With the Australian
mining industry facing an increasingly tough market environment, the sector is
demanding that companies improve productivity and continually add value to their
operations, according to mining services consultancy pitt&sherry.
innovative companies, process optimisation and operational excellence in
mineral processing have become essential to securing a profitable future and
differentiation from their competitors.
optimisation and operational excellence have never been more important for
As outlined in Deloitte’s Tracking the Trends 2014,
mine operating costs continue to escalate and productivity in the industry has
dropped by up to 30 per cent since 2003, making application of innovative
methods that optimise operations imperative.
The success stories of process optimisation and
operational excellence in mineral processing are driven by innovative leaders
who challenge the status quo.
Leading process engineers identify opportunities within the
current operation that would not have been solved by traditional thought
processes by challenging long standing practices
These leaders go about systematically identifying
opportunities and then devising, implementing and interpreting diagnostic
testing programs to exploit the highest economic return from investment under
the prevailing conditions. This is generally an inherent, rather than learned,
skill of an inquisitive engineer.
Advances in process optimisation and
operational excellence can have focused or widespread effects on mineral
The targeted outcomes will generally concentrate on increasing
productivity, improving safety and management of environmental risks, lowering
operating costs and human factors.
According to the Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics (BREE),
productivity in Australia’s mining industry declined throughout the 2000s due
to factors such as rising costs, changing resource quality and volatile
These conditions have put innovation at
the forefront of process optimisation for mining companies aiming to lift
productivity through higher recoveries and/or grades, increased throughput or
improved asset management.
As a mine progresses through its life cycle and the plant
feed changes, the plant operation process should be continually reviewed and
adjusted to maintain optimum performance. This is where new or novel ideas are
required to deliver productivity gains and efficiency improvements through new technologies.
Process control (automation) of the operation is a key area
to attain operational excellence and maintain the plant at peak
performance. An innovative idea, implemented
at an Australian mine following consultation with pitt&sherry, involved the
complete automation and optimisation of the crushing, milling and flotation
circuit, inclusive of an in-house automatic gap adjustment on the secondary
crusher to maximise the equipment efficiency.
The float circuit was also fully automated with In Stream analysers,
level and air automatic control to maintain the target concentrate grade.
effect of these changes resulted in lower operational risk, increased productivity,
a 30 per cent reduction in power and labour costs ($/t), as well as stable
concentrate grades for downstream processing at higher overall recoveries.
Rising operating costs have increasingly become a burden for mining
companies over the past decade. To help combat this there are several approaches
an operation can pursue which have proven to reduce costs, explains Holder.
A prominent approach is to lower energy usage, which Deloitte says can represent around 40 per cent of a mine’s operating costs.
pitt&sherry has successfully lowered the energy usage at
mining operations by exploring different methods, including equipment
automation and improving asset utilisation, as well as optimisation (balancing)
of energy input through the crushing/grinding and milling circuits to achieve
the best outcome with the installed equipment.
Other cost reduction initiatives that have proven successful
have included grind size manipulation based on a geo-metallurgy review, use of
carbonaceous tailings for acid neutralisation, re-use of reject SAG mill balls,
and justified equipment replacements and upgrades through interrogation of
Often the biggest challenge in reducing costs comes from
operations which do not question their current operational performance because
‘it has always been that way.
Safety and environmental risks
Managing safety and environmental risks in the Australian mining
industry remains a priority for mining companies. It is also another area where
new or novel ideas of operational excellence deliver key benefits.
In mineral processing, cyanide is widely used for leaching
and pyrite depression, but is also emotive due to it being toxic for humans and
Holder initiated (with Orica) a federally recognised leading
practice in cyanide management for the Cyanide Mini Sparge System during an
operational excellence project at an Australian gold mine.
The outcome reduced the risk associated with cyanide mixing on-site
to less than one per cent of the original risk score.
The potential for mine personnel to have a significant influence on process
optimisation of an operation should not be underestimated, according to Holder.
Empowering an operation’s employees through consultation
and participation to identify issues and then resolve them to avoid repeats has
the ability to have a profound effect when optimising mineral processing
This will generally involve employee training and nationally
recognised education programs and motivating employees, which leads to flow on
effects such as improved site culture and a tangible reduction in incidents,
improved site ownership and operational efficiency.
By targeting and then realising outcomes in
these areas, mineral processing companies have the opportunity to establish
industry leading performance through a combination of sound strategy and
operational excellence, while creating value for shareholders and providing
However, achieving this with widespread results will require
several specialty services before the desired outcome is delivered, he
These services include facility and flowsheet inspections,
understanding of the geo-metallurgy, a review of each level of the operation,
interviews with site personnel, identification of system and process constraints,
determining the most effective modifications, automation opportunities, reviewing
manpower requirements, compiling a detailed improvement plan and implementing
agreed actions, as well as providing training and mentoring.
The mining industry is well known for its volatility, but
by adopting these measures resources companies have the opportunity to make
effective changes or improvements that will be sustainable and maintain market
competitiveness through differentiation.
*Richard Holder is the principal process engineer at pitt&sherry