A way forward for Australia's longwalls

TREAT the longwall as a business, separate from development and from mine services. Longwall operators needed to consider their mines as a business unit, there to make money. Simply producing large volumes of coal was not enough if a mine was not making a profit. This was the message from Brian Nicholls, one of the speakers at the 4th annual Australian longwall mining summit held in Yeppoon, Queensland, in late March.

Staff Reporter

Nicholls has consistently argued that poor utilisation of equipment is one of the major issues hampering Australian longwall production. In examining the latest Joint Coal Board production statistics for calendar 2000, Nicholls makes the point that only 11% of Australian longwalls exceed the 4 million tonne bracket and 53% of all Australian longwalls are still producing less than 2 million tonnes per year (ROM. coal).

Nicholls said there were certain issues which could help achieve satisfactory performance, including geotechnical/geological, industrial, management, performance payments, maintenance issues, equipment supplier support/partnerships, automation, environmental monitoring/use of new materials.

According to Nicholls, mining plans needed to be underpinned with a substantial collaborative effort in geological, geotechnical and mining engineering.

“The shallower measures being mined in the Bowen Basin lend themselves to serious, concentrated surface exploration of areas of coal down to the definition of individual longwall block structures. Failure to dedicate resources and money to these requirements will put high volume longwalling at risk,” he said.

The longwall management team must be involved in planning, as well as continual up-dating of face and gate road data is essential. This information needed to be communicated to the production team.

“The provision of daily face profile data, horizon planning and gate end preparation by secondary support will reduce the operational problems substantially.

“Effective geological and geotechnical management is essential in both coal fields. It is unfortunate that the acceptance of this sort of management tool has been slow to arrive in some parts of the longwall industry. The availability of injection systems and improvements in various stabilisation products were tools longwall miners should utilise,” he said.

On the industrial front, Nicholls was critical of the role of the deputy in many Queensland mines. Current Queensland legislation gave the deputy, who is usually a member of the CFMEU in Queensland, considerable supervisory and industrial power.

As Nicholls pointed out: “You cannot expect a deputy with statutory obligations to run a longwall face efficiently. Statutory officials should be separated from having operating responsibilities.”

For Nicholls, the system of ‘face bosses’ as used in the UK is one option and something he has introduced into a few Australian longwall operations in the past.

As he pointed out: “At the end of the day, the employees have no direct responsibility for the fiscal health of the business, nor are they ultimately accountable for the safety record of the operation.”

Nicholls said equipment operators should better understand the equipment they operate. ‘Operator technicians’ combined operating ability with engineering knowledge and tended to better understand the limits and capabilities of their equipment.

Increased accountability for management should be introduced and results rewarded with payment incentives that include cost and safety components.

“The overall base performance needs to include utilisation factors which reflect on standards, cycle times and raw coal quality. Concentration should be on reliable and consistent performance to achieve better results in the longer term, rather than counting on peak performance to mask true performance.”

Looking ahead, Nicholls believes preventive maintenance will become mandatory, rather than the present system where a high percentage of maintenance is as the result of equipment breakdown. Longwall teams will have to be trained to understand the complexity and design reasoning behind the ever more powerful equipment they use.

“Maintenance supervisors should not be restricted to maintenance shifts where nothing’s going wrong. You get the best results having these guys on the production cycle.”

Finally, Nicholls said operators needed to be receptive to changes such as increased emphasis on alliance partnerships with equipment suppliers, which must be of longer term benefit to both parties, and greater levels of automation.

“Service contracts tied into the purchase contract will result in lower cost,” he said.

ILN will review the conference papers presented at the summit and highlight emerging issues, from April 9.