As mines have reduced their in-house technical capacity to deal with cost constraints in the economic downturn, the role of consulting engineers in the mining industry has evolved in the past decade, with their specialist skills being applied more broadly, says firm of consulting engineers and scientists SRK Consulting.
“While this has created more work for many consultants, it has also had the negative effect of drawing highly experienced experts into more operational issues when, traditionally, they focused on providing more strategic and high-level solutions,” SRK MD Vis Reddy tells Mining Weekly.
For example, a company, such as SRK, would usually have been engaged in analysing data from mines, but it is now also expected to conduct the actual monitoring and data collection.
“In the long run, this tends to raise risk levels because mines are not sufficiently focused on certain important on-site responsibilities, and the consultant can seldom be on site permanently to oversee all the details of an activity,” Reddy points out.
The involvement of consultants in operational work on mines tends to detract from the more specialised focus that consultants should have and which should give them the edge when it comes to auditing and design specialisation.
Additionally, SRK partner and principal mining consultant Marcin Wertz notes that, while the general services that clients require from consulting engineers are not essentially different from those they provided previously, most mines are currently more cost conscious. There is also a higher prevalence of nondisclosure/confidentiality agreements in contractual relationships with clients.
He states that, given the tight financial constraints and the range of risks inherent in mining ventures, project financiers will often prefer to apply lower-risk, tried-and-tested methodologies in mine designs when they are preparing feasibility studies. “While new technology is increasingly available, it is often only trialled once a mine is successfully operating along more traditional lines.”
SRK partner and principal hydrologist Peter Shepherd says a trend in mine water consulting tends towards risk-based approaches, with an emphasis on changing climatic conditions and extensive thought being given to reducing water use.
“This has encouraged the application of different technologies to help lower the use of water. There is also a growing recognition of the dangers of pollution – leading to more effective strategies to decrease the pollution of our scarce water resources.”
Reddy maintains that there is certainly a skills shortage in consulting engineering, particularly in the midrange of professional experience in the 35- to 50-year-old age category.
“This limited experience gap has created a challenge for some time, restricting the profession’s ability to focus on high-level and strategic services; the more experienced consultants are often engaged in the more hands-on activities that should rather be the domain of younger professionals.”
This skills shortage also means there is insufficient time for mentoring or training, during which junior staff members can benefit from the experience of more seasoned consultants.
With too few of the right type of skills being developed at university level or within industry, it also makes it more difficult to pursue transformation plans, says Reddy, adding that, although SRK is successfully engaging a more diverse range of young professionals, it is a challenging process to train and mentor new cohorts while ensuring that clients have access to the experienced insights they expect from the firm.
“The economic downturn has restricted SRK from evolving its service offering to the extent that we would like to have seen. For example, there are not many greenfield projects available, which usually provide more opportunities for consultants to innovate methods and technologies with clients.”
Reddy adds that, in the current climate, where companies tend to be limited to solving clients’ operational issues, it is more difficult, but not impossible, to merge new approaches with old methods.
Wertz points out that severe cost pressures make it difficult for them to look long term at the bottom-line benefits of high-quality, high-level consulting interventions. “Clients often do not recognise the value added by contracting more experienced practitioners, albeit more expensive, in the bigger picture of the mine’s strategic future.”
Further, Wertz says many consulting engineering firms have merged with or are acquired by large engineering, procurement and construction management or project management companies. However, these mergers are not always successful, leading many professionals to establish their own smaller entities, which enter the market and make the consulting landscape highly competitive.
Projects in Progress
SRK is conducting a feasibility study on a platinum project in Limpopo, in which it is handling mineral resources, mining and civil geotechnics, as well as the mining study, while providing reviews of the project’s environmental impact, including its effect on groundwater and surface water.
The study started in March this year and is expected to be complete in mid-2018.
The company is also reviewing a feasibility study for a gold project in the Free State; the review requires analyses of the geology, rock engineering, mining, processing, tailings, environmental impact and water-related matters. “This work has evolved into an optimisation study with a larger scope,” states Wertz.
SRK started on the review in October and expects the optimisation study, which is focused on improving the project’s economics, to be complete in the first quarter of 2018.
Additionally, SRK is preparing exploration programmes for local coal projects and is conducting exploration management for an iron-ore and manganese project, which could lead to a feasibility study.
The company will provide input into detailed work going forward, following from a concept study SRK contributed to last year for a diamond project in West Africa; this will include supplying specialist services in mining and civil geotechnics, mine design and groundwater. Last year, SRK also provided geological services for copper mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo, including mineral resource modelling, estimation and optimisation.
Moreover, SRK is providing geotechnical services, including pit slope design and tailings services, for a diamond project in Botswana.
“This year, SRK has provided due diligence and competent persons’ reports, as well as mine works programmes, for gold projects in South Africa, involving a range of technical services and financial modelling,” Wertz highlights.
SRK has actively encouraged clients to pursue a range of activities that may be more time-consuming, but can increase value and reduce risk, especially in social licensing, engagement with regulatory authorities and improving the efficiency of exploration, he concludes.