Miners understand scarcity and the impact it has on the value of commodities pretty well.
On the supply side, inadequate global supplies of tyres, explosives and equipment have certainly affected input costs while shrinking stocks of that other valuable resource – people – have seen costs spiral there, too.
The value assigned to training, which initially lagged well behind the rising worth of people, is also increasing.
From the (beleaguered) mine owner’s perspective, the scarcity of quality trainers and equipment to train on – both related to availability of spare capacity – is making the pain from wage inflation and skilled operator shortages more acute.
Simulator training is providing relief on a number of fronts.
Improved technology and, in particular, higher levels of simulator realism, is enabling developers of new projects to assess and train up “green” workers on various types of state-of-the-art equipment before the hardware arrives onsite.
That’s a big step for the industry because in parts of Africa, and places such as China, India and Laos, new operators are being asked – and will increasingly be asked – to go from riding bicycles to driving $2 million dump trucks.
And not just drive them but, to ensure the mine achieves world’s best practice operating standards, drive them safely, productively and without excessively damaging drive-trains, brakes, engines and other components.
America’s biggest copper producer, Phelps Dodge, has introduced equipment training simulators at six mines – the first at Morenci in Arizona in 2004 – and claims it can transfer estimated maintenance cost savings of $US1 million ($A1.3 million) a year at Morenci to the other sites.
The company says simulator-enhanced operator skills have been the biggest contributor to reductions in unscheduled maintenance events.
How does a mine owner know if its truck drivers are operating at world’s best standards?
One way to find out is to ask the simulator supplier.
Australian mining equipment simulator developer, Immersive Technologies, has supplied about 80 units to Phelps Dodge, Rio Tinto, Anglo American, Newmont Mining, BHP Billiton, Tata Steel and Thiess, and now has exclusive technical alliances with five of the world’s biggest manufacturers of mining machines, including the two biggest, Caterpillar and Komatsu.
The exchange of proprietary machine information has allowed Immersive to produce simulator training modules that are said to be the most advanced in the industry today.
Long-term use by large mining houses and contractors has produced a bank of operating data that can highlight best practice benchmarks for truck, shovel, excavator, dozer and wheel loader operators.
Immersive has also introduced in the past 12 months a global certification scheme for simulator trainers that effectively provides a benchmarking system for operation and use of the simulators.
For Equinox Minerals, which is developing the $760 million Lumwana copper project in Zambia, an investment in four Immersive simulators is aimed initially at getting 600 mainly inexperienced machine operators, and maintenance and support personnel familiar with the “virtual” Lumwana mine environment and fleet of big dump trucks and excavators – before the $160 million fleet arrives onsite.
Mining manager Jon Yelland says the advanced level of realism of the simulated equipment and mine layout will allow him to properly test the aptitude of trainees who have gone through preliminary assessment, and then start training future operators of the mine’s 240-tonne payload AC-drive dump trucks (which will work on an electric trolley-assist system), 515t hydraulic shovels and excavators, dozers and other equipment.
“The technology really has come a long way in the past five years or so,” Yelland said.
“As a training tool in the development phase of the project it’s going to give us a huge benefit, not only during the assessment of operators prior to the equipment arriving on site, but also getting them used to the equipment, the mine and things like the trolley-assist, which is going to be new to most of them.
“It would be physically impossible (otherwise) to train such a high number of operators in the time available.”
Lumwana is installing the biggest fleet of advanced equipment training simulators of any single mine in the world – a milestone that is likely to be surpassed in the near future by the likes of Olympic Dam in South Australia.
In countries making a large-scale transition to modern mining methods, including the latest high-capacity equipment, simulators are expected to play a significant role in assessing and training novice operators.
Yelland says exposing trainees to emergency scenarios – such as wet weather skids and engine fires on trucks – can only be achieved safely with simulators, a factor that also makes them a vital training aid for inexperienced personnel.
In more advanced mining centres, such as Australia, the US and South Africa, simulators are proving equally effective as emergency-response training tools, as well as in trainee assessment, fast-tracking skills development and correcting operator behaviour to reduce or eliminate practices that cause excessive machine and tyre wear.
At the Callide coal mine in Queensland, Anglo Coal expects to speed development of new dragline operators and remove the threat of damage to $A150 million draglines by training people on a state-of-the-art simulator developed with Immersive Technologies.
The unique simulator, which is likely to be adopted by BHPB and other coal producers, will enable Anglo Coal to halve the time it normally takes to bring trainee operators up to 75% or more of the skill level of an experienced operator, according to mine management.
They say the technology will help address the worsening problem of dragline operator shortages in the Bowen Basin, where a maturing workforce is threatening rapid depletion of the available skills pool.
* Richard Roberts is editor of www.highgrade.net