals and Aspirations

Spink says, “We delight our clients,” “Our diverse clients are delighted by different things.” She’s proud of the continuing focus on values – a “Values Moment” starts every single meeting, for example – and a healthy degree of open and honest collaboration among diverse team members. “There’s a sense of community embedded in what we do.”

That collaboration plays straight into her approach. “I’m a horizontal connector,” she explains. “I say I’m a basket weaver because, from all these vertical silos, I connect people together, which strengthens the basket. Creating the opportunity for folks who ordinarily don’t work together makes us all stronger! Especially with a global company across different time zones, cultures, and language barriers.”

As society awakens to the need for critical minerals, Spink sees an opportunity to focus less on value extraction and more on value creation. Ideal clients are less interested in the quick sale of an asset and more in delivering long-term projects that build communities, educate and train workers, and protect the environment they live in.

“Spinning a new idea is way easier than having to make it real,” she points out. “We’re poised to bridge the gap between studies and project delivery, all within a sustainability mindset. We’re only limited by our imagination.”  Her goal now is to work with early-career engineers as a mentor to facilitate knowledge transfer with a focus on creativity and design thinking.

Spink’s advice is simple and strongly influenced by her systems approach. “Learn from the mistakes of others, don’t make the same ones but make new mistakes. Understand what your purpose is. Live your values and surround yourself with people who share those values and who complement your knowledge gaps.”

“It’s a team. It’s zone coverage.”