Tuesday, 15 October 2019
Industry Q&A: Leveraging Expertise Through Collaboration to Improve Productivity and Process Plant Design
Austmine Limited

Industry Q&A: Leveraging Expertise Through Collaboration to Improve Productivity and Process Plant Design

As the industry remains sluggish mid-way through 2016, optimising operations and reducing costs continues to be at the forefront of the focus of mining companies. Correct planning of process plant design can improve the bottom line of mining companies and can negate maintenance and safety issues further down the track. Austmine caught up with Byron Burridge, Managing Director, Mechvac Engineering, to discuss the efficiency gains that can be found from collaboratively implementing plant designs and using innovative technologies such as pilot plants to improve productivity.

Declining ore grades have put pressure on miners to improve their process plant operations. How can having the right plant and equipment in place help nullify this issue?

It is of utmost importance to take a holistic approach to the design of a process plant. If a process has manual operations integrated within it, then the plant should always be designed around the operator to maximise their productivity and around operator ergonomics to eliminate WHS issues. An automated plant should be designed around minimising downtime and product damage or losses in transit. A process should not just be designed around maintenance concerns as this invariably neglects all other considerations. Whilst maintenance access is important it shouldn’t compromise productivity, safety or quality. With these principles in mind, MECHVAC can redesign an existing plant (which can often be done at minimal cost) to improve the process efficiencies and therefore the bottom line.

Safety is a predominant issue in the mining sector, especially with the return of black lung and stricter OH&S standards. What specific technologies can be used to improve conditions, particularly in underground mining, and how important will these be for the sector moving forward? 

Dust and fume extraction is of vital importance in these environments for minimising WHS issues. Unfortunately it is often seen as a grudge purchase as it doesn’t contribute directly to process capability, but it is an insurance policy against workcover claims down the line. However, with the return of black lung, it is clear that ignoring these issues can have a detrimental affect on productivity and corporate social responsibility. MECHVAC offers a full range of capabilities in our air handling design and construct services for dust and fume extraction, but also for heating, ventilation and airconditioning which also contributes to operator comfort and therefore productivity.

Mine site expansions and potential projects involve huge amounts of capital expenditure and can generate significant losses if they are entered into without correct information. What role can simulation and pilot plants play in this field?

Process simulations are very useful at feasibility stage for testing material handling methods and any queuing issues for de-bottlenecking. Small scale pilot plants are very useful for testing chemical process design, equipment design, new technologies and process capability before going full scale. It allows a company to generate information about the system and de-bunk potential issues before investing significant CAPEX into their major project. Without the 'test-run' of the pilot plant, companies may run into problems that could have been previously discovered and nullified that could now impact their return on investment. MECHVAC has design experience in both areas which we use extensively in our mining work.

Collaboration is becoming a key to survival and sustainability in the current market and cooperation between miners and METS can produce mutual benefits. How can METS companies embrace and utilise collaboration and what specific examples are there of successful collaboration stories for MECHVAC?

Collaboration with a customer is very desirable in the feasibility / planning stage of a project or in a R&D environment such as a pilot plant. This enables the customer to access outside expertise from a METS supplier which they may lack. For example, MECHVAC has a highly successful relationship with Bureau Veritas Minerals in the design and continual development of their minerals processing pilot plants which are being used to validate a proposed mine site expansion. In this project, our clients combined their chemical engineering expertise with our plant process and equipment design skills to design the plant from a clean sheet. 

Mining companies have began to look towards other industries for lessons on how to improve productivity and enhance operations. Lean manufacturing has been identified as one particular areas of interest. What are the requirements of lean manufacturing and how can these translate into the mining industry?

Lean manufacturing principles are centred on the minimisation of process waste and maximising value added operations, which can be applied anywhere. What started with the Toyota Production System in the automotive industry has been successfully applied to other manufacturing industries and even to banking and government operations. Rio Tinto has a track record of implementing lean processes at its aluminium smelters. MECHVAC has a long track record in lean manufacturing plant layout design which started in the automotive industry and has since evolved into providing the same service in other industries including Manufacturing, Food, Defence and Mining. In the mining industry, MECHVAC has worked in close collaboration with our clients to design, manufacture and install an ore crushing and blending plant at Bureau Veritas Minerals to replace an existing process that delivered a productivity improvement of 66% and a reduction in floor area of 56%. 

 Significant improvements can be readily made for existing or new operations with a lean process design approach.

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