Tackle constraints to improve process productivity

By Ivan Mullany |

In mining, there’s a race to improve process productivity. But it’s a little unorthodox. Everybody wants to come in second. 

The quest for new, innovative processes is opening up brand new playing fields—ones that everyone wants to join in and improve. But someone has to start the first game. Someone has to create the first product or develop the new strategy that sets everything in motion. And, if experience is any teacher, companies that are the frontrunners in defining and producing that new, better alternative will always be, well…in front. 

Is there a better way? Always. Every new idea, tool, technology or process that comes to the marketplace makes that promise. In mining, there can be many ways to get more out of older operations. But newer ones can almost always be improved, too.

As engineers and consultants, our job is to help companies comb through the current intel and make informed decisions about the best solutions to their particular problems. To improve mining processes—make them faster, safer, more economical—we need to innovate. We should be constantly surveying the marketplace, trying to understand what the industry needs today and anticipating what it’ll need tomorrow and five years from now. Then coming up with new and better solutions, processes, and services to meet them. We need to be thinking ahead, watching for that next, best idea or opportunity. Moving the needle on productivity, capital intensity, energy efficiency, and mining intensity. But that’s only half the answer. The other is getting our mining clients to see the potential our ideas have to improve their operations.

We all like to be comfortable. And the more established we are, the more comfortable we get. Like old dogs lying on soft cushions in the warm sunshine. They want to stay with what’s familiar and safe, even if the weather gets a little cloudy and their beds a little lumpy. We probably all have systems, processes, and ideas that are embedded in our cultures. Maybe some groupthink that needs to be shaken up, or at least tempered, if new ideas are ever to see the light of day. That kind of change takes time.

One approach we’ve found to be successful is to take our clients’ staff members through workshops that identify constraints. Their preconceived notions can stymie you. But your own biases can lock you out, too. Fight the tendency to start offering solutions right off the bat. Yes, working through that list of constraints can be time-consuming. You’ll probably need multiple episodes to get them to start seeing things differently. But once the “yes, buts” are laid out on the table and acknowledged, it’s easier to move past them. Companies will be more willing to consider new designs or solutions. To recognize their value and how they might apply to their operations. The prize for your patience will be a portfolio of opportunities that haven’t even been looked at before.

Some ideas may be farfetched. Companies often don’t want to take on risk, especially in times of economic downturn or restraint. If the risk is too great, you may need to dial back a little to a level that’s more acceptable and manageable. Good consulting engineers help companies see the value in the risk. We don’t just trade in new ideas, but in our ability to innovate and share those innovations across the industry. We get out in front by articulating value and risk in ways that resonate with our clients. In ways that help them make informed decisions that weigh the pros and cons of the situation as it applies to them.

Find new ways to look at old problems. In our ultraconnected world, the internet of things is giving us cars and refrigerators that talk to us. There’s so much more—and new—information we can link up, harness, and use. Until recently, mining operations weren't able to see what was happening underground until the written reports and logs were sent up days, even weeks, later. Now, in real time, we can measure all the 50-to-100 tasks that take place every day in an underground mine, look at actuals vs. plans, and immediately take steps to adjust the process when that’s what’s needed.

Try engaging a confluence of experts. If you want new ideas and new ways of doing things, talk to people who do new things, or do them differently. My company constantly pulls from our experience and technical know-how in other areas and applies it to mining processes.

Our energy experts have shown us how to harness renewable energy more efficiently. With greater electrification, mines can reduce their dependence on diesel fuel. Fewer emissions need less ventilation. That means lower costs and improved safety. Batteries are improving dramatically, too. There could be a multitude of spin-off effects in that area that could let us design a very different kind of mine.

Process engineering can help us find new ways to streamline operations. Typically, mining is a batch process, a series of discrete steps. If we can make it more continuous, the drifts and access tunnels get smaller. That means smaller pieces of equipment, and maybe fewer of them. That’s less capital-intensive.

Infrastructure advances can teach us how to connect things and systems better. Information technology can give us instant access to data. Human resources can help us find the right skill sets and make the best use of them. Environmental sciences can show us how to make our mines more sustainable, legally compliant, and leave smaller footprints in the communities where they operate.

Draw on other disciplines that can add the most value to what you’re trying to accomplish. Use them all. Don’t be afraid to try combining tools, strategies, and expertise in new and unusual ways. See where it takes you.

New tools aren’t the answer to every problem. Sometimes, taking a crusher out is better than adding a new piece of equipment. Start by improving and making the most of what the mine has now. Drive out all the potential the existing system can sustain. Comminution efficiency can save an operation millions of dollars. Reduce energy needs, and the company has those savings forever. Think local. Start small.

Working through constraints opens your options for process improvements in whole new ways. Ones that are less costly. That can save time and enhance safety. That can drive innovation and dramatic improvements in production.

Often, the best answers are found not when the sky is the limit, but when our backs are to the wall. When we’re caught between a rock and a hard place. That’s a space we miners know very, very well.