Keeping engineers on top of their game

HAVING talent and skill in the industry is one thing – but keeping those skills fresh is another. Colorado’s Overland Conveyor is helping to ensure those who design and analyse belt haulage needs stay a step ahead of the curve.
Keeping engineers on top of their game Keeping engineers on top of their game Keeping engineers on top of their game Keeping engineers on top of their game Keeping engineers on top of their game

Blasting at ConsMin's Woodie Woodie operation.

Donna Schmidt

“We believe good training is extremely important to the industry,” said OCC president Mark Alspaugh. “In our consulting business, we are always finding problems with equipment which would have been easy to solve during the equipment design, component selection or installation phases.

“Unfortunately, solving equipment problems after they are running is sometimes very difficult and expensive. Many people can design equipment, but designing highly reliable equipment which is imperative to our industry requires knowledge and critical thinking skills.”

Technical education training was on the minds of Overland’s founders before the company itself was a gleam in their eye. However, said Alspaugh, “we saw our industry’s technology progressing at an increasing pace and engineers did not have many opportunities available to help them keep up.”

When Overland Conveyor became a reality in 1996, the ideas and desires to further the training opportunities became a reality.

“From our founding to 2000, our company was small and we accomplished our training goals by teaching workshops and short courses sponsored by other organisations such as the University of Wisconsin Continuing Engineering Education division, the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME) and the Society of Mining, Metallurgy and Exploration (SME). These courses confirmed our belief the need was there.”

As time went on, though, they wanted to offer a more focused training for students – and designed their own curriculum for it. They then embarked on trips around the US to teach their courses.

The classes were most successful when conducted in an interactive manner, Alspaugh said, yet the logistics of computer availability added stress for both the instructors and the students. Now trainees come to them, and he said the change has been successful.

“In 2006, we moved into larger offices and were able to build our own in-house training centre, complete with state-of-the-art computer workstations pre-loaded with appropriate software. With this facility, we have increased our focus and will be expanding our training programs as 2007 progresses,” Alspaugh said, noting that due to the topics and interactive nature of the classes they are all held in a person-to-person style instead of virtually.

He added that the positive growth of the courses fits in perfectly with the objectives Overland Conveyor laid out at its inception: “When developing our company’s initial mission statement, the idea of providing good, practical training opportunities to our industry was immediately adopted.

“As a consulting company, knowledge is our main asset and it is not uncommon for consultants to be protective of their expertise, but our goal is to help our clients be as knowledgeable as possible.

“Of course, this benefits our clients but it also helps us in two ways: our clients develop an understanding of when they need specialised consulting expertise such as ours, and it forces us to constantly expand our knowledge base.”

The courses, for which Alspaugh said the class sizes are normally limited to about 10, are split up into two areas: belt conveyor training and bulk material flow numerical modelling.

“As our company name implies, belt conveyors are our main focus,” he said.

“Belt conveyor training is then broken down into software training, general design, and sometimes by industry – for instance, we offer a special workshop for underground miners as their problems and equipment can be very different from surface miners.

“Our second area of expertise is in bulk material flow numerical modelling and simulation software tools. This is a spin-off of the belt conveyor industry, as OCC pioneered the use of Discrete Element Modelling (DEM) to the design of belt conveyor transfer points.”

Alspaugh said the tools used in this sector have been met with such positive feedback and success that the company has decided to expand it to cover other types of bulk material handling and processing equipment. “We are currently working on simulating other mining machinery, such as continuous miners,” he noted.

No matter the course, he said, Overland makes it a point to provide sufficient instruction and one-on-one time for trainees. “We try to always have at least two instructors on hand to assist in the hands-on exercises. Small classes allow a lot of open discussion and feedback, which is imperative for attendees to develop critical thinking skills.”

The software training for OCC’s Belt Analyst courses are offered every quarter in the form of an introductory, intermediate and advanced class, and Alspaugh said the classes are full the majority of the time. The company is also available for special needs training: “We will also provide custom classes at a client’s location on request; these onsite classes usually have between five and 20 attendees.”

For an engineer to be successful, according to Overland, they must realise that the answers are not always black and white – one must be able to think critically in every situation.

“What makes conveyor engineering so interesting to us is that most challenges we face are unique in some way. No two mining conveyors seem to ever be the same,” Alspaugh said.

“Solving these challenges efficiently usually means understanding and applying the science in a unique way. This means our training must include more than what’s in a book.”

Meanwhile, he defines critical thinking as “a process of reflecting upon the meaning of statements, examining the offered evidence, reasoning and forming judgements about the facts within the context of the entire mining operation”. It is the best students, he said, who use their observations and experience along with communication and reasoning ability, and compile it with the information that’s being given to them traditionally.

Alspaugh said the company doesn’t always equate the most technologically advanced trainees as the best students.

“We feel technology can sometimes get in the way of good engineering training,” he said, adding that the technology can actually be detrimental to the development of critical thinking.

Looking forward, he said Overland Conveyor continues to grow and expand with both its software training programs and engineering training. This year, it will be offering certifications for its software programs, which will be available to individuals or companies.

“We hope this program will give companies hiring younger engineers a program to here to read on.