Underground mines are increasing in number worldwide as demand for mining commodities and prices remains strong.
Favourable economics mean that open pit operations are looking to extend the life of their operations by looking beneath the surface, as previously cost-prohibitive ore bodies can now be mined.
The move to underground mining is not without its challenges, acutely illustrating the impact that several pressing factors are having on the mining industry.
These factors include: a declining number of skilled mining professionals, regulatory compliance, and costs that are rising faster than demand.
The number of skilled mining professionals needed to plan operations is declining.
Not only is it more difficult to source the needed geological and engineering skills, but when people leave the industry they are taking the design and planning procedures and abilities they have developed with them.
Couple this with the dramatic increase in new and expansion projects driving the demand for these skills and the problem is exacerbated.
The fact that some surveys indicate that 40% of current workers surveyed indicated they will retire within 10 years and this will become a crisis.
At the same time that professionals are in decline, there is a need to institute best practices and to comply with regulations like Sarbanes Oxley and JORC that require enhanced auditabilty of procedures.
Finally, and certainly not least, the constant need to mine profitably and meet shareholder expectations is always present.
Cost pressures are making this an increasingly difficult challenge, requiring mine plans to be as effective and accurate as possible, maximising the value of what is produced according to the criteria of each mines owner.
Addressing these issues means that technology must play a more vital role in supporting mining operations. In addition to providing answers to these issues, the software must, of course, deliver the capabilities needed to develop effective mine plans.
Mine planning, after all, involves many different steps.
What constitutes a mine plan?
The mine plan represents the phases of the mine’s life from the initiation of the feasibility study to production.
The process generally consists of the following stages:
· Determining the economic feasibility of extracting ore from the ore body
· Creating and optimising a design to access the ore body
· Scheduling the design (long term and short term)
· Implementing the schedule in production
· The analysis and update of the design and schedule to ensure it is continuing to be economically optimal
· Further exploration of the resource to continue the cycle
Each stage of the plan is approached with an underlying objective in mind: to maximise the economics of the operation.
All good plans will be based on this core objective, resulting in less dilution and greater recoveries.
However, this objective is not easily achieved.
Mine planning is a difficult and challenging task due to the complexities involved and the number of factors that must be considered.
Various potential issues can include:
· Complications arising from the mining method selected
· Geotechnical rock assessments
· The location of the mine
· Availability/access of mine services such as water
· Safety issues
· Scheduling constraints
· Production capacity
An underground mining operation presents a host of challenges and is generally more technologically advanced than surface mining.
Issues such as ventilation and geotechnical engineering requirements are essential to safe and successful underground mining.
The potential for a lack of geotechnical rock mass knowledge and/or an uncertainty due to the paucity of drill hole information make underground mine planning risky business.
Because of this risk, there is a large upfront investment in developing access to the ore body as geological anomalies can result in significant expenditure if ore body access needs to be re-developed.
As we’ve seen, underground mine planning is a complex process.
The question is: what can be done to simplify mine planning and design to address the issues facing the mining industry?
To help mining engineers and mining companies produce more effective mine designs faster, Gemcom Software International has introduced a new Underground Design module for its Gemcom Surpac™ geology and mine planning software.
The module automates much of the design process, while allowing it to be repeated and audited. This enables the knowledge of workers to be captured and passed on, while at the same time helping to address compliance management and in the definition of best practices.
Underground Design doesn’t directly address the physical challenges of underground mine planning however it does provide a logical, structured process flow that produces auditable mine design results. It also has a setup whereby designs are generated from the defined parameters — this frees the engineer from the tedious drafting tasks and allows them to spend more time applying their skills to the design parameters. Underground Design also has a reporting module that allows users to directly compare schedules produced in Gemcom MineSched™ for analysis.
To address skills shortages, the Surpac Underground Design module provides easy to use drag-and-drop menu tools and design charts that minimise the learning curve whilst ensuring quick turnaround times — which are critical in the trade-off and optimisation stages of any economic study or reserve conversion process.
Making the lives of mining engineers less complicated by freeing them from mundane tasks is another important aspect of Surpac’s Underground Design module.
Generic elements are applied to the design to automate most processes within the Surpac environment.
The resulting designs can be scheduled, tested and compared to ensure that an optimal outcome is produced.
Mining engineers who use the software are able to devote more time to understanding the mining environment and to test more scenarios in less time, permitting them to spend more time on other critical tasks.
Underground Design has been designed to work with Gemcom MineSched™ from inception and can develop designs with a comprehensive naming structure that can be immediately and easily scheduled in MineSched. It also works to MineSched auto-precedence logic and supports MineSched parameters such as densities, profiles and priorities.
With the right technology in place, it is possible to accomplish more in less time and with fewer available resources.
* Matthew Peursum is the Surpac Product Manager at Gemcom Software International and holds a Bachelors degree in Computer Science. Matthew has worked in the software industry for the past 12 years with specific experience in finance (5 years) and mining (7 years). Matthew has been the Product Manager for Surpac since 2004.