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Miner bets on tunnel boring

June 1, 2012
by Norm Tollinsky
In: Research with 0 Comments

Just as cellular technology leapfrogged wired telecommunications in much of Africa and Asia, automation using tunnel boring technology will leapfrog the mechanized drill and blast mining paradigm, predicts Mike MacFarlane, senior vice-president of technology and innovation with Johannesburg-based AngloGold Ashanti.

MacFarlane, who worked for Inco and Vale for 16 years, was hired in 2010 by AngloGold CEO Mark Cutifani, himself a former Sudbury-based Vale COO, to lead an ambitious research and development program for the South African-based miner.

MacFarlane expounded on the challenge facing AngloGold and the mining industry in a presentation to members of the Sudbury Area Mining Supply and Service Association April 3.

“In the ’60s, our mines in Sudbury were manual,” he recalled. “We had thousands of people, so when I went to South Africa, it was like going back in time. Here in Sudbury, we put 300 to 400 people underground. In South Africa, it’s more like 5,000 people.

“We’re faced with declining gold production, rising unit costs and we’re going deeper in a depleting resource. That’s the problem we have to solve.

“We came to the conclusion that we were leaving 40 per cent of the reserve behind in pillars to manage seismicity. We’re mining reefs and had to put a person in, so we made the openings 1.5 metres when the orebody was only 20, 30 or 40 centimetres, so we’re getting 200 per cent dilution.”

Additionally, “we have to take three cages to get to the bottom, so it’s like two to two and a half hours to the face and two to two and a half hours back. In South Africa, we’re currently at 12,500 feet on the way to 18,000 feet.”

The solution, said MacFarlane, “is to start mining all the gold, only the gold, and to mine all the time.”

Cost cutting

A focus on cost cutting has left the mining industry without the necessary resources to innovate at the same time that China, India and other developing economies are driving demand, he complained.

“The mining industry has been cutting costs and leaning out for the last 100 years. If you didn’t touch ore, you were eliminated. It was probably the right response up until the year 2000, but then the price signal told us to double production.”

The industry stripped out R&D, innovation and project management capacity, leaving it without the people to respond to the price signal, said MacFarlane.

“We have a major issue in front of us. We have to build a lot more capacity in a very short period of time.”

Boeing, big pharma and IBM are spending in the range of seven to 13 per cent of gross revenue on R&D, but the mining industry is spending a mere .2 per cent, he complained.

“The little bit that we’re spending is given to our suppliers to spend on our behalf and, let me tell you, they don’t have a vested interest in radical change because they have all this infrastructure that’s invested to keep the mining industry going in the same direction.”

MacFarlane, who lives in Sudbury, heads up a global technology consortium that draws on the expertise of people and companies around the world to make the transition from hand-held drill and blast to automated tunnel boring.

“It’s the collective effort of some 250 people who are part of a network, and each of them touches another 10 to 15 people, so it’s really the collective effort of thousands of people,” he said.

Adding tunnel boring expertise to AngloGold’s virtual consortium was easy, said MacFarlane.

“We just got on the phone and, a week later, we had 25 people in Johannesburg to help us redesign tunnel borers for mining.”

Cubex, Atlas Copco, Sandvik, Herrenknecht, Wassara, Hatch and Gijima are some of the companies AngloGold is working with.

Mechanized drill and blast won’t cut it, claims MacFarlane. “We’re not going to go down the path of big, rubber-tired mobile equipment. It’s too slow. We need much higher mining intensity. We cannot continue to mine the deposits we have at the rate we’re mining them. We have to triple the intensity if we have any hope of (meeting market demand).”

Mine design

The current mine design will also have to change to accommodate new technology, he said. So will the whole approach to innovation.

“The conventional approach is to put a bunch of ideas in a funnel and whittle them down, so senior managers are spending all their time weeding out ideas,” he complained. “You spend six years studying something and then they tell you ‘no.’ Our approach is to whittle down the ideas up front, right away – to get the good ideas and make them happen, so management’s time is spent making the idea bigger and making it happen faster.”

And not everything has to be invented, he added. New technology for mining can be borrowed, stolen and adapted from other industries.

“We want to attract the attention of companies that are now focused on aerospace and the auto industry, for example, and persuade them that the mining industry is a good industry to focus on. This gives us more people to pick from, a wider gene pool and more R&D money.”

Mining companies need to have a business model that recognizes innovation as a core competency, said MacFarlane.

“It can’t be part of the production process because as soon as you put it in an annual plan and you’re under production pressure, people are going to ask, ‘When are you going to deliver?” and innovation will just be gone. You have to allow innovation to live in harmony with the business plan because production people kill and eat innovation people.”

AngloGold foresees a three-stage roadmap for moving to new technology. In three to five years, the company expects to replace drill and blast technology with continuous processes and remove miners from the stopes. In five to 10 years, it hopes to “wire the machine for automation,” and in the more distant future, move to what it calls “gold on tap” using in-situ leaching.

In a presentation at the Investing in Africa Mining Indaba in Cape Town in February, AngloGold CEO Cutifani announced that a prototype would be ready for testing at the company’s Great Noligwa Mine in 2014.


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