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With the range of risks currently facing the mining sector across Africa, investors need a new mine development model that gives quicker returns and allows more flexibility; METS International Managing Director Murray Macnab says ‘modular’ is the way to go, and his company is prioritising these kinds of solutions.

Seen here (from left) are Murray Macnab, Erik Bruggink and Frank Delaney, all of METS.

“There is an urgent need to find alternatives to our traditional way of starting and building mines, if we want to re-invigorate the minerals sector,” says Macnab. “The appetite for large, expensive projects with long lead-times and uncertain rates of return is simply no longer there to the extent that it was; investors want projects that will deliver results more quickly and with lower levels of risk and capital– and it is quite possible to achieve this.”

He says the required shift is to reduce a project’s time to market, which in turn needs quicker planning, greater reliance on proven off-the-shelf systems, lower cost and better risk mitigation in the project design.

“Based on my experience of over 35 years in the sector, I am confident that at least a six-month reduction in the lead-time of mining projects could boost the industry’s project pipeline by 25 % – that is how revolutionary the impact could be on the whole mining value chain. Then another six-month reduction on build time due to modularisation and we are in the pound seats,” he says. “We need to remember that there is still plenty of remaining value in our ore bodies, even in South Africa where so much mining has already taken place. They did not completely mine out all the shallow ‘lower grade’ seams and they left a lot of value behind for future generations. This leaves space for junior miners to enter the market.”

Indeed, it is in South Africa where he sees so much immediate opportunity – and not just in unmined ore bodies but in the hundreds of ‘waste’ rock dumps and tailings dams on surface which have value left in them. The use of modular process plants, he says, is a vital strategy in making this vision a reality, as these technologies provide cost-effective solutions to significantly reduce geological, operational, political and financial risk for junior and senior miners alike.

“Mining projects are generally high-cost and relatively high-risk ventures – and the longer they take to plan and implement, the costlier and riskier they become to investors,” says Macnab. “For this reason, we are looking to introduce solutions that will considerably shorten the time needed for designing, fabricating, erecting and commissioning of processing plants.”

From changes in government policy to variations in geology, there are many factors that can derail a project and put investments at risk, according to Erik Bruggink, Divisional Director at METS PROJECTS.

“That is why METS is developing a range of pre-designed and pre-sized modular process packages that can be supplied at relatively short notice off the shelf – and include a number of high volume applications (leach, CIL etc) in addition to the historical comminution and gravity-based plants,” says Bruggink.

He emphasises that modular does not have to mean small with low throughput; rather, the ideal process solutions employ proven crushing, milling and thickening technologies that can be easily scaled up as the application demands. In addition to fast mobilisation, advantages include the ability to establish on site with little more than a compacted area or a concrete screed and being able to quickly relocate the facility as the need demands.

“The limited footprint of a modular plant also adds to the flexibility of where to locate the facility, and drastically cuts the amount of civils and infrastructural work required on site,” says Bruggink. “Most importantly, the capacity and spectrum of the plant can be adjusted to suit unexpected variances in geology, grade or other factors related to the ore resource.”

As the plant is not a permanent fixture, it remains a project asset – to be relocated as conditions demand – rather than a ‘sunk cost’ that may have to be abandoned in a worst-case scenario.

“With these and other benefits, the modular option supports a whole new financial model for initiating mining projects in a country like South Africa,” he says. “Consider the value inherent in a rock dump or tailings dam where gold, copper, base metals or platinum group metals have historically been mined; the residual mineral grades in that material may represent considerable value, especially now that processing efficiency has advanced in the intervening years.”

Bruggink highlights the opportunities for a mineral project developer – unencumbered by mining costs – to establish a cost-effective and flexible modular process plant to treat ‘waste’ material as a commercial enterprise; where such material exists alongside a closed underground or opencast resource, the waste re-treatment may even generate the cash-flow to assess and exploit the in-situ deposit.

The modular philosophy at METS does not stop at process plants, says Macnab, and extends through to other aspects of the company’s design and project capabilities – including mine headgears for underground operations, settlers and crushers alike.

“The design, manufacturing and construction of the headframe is another costly and time-consuming aspect of the mine establishment process, so any game-changing mining model must definitely address ways of cutting time and cost on this front,” he says. “That is why we are developing off-the-shelf headframe designs to cater for the two key considerations of almost every underground mine: depth and hoisting capacity.”

With the hands-on experience of over 100 headgears during his career to date, METS DESIGN Divisional Director Frank Delaney says it is now possible to offer an almost standardised design for each of four step-changes: shafts of up 500 m; shafts of 500 to 1 000 m deep; shafts between 1 000 and 1 500 m; and shafts between 1 500 and 2 000 m.

“The design is based mainly on the depth from which hoisting will take place, so that we know the sizes of the steel ropes (which equates to break strength and sheave diameters), and the production rates required to be hoisted (which equates to winder selection),” says Delaney. “These parameters provide the broad range within which our design will safely accommodate the anticipated loads and forces without the whole design process starting from scratch for each shaft.”

He emphasises that substantial savings can be achieved by standardising the basic headgear design and employing the proven hoisting systems and technology that are trusted industry-wide.

“This design approach even allows us to have accurate estimated headframe costs on hand – for each category of depth and hoisting load – for project planners to build into their feasibility studies,” says Delaney. “And by updating these prices annually in line with related cost fluctuations, mining projects can quickly and easily get access to vital data that would otherwise rely on a lengthy and costly headframe design process for estimates for a project that may or may not go ahead.”

Macnab says the cost-effectiveness of the modular route is likely to raise interest not just among mineral project start-ups, but also among mines that are needing to concurrently ‘clean up’ the environmental risk posed by their waste dumps and tailings storage facilities or temporarily increase production.

“South Africa does not have a dying mining industry – it is very much alive, and the opportunities are there for modular strategies to be employed both in scalable process plants and in underground mining through headframe and hoisting technology,” says Macnab.

Contact Modern Mining

Title: Editor
Name: Arthur Tassell
Email: mining@crown.co.za
Phone: +27 11 622-4770
Fax: +27 11 615-6108

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Name: Bennie Venter
Email: benniev@crown.co.za
Phone: +27 11 622-4770
Fax: +27 11 615-6108

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