Imagine being able to know exactly what the customer was expecting in its next shipment. That the decisions could be made there and then to ensure the customer got exactly what it asked for – no more and certainly no less. That the high-grade product could be saved for another, larger, pay day.
This is the ideal plan.
Some argue that miners are working on the feasible plan – ensuring it has enough product rather than the “ideal” product for each shipment.
With better information being shared across all parts of the mining process, this plan can be tweaked to move it towards the ideal plan.
The best part is, technology is advancing to the point where the ideal plan could soon become part of day-to-day operations.
Along the way, getting the other parts of the mining process to work optimally would not hurt either.
Get the blast right and the mill performance improves. If the rock is blasted into smaller pieces there is less work for the mills to do.
Shovel times and truck utilisation improves too because if the rock is properly fragmented the trucks can be optimally loaded.
More importantly, if the blast is properly initiated the ore and the waste can be cast into discrete piles, maximising the return from the mining effort.
To do all of this, the miners need to know exactly where the ore is in relation to the waste. They have to know where the ore and the waste go after blasting and make sure the shovel puts the right load into the right truck so ore is not going to the waste dump and vice versa.
Geological modelling software has improved to the point that miners can get a much better picture of what is in the ground. There are still some improvements to come. One is a variation on wirelogging technology used in the oil and gas sector to get an even better understanding.
There are other technologies covering just about every aspect of the mining effort. Orica and Dyno Nobel have some brilliant blast initiating technologies. JK Tech has its JK Simblast for simulation and information management for blasting in mines. Caterpillar has a suite to cover the drilling, shovelling and trucking of material but its products really need to be matched to Caterpillar trucks. Major drilling manufacturers have products to maximise the efforts of their drills. So too do the big shovel makers.
At the processing plant, there is a lot of automation to make the process as efficient as possible.
The trouble is getting these disparate technologies to talk to each other.
One of the problems facing miners, particularly those consolidating several sites, is the sheer variation in the software supporting the mine management. Each site, it seems, has its own bespoke system that was bought by a mining manager many years ago. Getting these to talk to each other is a major problem.
Rio Tinto took a leaf from the military’s book and stepped into the data fusion realm. It has, however, a lot more resources to throw at these sort of problems than most. Not least of these is access to scientific resources beyond the realm of most miners.
Change management is another part of the puzzle.
Mincom vice-president global mining solutions John Jessop said blasting was an example of where a change in how teams were rewarded could benefit the overall operation.
“One of the things that drives the performance of the SAG [semi-autogenous grinding] mill is the particle size coming in,” he said.
“That can be dealt with in the blasting. You could see a 15 to 20 per cent improvement in milling throughput if you improve blasting.”
However, Jessop said, the way most drill and blast contractors were rewarded did not support this approach.
“The drill and blast guys get judged largely on blast costs,” he said. “If they go back and survey the holes [they have drilled] properly, it adds to the cost.
“One of the things that improves the performance of the blast is having very accurate timing of the blasts.
“But they are trying to skimp on cost so they don’t get the most effective fragmentation of the rock.”
Jessop admitted it was hard to reward the drill and blast crews based on what was arriving at the mill.
“The information systems that support the mill and that support the drill and blast guys are different,” he said.
“The integration for that sort of scenario is about getting the data back right. From a Mincom point of view we have a base intelligence platform to support that.”
Jessop is a firm believer in the concept of the ideal plan.
“A feasible plan may be that I have six ships coming in that I need to sell product onto,” he said. “The optimal plan may be that I have six ships coming in. Can I change my mining plan to get the lowest grade stuff possible to meet the requirements and save the higher grade stuff for later.
“Very, very few of the miners think optimally.”
That is the challenge facing miners and the companies that supply them. To have enough information flowing from the whole process to optimise the operation across different time scales.
Mine plans are made to optimise the deposit over the life of mine. What Jessop is suggesting is to bring that optimisation into the short term as well as the long term.
“The capability exists for short-term optimisation in general industry but not so much in mining,” he said.
“Mining has largely been driven by optimising production volumes rather than optimising production.”
Getting the information is the key to any of this.
Jessop tells the story of an Africa-based gold miner. Its chief metallurgist was responsible for the operations of several plants. His problem was that each plant reported to him in different ways.
“He had no real visibility of what was happening,” Jessop said.
“We were able to set up a web-based metal accounting system.”
Thanks to that system, which the metallurgist could tap into from anywherein the world, he was able to get bigproductivity improvements from the plants. All thanks to the increased visibility of the data available to him.
Things do get a little easier in the processing plant. A number of these systems have evolved from the manufacturing industry so there is a little bit more commonality. They tend to speak to each other a little bit more nicely than the systems in the mining sector.
Schneider Electric segment manager mining, minerals and metals Paul Cooper said the discussions about automation and information availability were increasing.
“One of the trends we’re seeing is more of a desire to have more of a demand chain management of mining operations,” he said.
“It’s moving towards the Lean [management] concept.”
The ability to connect and draw useful information from devices made by several different vendors is part of that.Cooper admitted that the fixed plant side of the mining business was further advanced down this path than the mobile equipment side.
Schneider, for one, has some tools that can allow it to connect disparate devices.
Cooper said Schneider’s Ampla contained a rich set of connectivity tools.
These include a set of standard connectivity measures plus a suite of vendor-specific connection tools.
“By having this rich set of libraries we can bring disparate sets of systems together,” Cooper said.
He described the sort of systems running processing plants and conveyor networks as operating on three levels.
Level one is down at the motors and drives level. Level two is the process control level and level three is up where the management systems run.
“Typically we would talk about tested and validated architectures,” Cooper said.
“That means you deliver a system to site where the data capture from level one is tested and validated. That means you have more certainty over your data.”
Cooper said there seemed to be a preference emerging for businesses to have the same vendor supplying its systems across all three business levels.
“When you deliver a vertically integrated system to a site you get not only a set of software and devices, you get a library of connectivity that has been tested,” he said.
“There’s been a trend over the past decade to do best of breed when doing EPCM [engineering procurement and contract management] then bring in a whole bunch of engineers and integrate them.
“I think that’s changing now where companies are going to the one solution.”
This article first appeared in the October 2010 edition of Australia's Mining Monthly