While the mining industry does not yet seem to be in a crisis regarding innovation in mineral processing, it certainly seems to be on a downward trajectory, says former Julius Kruttschnitt Mineral Research Centre director and emeritus professor Tim Napier-Munn, noting that, with innovation being nondiscretionary, there is an obligation as well as an opportunity for the industry to be more creative and to do so more efficiently.
The decline is the result of increasing barriers to innovation, which Napier-Munn maintains are largely self-inflicted.
“Our actions have been deleterious to the innovation process . . . that has damaged the capacity of mining companies to work efficiently,” he said during the delivery of the Australian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy’s 2016 Delprat Distinguished Lecture, titled Innovation in Mineral Processing: Distinguished Past and Uncertain Future. The lecture, held at the University of the Witwatersrand earlier this month, was hosted by the Johannesburg branch of the Southern African Institute of Mining and Metallurgy.
Napier-Munn highlighted mineral processing’s “distinguished past” by citing several key innovations made since 1948, which include increases in scale; dense-medium cyclones for minerals; high-pressure grinding rolls; high-intensity flotation, such as the Jameson flotation cell; autogenous and semiautogenous mills; fine grinding mills, such as the IsaMill; automated quantitative mineralogy; process simulation; instrumentation; and process control.
Despite mineral processing’s successful innovation history, he highlighted that the growing barriers to innovation could constrain the industry’s ability to innovate in future at a rate similar to that of the past, with detrimental consequences for the industry.
Such barriers include the loss of skills and experience in the industry, as well as the decline in industry-innovation links.
“There is a tendency for our industry to cut staff costs indiscriminately, particularly in a crisis, with hard-won experience in corporate memory lost and not replaced,” Napier-Munn pointed out, lamenting that the technical experts – “the conduits for innovation” – were regarded as liabilities, rather than assets.
Innovation was also hampered by “the retirement tsunami”, he added, citing a 2015 survey by the Mining Recruitment Group, in Vancouver, Canada, which reported that 39% of mining executives expected to retire in the next five years, while 31% said they were thinking of leaving the industry permanently.
South African mineral and metallurgical agency Mintek hydrometallurgy head Leon Krüger agrees, telling Mining Weekly that research institutions also struggle to retain young engineers until they are “ripe to innovate”.
Other barriers to innovation include an unnecessary obsession with or hoarding of unimportant intellectual property, and a professional silo mentality within the industry, Napier-Munn said.
The mining industry’s inertia to change and its comfort with existing processes further hamper innovation, Krüger adds. Mintek mineral processing senior technical specialist Carl Bergmann agrees, adding that, despite the indications of the sensible economics of innovations, there is little willingness to take risks in adopting the technology.
Moreover, with financiers demanding virtually zero risk for new mining projects and, thereby, perpetuating the status quo or proven technologies, encouragement for innovation diminishes, comments project management and engineering company Paradigm Project Management director Jeremy Clarke.
Another key barrier is short-termism within the industry, which leads to inconsistent strategies regarding technology continuity and advancement.
“The average innovation time constant is 15 years, with innovations in some instances taking up to 20 to 25 years. The average tenure of a mining company CEO from the top 40 mining companies is 5.3 years, according to executive search firm Swann Global,” Napier-Munn said.
He explained that a mining company’s approach to its technology portfolio and its policy on technology is driven by the company board and CEOs. However, if the CEOs constantly change, so does the manner in which the company’s portfolio is managed, which “is death for innovation”.
“Innovation better handled increases the security or capacity of the company to perform efficiently and make money. . . Mining companies can adopt policies and investment decisions that promote the innovation process and do not inhibit it,” said Napier-Munn.
He warned that, despite the tendency of some companies in parts of the business cycle to regard the technology portfolio as discretionary, rather than essential, there should be a greater understanding of the importance of innovation by investors.
This is echoed in the view of some CEOs from global management consulting company VCI’s 2016 report, ‘Innovation State of Play – CEO Insights’. The report notes: “Investor perspectives of mining need to shift from innovation being associated with risk to a lack of innovation being associated with risk to [achieve] sustainable returns. CEOs acknowledged that miners need to better educate investors.”
To promote the paradigm shift required, Napier-Munn emphasised that a step change must come from the top.
Clarke agrees, adding that for the continua- tion of innovation research and funding, mining industry CEOs and boards should “allow for mineral processing engineers to have more thinking and playtime and access to funding”.
