No room for plan B

MINE planning is one of the most important factors in keeping costs under control on mines. It's what almost all the other costs are based on, so it is little wonder so much investment is going into it.
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Staff Reporter

While mine planning technology has made big advances in recent years, there are still many challenges facing miners planning a mine.

Doug Sisson, of Perth-based mining software specialist Datamine, told International Longwall News' sister publication MiningNews.net that ore body knowledge was one of those challenges.

"Most mining companies struggle with modelling grade distribution and structure, but modern mine design requires an understanding of geo-metallurgical, geotechnical and hydrological factors as well, most of which are poorly understood," he said.

Datamine's customers include Anglo American, AngloGold Ashanti, Anglo Base Metals, Anglo Platinum, Rio Tinto, CVRD, Codelco, BHP Billiton, Phelps Dodge and Xstrata.

Sisson said there was also an increasing need to take the uncertainty in the geological model into account when designing at a strategic level, and that there was a growing need for increased strategic planning capability.

"Mining engineers are being asked to answer ever harder corporate 'what if' questions about the impact of say, increasing production. For example, 'double the plant capacity starting 2012'.

"This means they cannot simply reschedule existing designs; they need to have a fundamental re-think of the design itself.

"This is often a job that far exceeds capacity of the long-term planning staff and they have to make very serious pronouncements based on very little groundwork."

Richard Durham, from the Australian Centre for Geomechanics, agreed, telling MNN the classic challenge of mine planning was risk.

"You're planning over several years, and it's very hard to predict what all the various parameters are going to be in one year's time, let alone five and 10 years," Durham said.

"But you have to make a guess, and ideally make allowances for the risks involved in those guesses.

"Very broadly, those parameters are the revenue and costs, and the revenue is related to commodity prices and exchange rates, which is related to supply and demand. And costs are obviously the equipment you're using, power and fuel."

Sisson said optimising a mine plan for maximum net present value while meeting other constraints (product specification, truck hours, plant capacity, etc) is a huge mathematical task that needs to be done by people who know what they are doing, and done with systems that use an optimising engine appropriate to the task.

He said governance could also be an issue.

"Most mining houses still struggle with efficient organisation of their data and processes, and this leads to governance issues about the integrity of the result.

"Safety at all levels is [also] being taken seriously – from data capture right through to engineering decisions."

Durham said a major trend in the mine planning game was the growing move towards computerisation, with the major suppliers developing increasingly sophisticated and specialised programs and packages.

Sisson said another trend is a lack of skills, which is the main problem for most organisations, so the industry is increasingly outsourcing jobs.

So, what does the future hold for mine planning?

Much more automation of processes, says Sisson.

He said this automation would range from data collection (automated mapping, core logging and grade sampling) through to communicating the mine plan (blast plan, ore control, dig line delineation, etc) directly to the equipment.

"Improved knowledge as the result of technology advances can have a dramatic impact on mine design," he said.

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