Greg Lane has been in the industry for more than 40 years, published more than 70 papers and is a recognised leader in minerals processing and comminution. He spends a significant amount of each year travelling and working with clients to improve the feasibility of their projects, and is equally passionate about helping the younger generations develop their skills.
Q. You’ve been working in the industry for more than 40 years, with 13 of those at Ausenco – what’s changed in engineering during that time?
The biggest changes during that time have been in the way we work and the speed at which projects are completed.
When I first started working (in the late 1970s) we communicated data by telex and we prepared memos and reports on typewriters. We did our designs and drawings with paper, a calculator and I still had a slide rule (look it up on Google). We checked calculations by hand and if we found errors we’d have to start again (this makes me feel very old).
Now, things are a little different. While the outcomes of a Study or engineering designs are similar, there is significantly greater detail required/expected in everything we do, and we manage changes, updates and risks very differently.
There are upsides and downsides in delivering more detail. Technology enables us to re-use designs, drawings and calculations and see our designs in 3D or virtual reality, ensuring improved precision and safety in design. This should lead to a reduction in contingent factors and greater surety for project owners and financiers.
Strangely, project delivery time has not decreased. In the 1990s, the 1 Mt/y Bronzewing gold plant was designed and constructed in 35 weeks, albeit with a kick start from a feasibility study and some pre-commitment of long lead items (mills and crusher). At the time companies like Minproc were doing up to six gold plants a year and project experience was gained rapidly. Now, small plants take over a year and up to 18 months because everything is done from scratch and the knowledge that facilitated confidence and speed in the 1990s has been diluted.
A large project can take five years from feasibility to commissioning. It takes a long time for engineers to get three projects under their belts and build knowledge and experience based confidence.
I believe it is important to remember it’s not the tools and technology that make a successful project. It’s the people who use them and the processes they follow that mean the difference between success or disappointment. A team needs to do more than adopt a cookie-cutter approach using previous projects and, at the right time in a project cycle, question whether there is a better option for each individual circumstance to get the best outcome, regardless of the technology you’ve got at your disposal.
Q. How has minerals processing changed during your career?
The fundamentals of grinding circuit design haven’t really changed since the 1960s. Flotation was first developed some 90 years ago for minerals separation and it’s still fundamental to many processes. It’s interesting that many of the technical papers written 20 or 30 years ago are still very relevant today.
What has changed is the way we use these processes to increase the size of plants, improve their efficiency and decrease production costs. The size of equipment (mills, cells) has increased linearly with time and will continue to do so. As the cost for people to run the plants has increased, the use of technology (type and scale) and automation has also increased.
We now have a much greater focus on the key issues of social licence and energy and water efficiency. In the plants we are designing today, whether they are optimisations, of brownfield plants or pre-feasibility studies for greenfield plants, there is a strong focus on reducing the use of energy and water to minimise the impacts on the environment and the surrounding communities.
Grinding and blasting are very energy intensive – how can we improve their efficiency? How can we improve our approaches in hydrometallurgy to reduce energy and water usage? How can we reduce water usage and improve our approaches to managing tailings? How can we reduce the footprint of the plant, which reduces steel, concrete, energy and capital infrastructure costs while also improving efficiency? These are just some of the areas in which we can make and have made a difference.
Q. What are your most memorable projects?
Over the years there have been a lot of them and of course many of the studies I’ve done have been confidential for one reason or another.
When we studied and constructed the 12 Mt/y Phu Kham project (US$240M) in Laos (2004 to 2008) it was (and still is) the lowest cost large copper concentrator ever built. It’s monsoonal, remote location also required an effective project delivery strategy. As with many projects, the outcome was exceptional but the delivery pathway was challenging and provided many “lessons learnt” from technical and project management perspectives. This project followed the delivery of the Sepon Copper project in Laos and the Chatree Gold project in Thailand and these projects established Ausenco as a competent and proven EPCM business in Asia.
The Lumwana Copper Project saw us complete the largest copper project in Africa in Zambia in parallel with Phu Kham. The team that delivered the engineering for this project notably used very few of Ausenco’s “systems”, other than AusDB, and took a “fit for purpose” approach delivering the engineering and design for the US$415M plant and infrastructure in 120,000 hours. The quality of the people is more important than the quality of a business’ systems!
The 25 Mt/y Constancia Copper Project in Peru (shown below) demonstrated our ability to deliver a major EPCM project (US$1.75B) in South America, at altitude, for significantly less cost than our major EPCM competitors. This project has led to our establishment of the largest major project engineering office in Peru. Ausenco has flourished whilst most of our competitors’ offices have shrunk or closed.
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