Autonomous processing emerges as Metso joins forces with Outotec

Image: Metso.

Metso and Outotec are on the verge of combining into a minerals processing powerhouse. Ben Creagh explores what this, along with Metso’s vision for autonomous mineral processing, means for mining.

Metso is gearing up for a transformational year in 2020 as the company moves through the final stages of combining with Outotec.

In July last year, the two companies announced that they planned to merge to create a leading global mineral processing company. While some in the industry were surprised by the proposed tie-up, many others saw it as a logical move that was well overdue.

To close the transaction, Metso and Outotec will move through a complex approvals process towards formalising the merger, which is expected to take place in the second quarter of 2020.

It is anticipated that the proposed merger will leverage the combined strengths of both companies, including technology, research and development, product and processing excellence, as well as extensive aftermarket service capabilities.

Metso Outotec will also aim to take advantage of its presence in a large number of geographical markets, as well as its knowledge across a range of mineral processing applications, particularly copper and high-growth minerals used in battery technology.

Stephan Kirsch’s appointment as global president of Metso’s mining equipment business area was announced soon after the planned merger was revealed.

Perth-based Kirsch, who is responsible for Metso’s entire mineral processing equipment portfolio, started his new job with a strong understanding of the probable implications of the combination, having joined the company a year earlier.

Up until his latest appointment, Kirsch had been Metso’s global senior vice president, business and product management in the mining equipment business area.

“Having already been with Metso for a year provided me with a good understanding of how Metso’s mining business area operated. This gave me a head start, so my analysis period was quite short,” Kirsch tells Australian Mining.

The first priority

Kirsch’s focus is squarely on Metso’s mining clients, reassuring them that until the transaction has completed, it is ‘business as usual’ as the company focusses on catering to the needs and satisfaction of its customers.

“My focus is on customer centricity – that is the key,” Kirsch says. “Why customer centricity? At the end of the day, we are in business to provide services, supply equipment and bring innovations to our customers that make a big difference to the performance of their business.”

Kirsch expects the tie-up will be complementary given the two companies’ contrasting expertise, which they will integrate into a mineral processing powerhouse.

Metso is widely recognised at the dry minerals processing end of the market in crushing, screening and milling equipment, as well as pyro technology and tailings management systems.

Outotec, on the other hand, has established a strong reputation as specialists in wet processing disciplines, such as hydrometallurgy, flotation, filtration and downstream metal processing.

Kirsch believes that mining companies and EPCMs (engineering, procurement and construction management providers) will benefit from the merger by having a broader range of expertise in both areas of processing at their disposal from the one supplier.

Metso mining equipment business area global president Stephan Kirsch.

 

An autonomous future

Metso’s ambitions include helping its customers on their journey to autonomous mineral processing operations.

In contrast to areas like surface haulage, the move towards autonomous operation has been limited in minerals processing applications to this point. But that’s not to say it isn’t possible.

Metso chief digital officer Jani Puroranta believes there are great benefits to be gained by aiming for what he calls “full autonomy”.

Puroranta says full plant autonomy requires an interplay of advanced process control augmented with new sensors and analysers; highly skilled operators aided by artificial intelligence (AI) and supported by remote domain experts; hi-fidelity, dynamic, real-time process simulation (digital twin); and 100 per cent predictive maintenance, with no unplanned shutdowns.

“I think it’s a big change management issue,” Puroranta tells Australian Mining. “You can add software to a plant, but it is very hard to educate people and get them to change. If you don’t educate people and centrally change their behaviour it is not going to stick.”

Puroranta has led Metso’s development of a five-level framework that aims to guide mining companies towards fully autonomous plant by 2050.

The framework starts with regulatory controls and progresses through advanced process control, intelligent equipment, analytics and AI, and full autopilot (autonomy).

Apart from a few rare exceptions, usually sites operated by major global miners, Puroranta believes the industry’s maturity is mostly at level one.

The majority of companies have either not properly executed level one, he adds, or have lost their way by not taking an orderly approach when moving through the five steps.

“If they are at a basic level and struggling with automation, we can add sensors – we could do that to a crusher for example,” Puroranta says.

“I think many companies are struggling to maintain level one. There is a lot of work involved in maintaining this level, but you can’t stop there because it’s the most basic stage.”

Partnership focus

Metso works with its mining customers interested in realising the benefits of fully autonomous plant to analyse which level of the framework they are at and which direction to move in next.

Puroranta says it is vital for Metso to understand where an operator’s “pain points” are, whether it is in crushing, screening, grinding, flotation or another part of processing.

“It is a matter of getting a better grip on the process. Is advanced process control the way to go? Or should we add intelligent equipment, or should we add AI? You can make these decisions when you know which maturity level you are at,” Puroranta says.

Metso chief digital officer Jani Puroranta.

“Then we can start figuring out the solution. It is usually a combination of things – it is not just one thing. You might want to try many things at the same time.”

Despite the perception that autonomous plant means fewer people are required to manage an operation, Puroranta says human workers have never been more important.

He believes how mining companies integrate people into projects will determine how successful they will be.

“That is the biggest part that you need to address and sometimes people don’t know that is what it’s all about,” Puroranta says.

“They are scared about their jobs, but it doesn’t take away their job – it makes it more interesting for the person.”

Projects to implement the autonomous operation of processing plants are best suited to brownfields operations, another notable difference when compared with projects for underground operations or haul trucks.

Metso is able to identify the “pain points” at a brownfields operation by working with its customer, making it easier to know where to apply the framework and focus investment.

In contrast, with greenfields projects there is a risk to overinvest in automation and complicate the broader operation by moving deep into the framework when there’s no need to.

Even with the huge potential benefits that autonomous operations can bring to a processing plant, Puroranta backs Metso’s conservative view that urges the industry to develop a vision for autonomy by 2050.

“Advanced process control is level two and that has been around for more than 20 years,” Puroranta says.

“It has been rolled out since at least the 1980s and it isn’t yet mainstream in the industry today – there are a lot of companies still thinking about it.

“That’s taken more than 30 years to implement, so I think another 30 years is a more realistic timeframe (for full autonomy). I would hope that in the next 10 years we have gone a fair way.”

Integration of capabilities

With the transformation to full autonomy some years away, Metso’s immediate focus will be on how the company’s capabilities integrate with Outotec’s following completion of the merger.

Kirsch believes Metso’s unrivalled services footprint and strengths as an aftersales service provider will deliver new benefits to owners of Outotec equipment once the merger is approved.

“Over the years, Metso has developed a broad service footprint with a network of strategically located service centres close to our customers,” Kirsch says.

“Our teams provide specialist workshop and field services that bring together our extensive know-how with Life Cycle Services (LCS), including original OEM spare parts and consumables.

“This capability will be extended to all of our customers going forward. This is an area where they can benefit from our reliable, well established services.

“I’m really excited about this opportunity because both companies are very knowledgeable, so experienced, and well known in the market for quality products and services. We complement one another extremely well.”

This article also appears in the February edition of Australian Mining.