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Overcoming today’s mining challenges by finding an edge

15th February 2024

     

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Over the past years, mining producers have needed to adapt to rapidly changing market conditions. While seeing opportunities driven by strong demand and high prices for metals such as copper, gold and battery metals, they also had to deal with multiple pressing challenges. Lower grade ores, meeting sustainability and digitalisation targets, and finding and retaining talented teams in remote locations can all seem like daunting tasks. Not to mention the handling of day-to-day work such as keeping the plant running and overcoming bottlenecks, all of which directly impacts performance and profitability.

So, what should today’s miners do, and where to start? Below are five fruitful topics worth considering to take your mine or plant a few steps closer to a fully sustainable, safe and high-performing operation.

Should knowledge and expertise be deep or wide?

Modern mining plants are complex and have many process steps from the initial blasting and hauling to crushing and screening, all the way through to the final dewatering or material transportation stages. Each process step may have multiple equipment types and models operating, requiring considerable knowledge to monitor, maintain and optimise. Suppliers having deep knowledge of only one stage or equipment type can offer benefits, but to stay on top of each process island, plants would require a multitude of specialists and their lack of understanding of other stages would hamper their effectiveness.

Partners with both wide and deep expertise covering many production stages, equipment and parts, can really help to understand what is causing a particular issue. For example, problems in the recovery stage could be due to issues with the floatation cells or controls, but could also be linked to upstream processes such as the feed coming from the mill or even problems in the crushing and screening circuit. Being able to connect the dots by understanding various parts and equipment and how they interact with each other is critical to making sense of the details while also seeing the process as a whole. Having a one-stop-shop access to full end-to-end solutions where exactly the right parts and services for your specific operating conditions and targets can be selected, pays off.

How can I get more performance from my assets?

A high-performing plant can be defined in several ways but plant availability and throughput are two key measures of performance. At typical plants, operating conditions can change over time, with varying feed qualities or production targets. This makes the goal of optimising performance or achieving more production from your current asset a moving target.

Selecting a partner with the right expertise and offering is the key to finding ways to continually improve your operation. When it comes to optimisation, you need to have access to all the tools in the toolbox, meaning as wide a range of solutions as possible, including the latest innovations. For instance, if your supplier only sells wear parts made of steel, they will recommend that even if the ideal solution in your specific case may be rubber, ceramics or a combination thereof. Data is also vital for optimised performance and continuous improvement. This means access to performance data, advanced simulation tools and the best possible expertise. Simulation tools may all look the same, but there is more to it than simply a shiny surface or sleek interface. Expertise combined with access to the widest offering and most advanced simulation software can really do the trick and provide real insights into your plant’s performance. Additional services such as drill and blast programmes, ore characterisation studies, maintenance reliability planning and circuit evaluation and optimisation work can also play a part in improving equipment uptime and production.

Digitalisation – one step at a time or a big leap?

It is no secret that digitalisation is a major driver for the next phase of mining industry growth, and you can see the evidence of this in many different forms. Whether it is automation or simulation tools, remote connectivity, or predictive maintenance solutions leveraged to Internet of Things devices, the list of digital solutions keeps growing by the day. One common pitfall at many sites is the way digital solutions are viewed. Digital solutions are often viewed as a separate standalone offering. However, a more interesting approach is to look at these offerings more as enablers or amplifiers to current processes and ways of working. What is being purchased is not so much a sensor, application, or simulator but rather an outcome or benefit that the offering delivers. In other cases, the digital solution may be providing data but the actual benefit is access to an expert who can interpret that data and offer options or pinpoint next steps that could be investigated by onsite teams.

