Engaging conversation in the underground coal business was the key take-away from the latest lunch and learn session presented by Geoff Watson at MEC Mining. Ranging from technical experts to senior industry executives, the audience demonstrated some creative thinking when faced with longwall design and operational challenges.
I’m writing to you today from my my new desk in our open plan office. It’s quite a cosy layout, with everyone effectively sitting on one great big long centre desk. Prior to our move I had an enclosed office, which at the time I thought was great because nobody hear confidential phone calls or see my screen when. Well now I’m fully converted to open plan. It can get a little noisy as we don’t have any policies about silence and making phone calls in quiet rooms, and in fact, a little banter is encouraged. The brilliant part is that now everyone knows what is going on with everyone else’s work. Collaboration has really lifted and the time we spend in meetings has declined because you can just yell out. Everything seems to happen faster in this environment.
I started my career 18 years ago on a salary of $50,000 which was good money at the time. Mining was in a downturn and there weren’t too many jobs around. I sent 85 job applications and got one interview which thankfully went well and I got the job. Throughout the early part of my career a truck operator would get paid around $85,000 and most grads aspired to operating equipment for 6 months, motivated in large part by the extra money. Senior engineers in the 90’s were also actually mostly senior, many had aged enough to go a little grey or bald so it was understood that career aspirations would most likely take a while to play out.
During the mining boom years, the focus was on producing as much as possible from the resource to take advantage of higher prices. OEMs did very well selling the addition machinery required to achieve the extra production. So now that commodity prices are low and capacity is already installed, the main game of late has been to drive economies of scale by pushing production even higher. This approach carries a penalty that might not immediately be obvious.
MEC’s extensive experience and interaction with people in the resource industry means we have a comprehensive database of internal and external engineers suitable for a variety of roles.
In a truck shovel operation, all we ever talk about is the excavator. We schedule the excavator, measure it’s productivity, compare various models and make judgements about which ones perform best. But In fact, the excavator doesn’t put any material in the dump or stockpile, its the trucks that do all the work and incur most of the cost of moving the material. So we should really be looking at which is the best truck to use. Assuming that the truck and excavator size are appropriately matched (between 3 and 5 bucket passes to fill a truck), the performance of the excavator only comes into the equation during loading which is perhaps 2 minutes out of a total truck cycle time of 20 minutes. So if the excavator hits some hard dig and takes 3 minutes to load a truck, the excavator productivity will fall by 50% but the truck productivity will only fall by 5% which hardly affects the unit cost of the operation.
What is the biggest factor that you could control at an open cut coal mine to generate return? For me it would be loss and dilution. Small improvements deliver big increases in cash generation, usually at minimal or no additional cost. Commonly, most of the coal losses occur at top of coal as blast energy breaks up the coal and makes it difficult to separate cleanly from the waste. Big gains can be made by improving blasting practices to avoid fracturing the coal.
Extractive industries are, by the very nature, a set of defined and repeatable processes to meet the business objectives. Typically, within each process are Drivers eg. Labour Rosters, Geological and Geotechnical factors which impact negatively on business costs. Then there are the Levers eg. Physical factors, Process Cycle and Operating time and affecting rates and hence Productivity.
Decision making is often a complex series of processes which may result in a “less than optimal” business outcome. Whilst there are tools to support and rationalise the process such as Multi Criteria Decision Analysis, the real value can be realised and optimised using a Trade Off Study approach. The outcome is logical and auditable to inform the best decision for the business.
Most of us in mining will agree that we have too many meetings, using up too much of our time, but it’s really hard to do much about it. I would spend around half of my time in a meeting including some days that are wall to wall meetings. I often reflect that if had an extra hour each day to get the real work done, then that would make a material difference to my effectiveness. Now, I think that a lot of our time in meetings is wasted and we often subconsciously find ways to fill the meeting agenda to use the whole time slot.