Australia’s Longwalls: Three years ago, respondents remarked on the growing role of consultants in strategic decisions in Australia's underground coal mining industry. How has the role / use of consultants changed over the last three years with the mining sector consolidation? How do you see roles developing in the future?
Strata Engineering Pty Ltd has moved ahead over the last three years by partnering with its clients to improve mine site strata control and mine design practices. An end-product of this service to the mines is improved reliability of supply to their customers. Fit for purpose strata control design and ongoing design upgrades to suit variations in geotechnical conditions require regular review.
How competitive do you see consultancy rates vs costs for permanent employees? What are the key factors determining why consultants are used and how do you expect these factors to change in the future? How will these changes impact the way consultants do business and the nature of consulting?
Consultants bring much more than cost effective solutions. They also bring an industry-wide database to local issues. Many issues re-occur in regional coal basins and across the industry. The experience offered by consultants therefore tends to be complementary to in-house expertise (both technical and operational). If a company considers the outcomes they require (e.g. longwall continuity and reliability of supply) then the cost of ensuring a well designed and managed strata control system is cheap insurance against inadequate attention being paid to this strategic imperative of the business.
AL: An emerging issue is the impact of increased professional indemnity insurance premiums on consultant’s ‘license to operate’. Some smaller companies have chosen to operate with no cover. What is your company position on this issue and how has it affected your company?
In such a “high profile” business as mine design, ground control and strata management, professional indemnity is regarded as simply part and parcel of doing business. Strata Engineering is and always has been a risk management orientated business with a focus on a diligent approach to geotechnical problems and a disciplined internal (peer) review process.
AL: Please comment on the impact on consultants of corporate governance protocols that mining companies are introducing.
Corporate Governance protocols are now an important part of the international business landscape. Strata Engineering follows the Australian Institute of Company Directors protocols in corporate governance. The company follows a Corporate Governance Statement and a Directors Code of Conduct.
AL: How has the issue of ‘sustainable mining’ impacted on your business? And what impact has it had on your clients?
Sustainable Mining is about attitude to the lifecycle of mining properties. Reliability and optimisation of mine design, as well as subsequent ground control are crucial to the effective utilisation of the natural resource, whereas subsidence prediction, assessment and mitigation are vital in managing and addressing the concerns of the broader community. The company therefore has a major role in assisting its clients in sustainability. Some clients are however at the other end of the mining lifecycle, i.e. building on previously mined areas. New developments in Newcastle require the interface between old mine workings and surface development to be understood in regard to multi story building foundations. This is a real life example of achieving sustainability of land use after mining for the benefit of the community.
AL: What has been your experience with regards to international vs Australian work? How do you see this trend going into the future?
Strata Engineering has recently undertaken work in NZ, South Africa and the UK, however its core customer base remains is Australia. We seek to support our Australian producers in achieving production efficiencies and reliability of supply. We do not wish to dilute our efforts by trying to be “all things to all people”
AL:Three years ago consultants expressed concerns about the industry’s ability to adequately replace the aging experience base. How has the industry shortage of experienced personnel impacted your business?
Developing the next generation of geotechnical engineering capability is a role we all have to play. Strata Engineering is assisting the UNSW with lectures and course material. We also employ young graduate engineers and geologists, training them in our specific knowledge base. This is costly, but necessary to sustain the future and is regarded as one of our key contributions to sustaining a competitive coal industry in Australia.
AL: As in corporate mining offices, many consultants active in the industry have not been operators for quite some time. What are the key measures available to consultants to remain current in industry? How do you view looming professional engineer registration impacting this?
Continuing Professional Development (CPD) and accreditation is the normal mechanism in any profession for its practitioners to keep their knowledge and skills current. The Australasian Institute of Metallurgy Chartered Professional status is an example and the Mine Managers Association of Australia is another.
AL: On the question of productivity gains, a recurrent theme in 2001 was regular shortfalls in longwall mine output compared with nameplate capacity. Today poor utilisation still dogs the industry: consulting company McAlpine B calculated a 9% drop in average utilization in 2003, to around 41%. In your opinion what, if anything, has changed? And where could mines better channel energy/resources?
Longwall mining is about planning the process, measuring against the plan and continued improvement of the process. Ground control is both a core risk and an area of great opportunity, and needs to be viewed as such on a continuing basis.
AL: The last few years have seen the use of more and more advanced technologies in mining. To name only a few: 3D seismic has had a huge impact in resolving structures ahead of mining; computer technology continues to have a major impact, from bringing real-time monitoring of mining closer to improving communications systems underground. From your point of view, which tools (existing or conceptual) hold the most promise, in terms of safety or productivity? And why?
Whilst there is still much we as an industry can and must do with existing technology and know-how, it is clear that safety and productivity can both be enhanced by real time communications and monitoring. In a world without email and the internet, business would slow down and productivity would decrease. What are we doing in underground coal mines about enabling technology?
AL: Given remarkable progress in the existing ACARP funded longwall automation project, do you think we’re any closer to seeing an automated or partially automated longwall in the near future?
History says that longwalls (and other aspects of the mining system) will become more automated with time however, it is more than a technology issue; it is also an uptake of technology and operators skill.