The markets have certainly changed quickly.
Just a few months ago minerals professionals were worried about expanding production and the inherent challenge of employing and retaining good people.
Now they find themselves wondering if they can keep operations afloat.
In many cases, most of a processing plant’s workforce has known only large operating margins and constant capital investment.
Increasing the capacity of operations almost at any cost to capture those margins was the order of the day.
Nowadays, with all the current market uncertainties and talk of doom and gloom, some operators will be battening down the hatches, cutting costs wherever they can and waiting for the financial hurricane to subside.
And now, more than ever, is time to start checking, controlling and analysing the full supply chain, both up- and downstream, thereby optimising productivity and minimising unnecessary costs.
To do this effectively and efficiently, some investments may need to be made.
If this is done properly, the savings generated will far outweigh the initial outlay.
As always, in good times and bad, throughput is king, but it is now particularly important to look at the impact of process efficiencies on the bottom line.
So, this article will review some of the techniques used to keep tonnes up, while minimising investments.
Processing professionals should ensure wear items use the latest technology.
Most OEMs are constantly improving their technology and one of the many areas where effort is expended is wear parts.
Extending the life of wear parts is a key goal of OEMs.
While some cynics might suggest the faster items wear, the more spare parts will be sold, the reality is that fast-wearing spare parts are a key driver for the use of pirate parts.
It is in the vested interest of OEMs to ensure they offer the industry the most economic, high-performance wear items.
Pirate parts cost OEMs tens of millions of dollars per year and the best way to prevent them is continuous improvement.
Apart from that, the performance and, in some instances, safety, of pirate parts can be an issue — a discovery only made when failure occurs.
Apart from improving wear life, some OEMs also strive for efficiencies in components such as power consumption savings or metallurgical recovery improvements.
In many cases, upgrading to the latest design when you change out wear items can provide improvements in operating costs far beyond the cost of the component.
Processing professionals should also review concentrator set-up for present ore type and throughput.
A sudden change in commodity prices will lead to a change in mining strategy.
Perhaps fewer tonnes at the same grade or at a higher grade, or even more tonnes at the same grade may be appropriate.
Such changes are driven by mine economics, but what about the concentrator?
In most cases any significant change in throughput or grade will require modification of the plant set-up. Some areas to examine include:
- Crusher setting if throughput or ore type changes
- Target p80 if grades change
- Grinding ball size if throughput changes
- Number of flotation cleaner stages with feed grade amends
- Froth crowder modifications in flotation cells at lower tonnes and/or grade
- Size of flotation cell slurry control valves
- Modified thickener feed rates may require optimisation of thickener settings.
- Are all the pumps still suitable?
In many cases, the best people to advise on changes to technology set-up are the original designers.
If operators face a significant change in plant throughput or ore grade, then it is always prudent to generate a new mass balance and compare it to the original design criteria.
There is nothing worse than changing a mining strategy to survive in a downturn, only to see the concentrator efficiency lose the planned gains when a few relatively inexpensive changes could have made all the difference.
Managers should ensure that training is up to date.
With far less staff turnover than during the boom and job cuts on the horizon, a reduced workforce needs to be operating at its best.
Now is the best time to ensure that operators and maintenance staff are well trained on the technology used in the concentrator.
The effectiveness of staff is never more apparent than in tight times, when it is essential to have a competent and skilled workforce.
Correctly operating the plant will improve throughput and recovery and minimise maintenance.
During the boom times many operations suffered from large staff turnover.
One of the many downsides is the potential for confusion in the spare parts area.
In a downturn it is important to know exactly what parts are on site, what they are for, and where to source replacements in a timely manner.
It is never desirable to be freighting parts for a shutdown, but this is particularly so when margins are thin.
Equally, it is important to know what parts are imported and impacted by the falling Australian dollar.
Processing professionals should tap into the expertise and knowledge of those whose core competencies are key deliverables on site.
After all, these are the very people who should have best practises and advice on how to, say, audit and optimise the operation of your thickening circuit or manage construction planning, on-site management or even installation and commissioning.
This leaves the plant workforce to the job in hand.
Sudden changes can lead to decisions being made in a hurry without necessarily consulting all sources of available information.
It is important to remember that the fabric of the industry, and its proven record of innovation, has not disappeared simply because commodity prices have fallen.
Talk to the workforce, industry contacts, suppliers and technology partners and look for ideas on efficiency improvements.
*Andrew Okely is currently Manager — Minerals Processing Technologies for Outotec in Australasia.
N Outotec Australia
02 9984 2500