To manage costs and grow revenue, several mining companies have increased their focus on offsite operation and planning over the last decade. Recent control measures including social distancing, lockdowns and travel restrictions, have accelerated the transition of services from mine sites to home offices.

As many of us adapt to remote working conditions, mining companies are realising the benefits of the paradigm shift and trying to understand whether this is a temporary measure or an opportunity that should be exploited further. Do we really need to hear the mill to know that our plants are working?

Greg Lane, Matt Pyle and Grant Ballantyne recently discussed why mining companies should consider remote support (the push and pull factors), outlined how to develop trust, explained how to increase value remotely, and provided examples of our previous successes in our webinar “Solving site challenges from the home office”.

Watch our webinar for more information.

Push and pull factors

COVID-19 has reinforced the need for diversity in operational improvement and the need to augment site-based activities with off-site services on an international scale. It is time for mining companies to look at what can and can’t be done remotely, identify and find solutions to the challenges of working remotely, and understand the benefits thereof.

Working remotely requires access to large amounts of operating data and the use of data analytics to assess trends, this the realm of big data. Big data provides the opportunity to analyse mass information and turn that information into insights and actions to improve project value. Over the last 40 years, a few mining companies have begun their journey into big data and how to leverage data to improve their operations, particularly through remote operation and planning. The industry’s big players have been leading the change. For example, Rio Tinto has developed remote systems in Western Australia and BHP’s has operation centres in Chile.

However, the flip side is that big data correlations can easily be misinterpreted, resulting in wrong actions. To use data for minimising risks and improving net revenue, it is critical to combine data with expertise and knowledge. When reviewed by the right people, often the most value lies in small data and getting the basics right. Such an approach can lead to quick and actionable insights often months or years in advance of big data projects.

Developing trust

One of the key challenges when it comes to remote operations is building trust between clients and consultants.

Service providers can achieve trust through effective communication, active listening to clients’ needs, challenging one another to align objectives, developing a clear scope of work, and most importantly, delivering implemented solutions rather than just recommendations. Ironically, developing a clear scope of work to allow actions to be delegated off-site, may not be such a bad thing for normal 'day-to-day' duties.

Increasing project value

A key focus for adding value at Ausenco is understanding the different value drivers for each operation. Often, there are quick wins to be had if the overall context of the operation can be understood and leveraged.

It is common that the overall focus areas and priorities compete across individual manager KPIs and responsibilities. Some tension is always required and should be expected between departments of mining, processing, and project management, which have competing objectives. However, it is important that decisions and outcomes are driven by optimising the overall value equation, rather than by operating to incorrect paradigms.

The key to challenging the paradigms is to understand that any project is not just a mill or a flotation circuit, but the entire value chain; from exploration, mining, processing and to market, including community, the environment and everything in between. "The Goal" as succinctly summarised by Eli Goldratt is to increase Project Value by maximising revenue whilst minimising operating costs and inventory (capital cost). This is the focus of any de-bottlenecking activity, whether on-site or remote.

Adding value remotely

Once the site context is understood, there are a range of opportunities to add value, including;

  • remote technical assistance and training
  • optimising the site (throughput or recovery) for maximum project revenue
  • technical planning and management
  • maintenance planning and management

The Ausenco method to a successful remote engagement typically starts with strong engagement with the site team. Subcontracting Ausenco employees to site or starting small can help grow the communication and trust. The next stage is to use the experience of the site team to build understanding of the site context and work with the site team to understand where the key opportunities are; sometimes they are already known however implementation may have been the barrier for various reasons.

Once the solutions are identified and the business cases identified, actions are prioritised based on ‘bang for buck’ and time to implement. Quick wins are generally a good place to start to ‘get runs on the board’ while implementation plans for medium and longer term solutions are actioned. Ausenco often works with our clients hand-in-hand to deliver not just a consultant-style report with recommendations, but the real solutions implemented on site and working. The final stage is to review the outcomes and the successes of the changes; did we do what we said, and did we get what we expected?

Examples of success

Ausenco has delivered value for our clients around the world in this way, on-site and remotely, for over 30 years. Some examples of remote value-adding include;

  • We increased throughput by 45%, uptime by 5% and recovery by 4% through an extensive program of on-site and remote support, at a copper operation in North Queensland .
  • We helped increase competent-ore throughput by 27% by modifying the SAG mill internals, optimising SAG mill control and providing on-site training at the Phu Kham Gold-copper Mine in Laos
  • We helped increase throughput by 25% by optimising the comminution circuit for different ore types and maximising asset utilisation, at a large gold mine in PNG.
  • We increased competent-ore throughput by 12% by providing advanced process control and onsite training to a large copper mine in Chile.
  • We reduced site maintenance costs by 17% for a lead-zinc concentrator in northern Australia by implementing reliability centred maintenance practices using our Rylson 8™ software.
  • We identified and are implementing a range of projects that increase recovery by +5% at a copper concentrator in Northern Queensland
  • We helped increase competent-ore throughput by 15% at Penasquito Mine in Mexico.

These and other examples of Ausenco’s successful remote operations using our methodology are discussed in more detail in our webinar Solving site challenges from the home office.

Webinar Recording