To encourage innovation in mineral processing, Napier-Munn stressed the need “to preserve the corporate memory, promote continuity, strengthen industry innovation links and take a longer view on innovation, with less focus on short-termism that will hopefully lead to rational, long-term management strategies for dealing with technology”.
The key drivers for mineral processing innovation include water and energy use efficiency, the expected long-term increase in demand for commodities, social licence to operate and depleting orebodies, with those remaining being more complex, lower-grade and more difficult to mine, Krüger says.
Napier-Munn cited the crocodile, which has remained largely unchanged for 55-million years, as it fitted its niche perfectly and required no further innovation. The cone crusher is mineral processing’s crocodile, remaining unchanged in principle for nearly a century. However, this is the exception rather than the rule. In most cases, innovation is essential to remain competitive, as well as to enhance or diversify the various mineral processing processes, according to Napier-Munn and other industry commentators.
Despite some processes, such as flotation, having only incremental innovational increases, step changes have been made in, for example, sensor-based sorting techniques, such as X-ray transmission and X-ray fluorescence sorting, Bergmann says. Clarke adds that sorting can be regarded as the successful cross-pollination of ideas from other industries.
Applications for sorters include industrial and precious minerals, base metals, diamonds and coal. Mintek has been involved in the technology since 2000, but manufacturing companies have only recently made headway in industrial applications and sales, states Bergmann.
Innovation progress is further seen in the pairing of mineral processing technologies that are complementary or process combinations, such as the combination of vertically pulsing wet high-intensity magnetic separators to facilitate hematite separation, he adds.
Similarly, the reflux classifier comprises a traditional up-current classifier with a lamella settler – an effective combination, as it can incorporate a wider size range by recovering coarse, fine and medium-sized particles, resulting in improved recoveries and better-grade ores, Bergmann points out.
Current innovations in flotation focus on approaches to widening the size range applicability of flotation and on suitable devices for ultrafine flotation. Both the milling and flotation fields are relatively mature and true innovations for the future may require blue-sky thinking, Bergmann says.
Additional concepts supporting innovation include the development of intelligent circuit designs for mineral processing, using approaches such as geometallurgy to advance the treatment process, Krüger points out. He says intelligent circuit designs do not have to include new technology, but can incorporate existing and established technology.
“These new innovations can be sold upfront to potential operators [and particularly to new mines] by looking at the mineralogy of the ore upfront,” Krüger posits.
Bergmann, however, points out that new developments in mining methods can positively or negatively impact on mineral processing, as mining method innovations could change the nature of the feed to be processed.
Other supporting themes include process intensification, which focuses on increasing the reaction kinetics of processes and, thereby, shortening the processing time. “If the processing time in a unit process is shortened, the continuous process can result in the use of smaller equipment and/or a decrease in the use of reagents and energy,” Krüger suggests.
Additionally, the preconditioning of ore, such as the weathering or weakening of ore to facilitate enhanced mineral processing, could result in several benefits, including a reduction in capital and operational expenditure.
Krüger says these concepts, paired with quantitative modelling and simulation, can provide a valuable direction for innovation.
Bergmann also regards the modelling of flow sheet options as a key enabler, as innovations are tested faster and in more detail, resulting in enhanced processing circuits.
Nevertheless, Krüger acknowledges that innovation focuses not only on taking what is working well and trying to make it better but also on finding new approaches.
Leading vs Following
While there seems to be a crystallised view that universities are required for inventions, Bergmann and Clarke acknowledge that “academia can only go so far”.
Bergmann avers that innovations require pilot or demonstration scales, or industry partnership or access, to advocate confidence and industry acceptance of the processes and accelerate industrialisation and commercialisation.
Krüger also stresses the importance of relevant business models for innovations, as it “would be pointless to push an innovation without an application and a route to industrialisation”.
He, nevertheless, stresses that technology companies could either be innovation leaders in the industry – spending money on innovation, new patents and taking chances on new approaches – or fast followers of ideas, maintaining technical capacity to build on updated innovation from the market. “If one cannot at least follow rapidly, others will take over,” Krüger warns.
Napier-Munn echoed these sentiments by citing Sir Francis Bacon, who claimed: “He that will not apply new remedies must expect new evils, for time is the greatest innovator.”