Managing the Downturn: Now is the Time for Excellence in Operations
By Andrew Okely
Nowadays, with all of the current market uncertainties and talk of doom and gloom, some operators will be battening down the hatches, cutting costs wherever they can and waiting for the financial hurricane to subside. And now, more than ever, is time to start checking, controlling and analyzing the full supply chain, both up- and down-stream, thereby optimizing productivity and minimizing unnecessary costs. To do this effectively and efficiently, some investments may need to be made. If this is done properly, the savings generated will far outweigh the initial outlay. As always, in good times and bad, throughput is king, but it is now particularly important to look at the impact of process efficiencies on the bottom line. So, this article will review some of the techniques used to keep tons up, while minimizing investments.
Apart from improving wear life, some OEMs also strive for efficiencies in components such as power consumption savings or metallurgical recovery improvements. Examples that come to mind are flotation cell mechanisms, grinding mill liners, screens, pump liners and the like. With FloatForce, for example, Outotec’s new flotation mixing mechanism, it is designed for better wear life and easier maintenance. It also offers potential power savings up to 20% and optimized metallurgical performance.
In many cases, upgrading to the latest design when wear items are changed out can provide improvements in operating costs far beyond the cost of the component. It is good business sense to always ask an OEM about technology improvements before replacing wear items.
Review Concentrator Set-Up for Current
Ore Type and Throughput
In many cases, such a sudden change in commodity prices will lead to a change in mining strategy. Perhaps fewer tons at the same grade or at a higher grade, or even more tons at the same grade may be appropriate. Such changes are driven by mine economics but what about the concentrator?
In most cases any significant change in throughput or
grade will require modification of the plant set-up. Some
areas to examine include:
• Crusher setting if throughput or ore type changes.
• Target p80 if grades change.
• Grinding ball size if throughput changes.
• Number of flotation cleaner stages with feed grade amends.
• Froth crowder modifications in flotation cells at lower tons and/or grade.
• Size of flotation cell slurry control valves.
• Modified thickener feed rates may require optimization of thickener settings.
• Are all the pumps still suitable?
In many cases, the best people to advise on changes to technology set-up are the original designers. If the mill faces a significant change in plant throughput or ore grade, then it is always prudent to generate a new mass balance and compare it to the original design criteria. There is nothing worse then changing a mining strategy to survive in a downturn, only to see the concentrator efficiency lose the planned gains when a few relatively inexpensive changes could have made all the difference.
Training, is it Up to Date?
With far less staff turnover than during the boom, and job cuts on the horizon, a reduced workforce needs to be operating at its best. Now is the best time to ensure that operators and maintenance staff are well trained on the technology used in the concentrator. The effectiveness of the staff is never more apparent than in tight times, when it is particularly essential to have a competent and skilled workforce. Correctly operating a plant will improve throughput and recovery and minimize maintenance. Many OEMs offer training programs, with content targeted specifically to a particular site’s technologies and needs—either on-site or off.
Spare Parts Management
During boom times many operations suffered from high staff turnover. One of the many downsides is the potential for confusion in the spare parts area. In a downturn it is important to know exactly what parts are on site, what they are for, and where to source replacements in a timely manner. It is never desirable to be airfreighting parts for a shutdown, but this is particularly so when margins are thin. Equally, it is important to know what parts are imported and impacted by currency fluctuations. An OEM spares manager is a good source of support in managing these issues. In many cases, they may have better records of items such as part numbers, how often parts need to be replaced and their lead times. So, now is the time to ensure your spare parts list is up-to-date.
Talk to Technology Partners
Tap into the expertise and knowledge of those whose core competencies are key deliverables on site. After all, these are the very people who should have best practices and advice on how to, say, audit and optimize the operation of the thickening circuit or manage construction planning, on-site management or even installation and commissioning. This leaves a (probably reduced) workforce to the job in hand. The needs could even be something as simple as questioning how to protect the integrity of the bubbles in the flotation cell in a high wind area (the answer could be a simple and inexpensive one; i.e. install a wind guard). Some may question the use of external companies in times like these, but, avoid panic by knowing whom to contact. This is time and money which could not be better spent.
Which brings us to the last point. Sudden changes can lead to decisions being made in a hurry without necessarily consulting all sources of available information. It is important to remember that the fabric of the industry and its proven record of innovation has not disappeared simply because commodity prices have fallen. Talk to the workforce, industry contacts, suppliers, technology partners—look for ideas on efficiency improvements in the operations together. Andrew Okely is manager–minerals processing technologies for Outotec Pty Ltd. in Australasia.