In the face of numerous technical challenges, as well as the overall drive to reduce mining costs and improve efficiency amid commodity price volatility, miners globally can no longer afford to operate without using modern analytical, modelling, simulation and optimisation software, says mining software solutions provider MICROMINE technical product manager Frank Bilki.
He explains that the declining success rate of exploration over time and the rarity of high-grade deposit discoveries have led to long-term global trends that show an overall decline in ore grades across most commodities. The extraction of ore from lower-grade deposits requires the construction of larger mines, with an associated increase in production rates. These mines further generate more waste per unit of ore, placing an added materials handling and environmental burden on miners.
Mining software has, thus, become essential for designing and planning mines that can manage these technical challenges, with Bilki pointing out that managing such challenges has evolved into two major methods over the past few years.
Firstly, software has become increasingly automated, introducing many new tools and workflows that eliminate the drudgery, human bias and potential for errors inherent in previous manual systems. “Consequently, users now have more time to better understand their data and make higher-level decisions than they could before.”
Secondly, mine planning software is gradually changing from an analysis-and-modelling toolkit to one more focused on scenario-based simulation and optimisation. Bilki explains that, in the past, miners could only enhance the shapes of their openpits, compared with the current capabilities of improving underground stopes, production sequences and mining equipment allocation.
In line with these developmental themes, MICROMINE released its Micromine 2016 software in May last year, which incorporates several surface and underground mine planning-orientated enhancements. These include auto build pit and auto realign pit strings for rapidly prototyping and adjusting openpit designs, and integrated pit optimisation charting and reporting tools for displaying and reporting optimisation results directly within Micromine.
The technology has been used by several large mines in Russia, North America, Canada and Mexico for their daily mine planning tasks, and is available in South Africa through the company’s Johannesburg-based office.
Looking to the future, MICROMINE is also increasingly experimenting with virtual and augmented reality within the three-dimensional geospatial world of its mine planning software. “Although it is probably fair to say that nobody quite knows how these technologies will ultimately benefit the mining industry, they are undoubtedly here to stay,” says Bilki.
The pairing of geological modelling and mine planning software with hand-held or containerised analytical instruments is, moreover, making mining data far more accessible than in the past, and significant research is being undertaken into advanced automation techniques such as machine vision and machine learning. “Given the visual and subjective nature of geological interpretation, these technologies have the potential to revolutionise geologists’ understanding of their rocks.”
Within the context of ongoing research into wireless networking within mines and the Internet of Things, Bilki adds that future miners will also have access to vast amounts of real- time information, with smart software having already extracted important knowledge from what would otherwise be an overwhelming mass of data.