With the platinum mining industry in South Africa experiencing tough times, technology has become a major driver in reducing costs and facilitating improved productivity, and global engineering group Sandvik Mining & Rock Technology is assisting in this regard through its strides in mechanisation, says Sandvik key account manager Niel McCoy.
The tough climate has resulted in two contradictory measures emerging – some players are favouring a slow down by emphasising care and maintenance, while others are favouring growth by bringing new platinum mines on line.
Proponents of both approaches are partial to the rising trend of platinum mines employing mechanised equipment, which Sandvik Mining & Rock Technology offers and is further developing.
Sandvik Mining & Rock Technology senior mining engineer Michel Lyons notes that mechanised equipment has been used by larger mines for about 20 years, but designing this equipment for use at existing platinum mines is difficult, owing to the narrow reef environment and capital footprint laid down and designed for conventional mining, which necessitates scaling down big machines.
McCoy enthuses that two new platinum mines, project developer Ivanhoe Mines’ Platreef project, and platinum and palladium mining company Platinum Group Metals’ Waterberg project, both in Limpopo, present an opportunity for Sandvik’s existing mechanised solutions. These projects, he notes, are the first platinum mines in South Africa that will use mass mining, as the orebody lends itself to this method.
Sandvik is actively pursuing supplying and supporting these projects, as these mines have larger operating environments than conventional platinum mines, which provides much scope for the company’s existing offering.
Another challenge posed by platinum mines is that, owing to the mining environment, infrastructure is unfixed, requiring costly monthly updates and extensions. Sandvik has managed this challenge well by working with several platinum mines on scalable solutions and providing information management tools for these areas specifically, he informs.
McCoy extolls that Sandvik has made great progress with regard to mechanised solutions for platinum mining since its initial equipment design, with the company now providing a “very good offering”, ranging from equipment for rock support to load and haul processes, as well as tools for information management.
He adds that mechanised machines are far superior to conventional machines in terms of costs and safety, as they remove mineworkers from hazardous situations.
The goal for Sandvik now is to increase the visibility of information coming from its mechanised-equipment offering for narrow-reef mines, as well as to find suitable automation solutions. These solutions will include options where the operator will merely have to push a button for the machine to drill a hole and the machine will complete the function autonomously. This will ensure consistency and desired repeatability in mining processes, and less wear and tear on equipment. Sandvik has completed the first prototype of a cable bolter for narrow-reef mining with such functionality, which is in the testing phase of development.
Sandvik’s Information Management (IM) system displays work done by a machine and notifies mine management where performance can be improved, allowing for timeous decision-making, thereby improving overall operational efficiency.
Most of Sandvik’s new machines come standard with a Data Capturing Unit (DCU), which is used at the client’s discretion. Real-time data monitoring is possible but limited by current infrastructure and a constantly expanding mining footprint; therefore, 24/7 surveillance of machines is being pursued. Sandvik’s equipment can offer this function, but infrastructure in mines does not currently support it.
Sandvik has partnered with two small mining projects in South Africa to develop IM’s real-time functionality, an experience which McCoy describes as an “education journey” through which Sandvik will grow and learn with clients.
“Achieving 24/7 surveillance will change the way mines are managed – improving efficiency, productivity and safety, which are three big drivers for Sandvik to bring down unit costs.” With many platinum mines already performing mining processes well, this technological development will enhance operations.
Once streamlined through testing at these mining projects, the updated version of the IM system will be rolled out to the market. Undertaking such projects enables Sandvik to build reference points for the successful use of its technology and establishes a frame of reference when customising solutions to meet specific customer requirements. Sandvik has implemented more than 30 customised solutions worldwide.
Sandvik is also focusing a lot of research and development (R&D) on mechanical cutting for extracting ore from platinum reefs. Lyons explains that, as platinum operations advance, the time to get from the surface to the working area increases exponentially. Mechanical cutting will allow for 24/7 operations that can be remotely monitored and operated from surface, negating the need to traverse this increasing distance. “Once we are able to get the costs down and the volumes up, this will be a game changer for mining.”
He extolls that Sandvik is testing a mechanical cutting machine prototype in South Africa, in conjunction with diversified major Anglo American, which can be operated from Austria. This technology has undergone extensive development by one of Sandvik’s main R&D hubs in Austria.
“We are especially proud that Sandvik has progressed so well with regard to technology for platinum operations, as we believe platinum is the toughest mining equipment application to manage,” concludes McCoy.