Once a struggling operation, the Newlands coal mine in central Queensland is the new record- holder of the highest tonnage produced in a year by an Australian underground coal mine. In calendar 1999, it churned out 5.55 million run-of-mine (ROM) tonnes, including 5.16Mt of longwall coal. Newlands also won the Australian minerals export award for 1999 after generating export sales revenue of more than $300 million.
It is an extraordinary turnaround for a mine senior MIM Holdings management once viewed as an embarrassment.
Newlands is part of the Newlands-Collinsville-Abbot Point operations (NCA), owned by MIM (75%) and Itochu Corporation (25%), which produced a combined 10.8Mt of saleable coal during the same period.
The operation's excellent output performance was achieved through careful planning and good equipment, but mentioned first and foremost by many spoken to on site is the perception that it is the people who were behind Newlands' success.
While it has become fashionable for many mines to pay lip service to their people, one sometimes gets the impression that managers would prefer not to have them there at all. This is not the case at Newlands. Management and the workforce have worked hard to cultivate a sense of common purpose and genuine teamwork.
Mine workers such as Ray Smith describe a sense of empowerment and ownership of responsibility that have come from reduced job demarcation. Communication, in both directions, is given a high priority. While some of this may sound like the jargon and concepts that bristle like echidna quills from any number of change-management consultants, there is a major difference at Newlands — these principles are actually in practice and clearly delivering results.
"We took the view that before we would commit any capital we had to get the management right," said MIM executive general manager, Mike Menzies, who oversees the group's mining operations from its Brisbane head office. "The Newlands results prove what you can achieve with a workforce once you gain their support is limitless," he said.
Staffing the mine with people with the right profile received the highest priority from day one and as a greenfields operation Newlands was able to employ "clean skins" along with a core of experienced operators, said NCA general manager, Mike Ryan. "We chose people for their attitudes," said human resources adviser, Melinda Thomas. "We looked for people who would contribute to a discussion and not just sit back and say nothing."
While its employees enjoy relatively more autonomy than many other operations, Newlands does not have self-directed work teams. "We have teams of high calibre people led by strong and respected leaders," Ryan said. The mine treated its statutory deputies as "genuine front line supervisors, who are involved in a lot of decision making and are true supervisors and leaders of their teams".
And because the statutory positions are not merely showcase positions, shift under-managers have been done away with, making the management structure remarkably flat. Face deputies report to superintendents who report to management. Related to this is the overwhelming perception of many of the 150 employees that problems at the mine are expediently handled.
The involvement of all levels of employees in the day-to-day functioning of the mine is most apparent in development performance. Newlands continues to hold the record for the highest development rate at an Australian mine (82.7m) in an eight-hour shift, achieved in November 1998. Other impressive records are 80m in a 10-hour shift and 106.2m in a 12-hour shift, both in December last year.
The development method is relatively simple. Coal seam extraction height in the roadways is 35m high by 5.2m wide. Joy 12CM12 continuous miners and shuttle cars develop a twin entry gate road system for longwall panels, installing four 2.1m roofbolts and W-strap every 1.5m of advance with one rib bolt per strap on each side.
Newlands assesses production hourly against pre-negotiated internal benchmarks. "We sat the guys down and said ‘given a perfect hour in the day how many metres could you cut?'," said longwall superintendent (previously development super), Andy Mifflin. "We came to the consensus that in a good hour we could do 6m. In a 10-hour shift, therefore, we should be able to do 60m, but we never get a perfect shift. We said ‘well hang on, if we get a shift where we lost two hours and got eight hours of perfect conditions then we should still be doing 48m'."
Viewing each productive day as a set of discreet blocks of time enables both management and operators to "zoom in" on delays, on a minute-by-minute basis. "Even if we had a four-hour delay we benchmark hourly against ourselves and we can see what we achieved the rest of the shift," Mifflin said.
Not only are reaction times to delays faster but feedback to operators is virtually constant, which functions as a subtle motivator; simple but effective psychology.
The attention given to development management and systems underlines the philosophical attitude that not everything revolves around longwall production.
"Historically in longwall operations if you need extra resources to add numbers to the longwall for changeouts, for example, you pull them off development. We don't do that," said mine manager, Alan Payne. "Development has clear ownership of the areas they are mining. Instead of treating them like the poorer second cousin they know they are equally important to production."
Similarly, maintenance at Newlands is conducted somewhat differently from many other longwall operations. Instead of conducting routine maintenance over weekends, when crucial OEM staffing is typically light and overtaxed, Newlands has daily maintenance windows between 7-11am Monday to Friday.
Dave Caulton, the mine's engineering and maintenance superintendent, said the system meant the mine was not dependent on who was available on weekends. The mine operates weekends on 12- hour shifts without maintenance windows. Output levels on Saturday and Sunday have been as high as 42,919t. Systems availability on the longwall averages 75%, according to Caulton, while machinery availability is more than 95%.
On the planning front, Newlands has taken care not to get into the same trouble as it did in late 1998 when block S4 was found to be unmineable because of the presence of an undetected fault. "The accepted technology of the day, surface to seam boreholes, did not pick up the fault which ran the full length of block S4," said planning manager, Paul Harrington. The 1.8km block was subsequently sterilised after only 271m of retreat.
After the experience of that hard lesson, Newlands is today a leading proponent of the use of 3D and 2D seismic technologies in predicting sub-surface strata. Brisbane-based Velseis recently conducted a seismic program over 5sq.km of the northern part of the lease.
Harrington said the results showed "every roll, every fault, every change in grade". Seismic had fundamentally changed the way planning was carried out at Newlands, he added.
Mining of new block S1 began in late February and by Easter the longwall is expected to run into the Cattlegrid fault. Early and precise detection of the fault by seismic will enable rapid implementation of surface to seam cement injection to pre-support the faulted area. Apart from identifying the precise location of the fault seismic also delineated its dimensions which allowed pre-supporting to be rigorously implemented — ultimately more cost-effective, if successful.