Plan Early For Profitable Mines

Good advice and quality data applied early in the planning phases set a mining project on track

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The value of upfront input from experts is that developers and investors “find out what they don’t know” and gain the assurance that technical and financial studies are optimally conducted the first time round.

It also ensures that a full 360° mining perspective, taking into account the technical, financial, environmental and social risks, can be addressed timeously so that they are fully exposed and factored into project planning.

“It is difficult enough to prove a discovery and bring a project on-stream within the available budget, but the real test of success is whether that mine can be designed to operate within the lowest possible cost quartile,” says Andrew van Zyl, partner and principal consultant at SRK Consulting.

Achieving a profitable operation starts with finding the right strategy as early as possible, which must address all the modifying factors that stand between the project’s in-the-ground mineral resource and its economically mineable mineral reserve.

Social license to mine

“Among the increasingly important strategic factors is the social license to mine,” he said. “Recent stoppages and disruptions at Anglo American’s Los Brancos mine in Chile show that social license is becoming more tenuous and difficult to maintain.”

He said increasingly onerous regulatory frameworks applied by many lenders and governments pushed mines to move “beyond compliance” to fully integrating environmental and social management into their business philosophy and practice.

Van Zyl believes it is increasingly vital for project champions to seek professional guidance from a very early stage, even before the formal technical studies are initiated.

“Benefits from early consultation in the exploration phase, for instance, could relate to the extraction, sampling and storage of drill cores in a way that allows for further testing and checking of results at a later stage,” he said.

Technology needs to be high on the agenda

Indeed, technology itself needs to be high on the agenda of choosing the optimal project strategy —as falling productivity in mining globally threatens the industry’s sustainability, said SRK corporate consultant Roger Dixon.

“With productivity levels today 25-30% lower than they were a decade ago, it is not enough for mines to focus on isolated areas of operation for a magic bullet,” said Dixon. “Progress in mining will shift from how well the operation moves material to how well it collects analyses and acts on information to move material more productively.”

Marcin Wertz, partner and head of the mining unit at SRK, highlighted the team approach to mining studies, with each team member being keenly aware of the impact of their decisions on other aspects of the project.“Advances in technology allow more sophisticated modelling and integration of various key aspects of mine planning — from ore body, structural geology, geohydrology and geotechnical engineering to mine planning and scheduling,” said Wertz. “The ‘holy grail’ is to have one sophisticated model comprising elements of all these disciplines; this optimises the mine plan, secures better efficiencies, and reduces project risk.

Too often, costly mistakes occur at implementation stage due to, for example, insufficient orebody knowledge.”

Access to water and energy are also key factors for new projects, as competition for these scarce resources grows and the likelihood rises of conflict with stakeholders.

“Many of the most prospective mining areas in Africa, for instance, are water-scarce — and it is no simple matter to secure long-term access to affordable water,” said Van Zyl. “Channels of communication with other users must be closely managed, while on-site usage strategies must prioritise conservation and strict environmental compliance.”

Similarly, energy constraints in much of Africa — and rising electricity prices in countries like South Africa — mean that today’s mine energy designs must address higher risks, better efficiencies and smarter application.

According to SRK principal mining engineer Noddy McGeorge, energy planning could include altering production plans to meet the needs of load balancing, exploring energy recovery systems and installing more secure power sources onsite.

“Savings can be valuably found where energy usage is highest,” said McGeorge. “A good example is in fuel consumption in open pit operations; about 70% of diesel consumed is used in elevating waste material to be dumped, so any design innovations that reduce the amount or position of waste can help cut the diesel bill.”

Apps to make mining safer and more profitable

Meanwhile, the powerful combination of mobile computing and ‘cloud’ data storage is starting to transform safety and productivity on mines that embrace technology. With a mobile phone that connects to the internet you have the equivalent of a supercomputer in your pocket.

These applications, such as Blastlog, are stepping beyond the pen and paper methods currently common on mine sites — to bring real-time reports and notifications to decision makers in time to improve their decisions.

According to BME senior software developer Nicky Klacar, “The system allows data to be captured on mobile devices in the field, and to be presented to end-users on a mobile platform that renders the data immediately useful. For instance, a Safety, Health, Environment and Quality (SHEQ) officer with the BlastLog Reporting app on their phone will be immediately notified if an unsafe working practice is reported in the field on the app.”

The applications — driven and developed by BME’s Blasting Science unit —also boost productivity by quickly identifying any issues that could reduce the quality of a blast, in time for corrective action to be taken.

“The planning manager can be alerted by ‘push notifications’ to potential problems out on the block, and can respond immediately to rectify a problem, instead of only learning about a compromised situation after the blast has been conducted,” said Klacar. “If BME does a boretrack audit to measure the angle and deviation of holes, for example, the results can be reported as soon as they have been uploaded to the cloud.”

When viewing the results immediately on their mobile phones, planning managers can decide, for example, if they need to add more holes in areas with a high toe burden, which leads to improved fragmentation and prevents uneven floors in the blast area.

She said this easy access to information increases transparency and accountability between mine employees and contractors. It also allows all captured data from mine blasts to be stored in a central location, so that it can be analysed holistically rather than only one blast at a time.

“This means we don’t have to search for reports stored on a hard drive, and then read through them to find the data we are interested in,” she said. “Blastlog Reporter will present the results according to what the user requires, avoiding a deluge of unnecessary information.”

An important aspect of the processing power of mobile devices is to highlight any deviations or exceptions in the data – as these would tend to indicate possible problems in processes, production or machinery. The sooner such anomalies can be investigated and addressed, the more likely the operation can be kept running optimally.

Another advantage of mobile applications, said Klacar, is their ease of use by all levels of employees, even those who were not familiar with computers. The widespread use of smart phones and various freely-available mobile applications have paved the way for all mine staff to contribute daily to improved efficiencies. She also emphasised that the technology can be applied not only in the opencast environment but also underground.“BME is rolling out the BlastLog Underground app at Gold One’s Modder East gold mine, which is a very progressive and safety-orientated operation,” said Klacar. “A rugged tablet with our software will eventually be issued to all underground technicians; this will allow all audits, mechanical breakdowns and safety incidents to be recorded electronically, instead of using pen and paper.”She highlighted how tablets and phones can help monitor various aspects of mining operations — on the surface and underground — and improve performance as a result of knowing how well plans were being turned into action.

“Even a simple photograph of a drilled round on a stope face — taken with a tablet underground — can provide valuable data to be measured and analysed as part of continuous improvement practices,” she said.

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