Blasting leader goes global with tech innovation

Pioneering beyond its manufacture and supply of cold emulsion explosives, BME has become a home-grown South African success story now exporting blasting technology to mining countries world-wide, including Australia.

“The crucial thread running through this success has been our innovative approach and willingness to experiment,” says Joe Keenan, managing director of BME.

“Our acquisition in 1987 by the JSE-listed Omnia Group also allowed further expansion of our explosives product range and capacity.”

While the business was built on reliability, service and our stable emulsion technologies, Keenan highlighted that it soon branched out into other blasting-related innovations.

These advanced products and equipment were developed for application in the African environment, but are now steadily embraced in many markets abroad.

“Beyond emulsions, we have developed our own range of emulsion trucks, and diversified from opencast mining into underground operations,” he says. “We also engineered electronic detonation technologies and blast planning software.”

He notes that its role as a blasting contractor – in addition to being a product supplier – gives BME the opportunity to work daily with its own innovations. This creates a valuable feedback loop to continuously improve its offerings.

As its host country, South Africa provided two key conducive elements for technological development. The first was the range of chemical and electromechanical skills readily available in the market; the second was a competitive cost base for sustained research and development in various fields.

An early breakthrough in used oil as an emulsion ingredient had both financial and environmental benefits. With an initial contract on the country’s largest iron ore mine, BME developed a way to incorporate used engine oil in its emulsion mix.

“In addition to creating a cost saving that could be passed on to the customer,” he says, “this application of used oil reduced the risk of environmental contamination through spillage – as it disposed of the oil through the blasting process.”

Initially, the oil came from the customer’s earthmoving and mining machines. Today, BME is a key player in recycling South Africa’s used oil. It has developed its own used oil collection network and processing facilities, and consumes approximately 20 per cent of the country’s available used oil in the manufacture of its standard bulk emulsion.

A range of other technological advances have paved BME’s road to success. As a leading local player in electronic detonation, the company developed the now well-known AXXIS electronic initiation system – enhancing the safety and quality of blasting for mines.

This was soon followed by BLASTMAP III, an advanced blast and timing design software package.

“Together with AXXIS and BME’s electronic detonator products, BLASTMAP™ III gives mines greater flexibility to blast and more certainty about the results,” he says.

By 2013, the company had pioneered its underground offerings, giving narrow reef mines the safety and productivity benefits of emulsion explosives. This included BME’s own portable charging unit, which was soon at work in South Africa’s platinum sector.

In the past decade or more, the company’s innovation has embraced the digital space. Mobile hand-held devices and apps were developed to facilitate quicker and more accurate data collection and analysis.

There has always been a focus on aligning its technologies with the concerted efforts of mining companies to boost productivity and safety; in recent years, this has successfully harnessed the power of big data.

BME’s progress has gone hand-in-hand with geographical expansion into Africa and beyond. By the late 1990s, it was operating in Tanzania, where it soon established its first emulsion plant outside of South Africa’s borders.

This was followed by more plants in Mali, Mauritania, Senegal and Zambia. More recently, the company’s blasting technologies have caught the attention of customers further afield.

“The AXXIS system has seen enthusiastic take-up in Australia, along with BME’s electronic detonators and its specialised technical services,” says Keenan.

“In 2016, this combination of technology even broke the world record for the largest electronic detonator blast ever – at the Daunia opencast coal mine in Queensland.”

AXXIS has also entered the South American explosive markets of Peru, Chile and Colombia. In South-East Asia, BME’s contracts have included a major deal with a large coal producer in Indonesia.

North America also holds exciting prospects, with the recent opening of a Colorado office and the development of channel partners in the United States, Canada and Mexico.

“BME’s trajectory has showcased the expertise and creativity of South African professionals,” he says.

“Blasting quality remains our focus, but we see significant local and global opportunity ahead as we integrate our expertise in chemical, electronic and mechanical engineering with the power of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.”

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