UMS seeks to make underground mining more cost effective

10th July 2023 By: Darren Parker - Creamer Media Contributing Editor Online

UMS seeks to make underground mining more cost effective

Mining and minerals processing services firm United Mining Services (UMS) has equipped its operations in preparation for the surge in demand for specialist underground mining skills amid increased calls for minerals to support the transition to low-carbon energy.

The company says it is concentrating its efforts on making underground mining more cost effective for clients, while simultaneously increasing productivity.

UMS group executive technical director Murray Macnab says the company is capitalising on its experience, intellectual resources and equipment to improve economics for its clients. By combining the engineering and consulting ability of the company’s engineering and contracting arms, UMS is aiming to reinforce clients’ technical teams’ short- and long-term requirements.

“Traditionally, Tier 1 mining houses would start planning for an underground mine five to ten years in advance and commission feasibility studies five years ahead of time. We have the capability to do feasibility studies for our clients within one year, as well as complete early engineering and procurement concurrently to ensure reduced timelines on long-lead items,” he points out.

He notes that shaft sinking requires expensive equipment.

“Besides the capital cost of hundreds of millions of dollars for the equipment alone, it can take more than 24 months to manufacture a new winder for example, a minimum of two of which are typically needed for a new underground mine. These timeframes are no longer feasible. UMS can assist by decreasing timeframes and costs,” Macnab says.

He notes that UMS has recently invested substantially in mining equipment to use during a project.

“It can then be made available to the client afterwards if it fits their long-term requirements,” he explains.

Macnab notes that UMS has been buying equipment, including many winders, from various sources – including the heritage shaft sinking businesses and local mining houses. The equipment will be refurbished with the latest electrical technology to make the machines fit for the specific application. The replacement value of this equipment amounts to billions of rands.

“We have specialist expertise in mining equipment and winders and have an internal winder division that specifies what needs to be done to the winders so that they can be modified accordingly. These teams are also available to consult and audit mine winders and mining equipment,” Macnab says.

He says many clients are realising the benefits of using refurbished machines, as it can be more cost effective and can save them up to two years on the lead time for equipment.

“For example, for our client in Brazil, we already owned the Kibble winder, among other equipment required to sink the shaft, and have shipped it there where it is now being used to sink the shaft. It will then be converted to the permanent man winder to save the client money and schedule,” Macnab explains.

He notes, however, that saving clients time and money by increasing efficiency and productivity should never be done at the expense of safety.

“In the 1970s and 1980s, South Africa was setting shaft sinking advances and competing for world records. Everyone was trying to sink over 100 m a month, and safety was a casualty of this competition. The world has changed for the better, and safety has been prioritised. However, eliminating risks resulted in some sinking rates reducing across all sinking companies, in some cases, by up to 30 m a month,” Macnab explains.

He says safety imperatives have resulted in a significant rethink regarding the viability of certain mining ventures.

“We are constantly exploring innovative ways to improve productivity while making sure safety is never compromised. We’re now achieving monthly sinking advances again that are starting to be on par with sinking advances of the 1980s, recently achieving 105 m in a month at one of our sites and looking to increase this,” Macnab says.

He says UMS is endeavouring to rethink and re-engineer innovations of the past to see how they can be upgraded or modified to safely increase productivity and save money.

“For example, we have rigorously changed the way cactus grabs are used to comply with and increase on modern safety regulations. Cactus grabs are the most efficient machines to load rock, but we changed the sinking method to make it safer by, amongst others, completely removing people from the shaft bottom when loading,” Macnab explains.

He provides a further example of adapting old technology by putting a modern spec on a mobile escape winder that was initially only suitable for shallow mines, modifying it to reach a depth of 1 500 m. He says UMS is using one of these units at a Botswana project as an emergency escape winder. It will eventually be used in the ventilation shaft for this purpose 800 m below the surface, saving the client from having to build a headgear on an emergency escape shaft.