Another challenge facing sites is deciding what to tackle first. There are so many possible digital solutions available that a proper audit and analysis should be conducted before taking a major digital leap. For example, a site’s efforts could be focused towards a major long-term initiative such as flowsheet optimisation through the creation of a digital twin, one of the industry’s hottest topics. Initiatives could also centre around getting more out of a site’s current setup. To do this, information can be worth its weight in gold, which has led to the push to connect and monitor as much of the equipment circuit as possible. Tools like Metrics Monitoring connects to customers’ existing DCS or PLC, reads the data in real time and sends it to the cloud platform. Metrics provides the maintenance crew and operators at the mine site with new visibility and insights on equipment performance analytics, condition monitoring and predictive maintenance – all backed by expert support from global performance centres.   

Another focus area is digital solutions that allow site personnel to more effectively take action. A few examples are digital or remote training on major assets such as mill relining machines, remote wear monitoring of liners with tools such as WearSense™ or even digital inspection apps used by field service personnel which are now available for mills and other plant equipment. To find the digital edge, a comprehensive roadmap based on a thorough site audit can help identify long-term goals and major digital projects as well as short-term wins with simpler and easy to install tools and solutions.

The power of partnership

With so much at stake, finding the right partner is a high priority for producers. The key to finding a long-term partner who can help reduce risks as well hit your objectives involves taking a step back and really asking what criteria to evaluate for a potential long-term partner.

These include:

  • Trust and a culture of innovation are important.
  • Are their products and parts reliable and long-lasting?
  • As your site and its personnel evolve, will your partner be able to keep pace and continue to offer novel solutions in terms of equipment, parts or services?
  • Do they have local support as well as access to a global team for extra advice and expertise?
  • Does the partner have a training academy or learning facility that can help bridge the knowledge gap to ensure that new plant operators and maintenance staff can work both safely and efficiently?
  • Is the partner a responsible one?
  • Are they able to provide ideas and offerings to help reach demanding sustainability aims as well as acting as a sustainable partner when it comes to their own operations and sourcing practices?

By looking at these criteria (among others), a site can begin to evaluate their partners and plan for a positive future state.

Profitability vs. sustainability?

The theme of sustainability is one of the most discussed in modern mining. The reality is that the world needs minerals as it makes the push towards electrification and a more sustainable state. Markets are demanding changes, governments are requiring them but most of all, the future of our planet depends on it. There is a tendency within the industry to imagine that sustainability and profitability are working against each other. But in fact, these twin aims are often intertwined and not at all contradictory. For example, as a plant becomes more efficient, there are often both sustainability as well as cost benefits. Longer-lasting parts for example can lead to less component changeouts and transportation. The reduction of one reline event can result in significant cost saving owing to less downtime and fewer parts needed, as well as less wastage and worn components sent to landfills.

Recycling or rotatable refurbishment programmes can help to reduce waste and reuse materials, further driving down costs. Process optimisation experts can audit equipment circuits and provide tools and recommendations to make better use of energy, water and chemicals, lessening the impact on the environment while helping to contain costs. Finally, older and less efficient equipment may not only require more energy, but also consume more parts or limit production. By investing in selective upgrades or modernisations, a plant can realise both throughput or performance gains as well as reducing energy or other resource needs. When upgrades are not an option, replacing a piece of equipment, for example with a planet positive new equipment solution, can also bring production gains while reducing environmental impact.

Finally, the number of parts needed in a mining operation is massive ─ making it worth considering whether or not your parts have been produced in a sustainable way, and if your supplier offers takeback programmes and recycling of worn parts.

Bringing it all together

Finding a trusted partner who can work with you towards your goals can make all the difference. Once a site or plant has mapped out, how they stand in relation to the themes above, can be used to complement their current planning and prioritise where their efforts can have the biggest impact. The first chapters of your plant may have already been written, but where should the story go from here? Should it focus on gaining an edge in performance? Or will it first tackle big issues like digitalisation and sustainability? One thing is for certain, whatever the challenge, the power of a true partnership can tip the scales towards a more successful and sustainable operation. 

For more ideas and inspiration, explore Metso’s full aftermarket offering here: Your #1 service partner from pit to port

Edited by Creamer Media Reporter

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