More technical skills needed

12th May 2017 By: Robyn Wilkinson - Features Reporter

More technical skills needed

CUTHBERT MUSINGWINI Mines are required to continuously innovate how they plan and operate their production systems

Without more technical skills, the future of the Southern African mining industry cannot be secured, says Southern African Institute of Mining and Metallurgy (SAIMM) president Cuthbert Musingwini.

Skills development will, therefore, be included on the agenda of this year’s SAIMM Mine Planning Colloquium, with Musingwini stressing that there will be continued demand for more technical skills in the mining industry to tackle the challenges of increased mining depths and declining productivity, which continue to impact on the global mining landscape.

He points out that the mining industry can no longer rely on high-grade, shallow orebodies, as many of these have been almost depleted – especially in the case of precious metals such as gold and platinum. Existing orebodies are, thus, generally of lower grades and have to be mined at deeper levels, which requires that companies formulate optimised exploitation strategies to remain competitive in converting mineral resources to mineral reserves.

“Mines now have to move greater tonnages from increased depths of mining and achieve higher recovery efficiencies to maintain or improve profitability. These challenges are further compounded by increasing production costs and lower productivity associated with increasing mining depths. “Mines are, thus, required to continuously innovate on how they plan and operate their production systems, which requires increased skills in mine planning and optimisation.”

Despite the critical roles that mine planning and optimisation play in informing the strategic and tactical decision-making processes in mining companies, Musingwini highlights, up until recently, there were no formal postgraduate qualifications being offered in this area of specialisation in existing MSc degree programmes in South Africa, with the traditional career path for mining graduates being in production and mine management.

In response to this, the School of Mining Engineering at the University of the Witwatersrand, in Gauteng, introduced a master’s degree in mine planning in 2014 to increase the pool of high-level mine planning specialists. The course has had an average enrolment of ten students each year, with most students doing the degree as part-time study, and the graduation rate on average being five students a year, as some students spread their studies over three years.

While this has gone some way to addressing the problem, Musingwini stresses that the education and training of mining engineers is most successful when there are strong partnerships between universities and the mining industry.

“The SAIMM’s regularly held conferences and colloquiums provide a forum where mine planning professionals can meet, interact and share innovations and suggestions that can help address this and other issues facing the industry,” says SAIMM Mine Planning Colloquium chair Mike Woodhall.

Against the backdrop of the need for multidisciplinary mine planning, the colloquium will provide a platform for the fraternity to share business-relevant experiences, while improving planning competences across the board through discussions of best practice and the showcasing of new planning tools.

The colloquium, which will run from June 6 to 7 in Randburg, Johannesburg, will bring together mine planning practitioners and their mineral resource management colleagues to discuss ways in which a multidisciplinary approach – drawing on fields such as geology, surveying, rock engineering, metallurgy, environmental engineering, mining machinery and economics – can improve the efficiency of the entire mining value chain.

The significant role that technological advancement is playing in mine planning will also be a major area of consideration at the event. Woodhall adds that developments in data analytics and optimisation are particularly topical, owing to their ability to enable mine planners to process large amounts of raw data into useful information for decision-making purposes.

The colloquium will also focus on plan compliance, presenting case studies that demonstrate the consequences of deviating from the mine plan. In such cases, Musingwini stresses the need for flexibility in mine plans to align with a new set of operating conditions or targets.

“There is also an emerging planning technique called stochastic mine planning, which enables mine planners to manage uncertainties upfront. When uncertainties are front-end engineered, it is possible to build sufficient flexibility into mine plans to respond to unforeseen events as they occur,” says Musingwini.

Other discussion topics will include geomodelling, mine design and scheduling in different mining environments; technical support, cost modelling and business optimisation; academic and practical presentations on mineral resource management, metals and mining and information technology tool capabilities; and general mining industry constraints, including capital, logistics, skills, margins, price volatility, productivity and stakeholder relations.