FLSmidth conveyor system at the Mae Moh lignite mine in Thailand. Credit: FLSmidth
Over the last few years, there has been a perceptible upsurge in interest and increased investment in in-pit crushing and conveying (IPCC) solutions in mining. This trend is noticeable across many commodities where the reduction of truck fleets is one of the main motivators for customers to contemplate IPCC solutions.
The advantages of a decreased truck fleet help answer some of the wider issues in the mining industry. For example, IPCC can help lessen the wide-ranging workforce recruitment problem, which many mines in isolated areas face. This often makes it extremely difficult to maintain a sizable truck fleet as people are required to operate the machines.
A changing mining mindset
Another element speeding up the implementation of IPCC systems in mines is the growing drive towards the digital mine: A mine with reduced or completely eliminated truck traffic makes the application and standardization of digitalization much easier. This is due primarily to the fact that there is less equipment to be connected and managed – but also because all elements of an IPCC system are perfectly adaptable and standardized to a specific digital approach. So overall, customers are unquestionably viewing conveyors as a very economical alternative to trucks, while operators can see how this can be the most economical and forward-thinking approach when moving material from point A to B.
Over the past few decades, mine operators turned to shovel-and-truck without considering alternatives. Now, however, the game is really changing: practically every greenfield project, every expansion project and even brownfield operations investigate alternatives to shovel and truck. The most interest is coming from mining companies that have already introduced conveyors previously – they fully understand the savings that can be accomplished.
Customers with conveyor systems are also less risk averse when it comes to changing up maintenance processes com-pared to those operating trucks. So people are doubling down on IPCC solutions but then there are greenfield operators, who have not previously introduced any conveyors, looking at IPCC as a more economical and future-safe move. They are recognizing the potential cost benefit and productivity gains that a conveyor system can deliver; i.e., lower opex, more robust operations and less downtime.
The IPCC drivers go beyond just this post-downturn period or fuel price risk. It is the whole mining setup – for in-stance, manpower, road maintenance, dust emissions, CO2 footprint, water consumption and work shop requirements – that is pushing operations to rethink their approach. I am in no doubt that this rethink will continue.
Productivity gains are important to convey
In the past decade, mining corporations have gone to great lengths to reduce capex, but currently we see focus changing to total cost of ownership. Especially on greenfield projects, in-pit crushing and conveying can reduce the total cost of ownership as it reduces opex and truck costs. Ignoring the long-term opex is detrimental in the new norm for the mining sector, in general.
These trends are delivering productivity and cutting costs on many mine sites and are preparing mines for a more efficient future as well, so the increasing focus on total cost of ownership will only continue to grow. This belief was one of the factors in FLSmidth’s decision, for instance, to move into the IPCC area and provide the mining industry with the deepest range of IPCC options available through one provider.
Strategically integrating IPCC with our other offerings means the industry can look towards greater synergy and coher-ence between products in the process line. This allows the potential for additional productivity. It has also become easier to prevent changes along the supply chain as equipment for the entire pit-to-plant process are delivered from one source.
Digital will deliver more in IPCC
Even though the likelihood for fiscal savings and productivity improvements can be apparent for some customers that are considering a switch to conveyors, there can be other obstructions when it comes to making a strong and definite commitment. The switch requires changes in the ways a mine operates and affects mine planning on the operations side. But sooner rather than later, change needs to come.
It is becoming gradually more and more obvious that what has worked thus far will not necessarily work in the future due to changing conditions in mining. Mines will need to examine alternatives and we, as an OEM, have the responsibility to produce these solutions or to develop them together with third parties and interested customers. And already we are coming up with new solutions as we see some current limitations.
The mechanical side is advanced, although innovations are probable and likely in this area. The major steps forward will come through digitalization, automation, intelligent systems (smart IPCC) and in the feedback of information to the control centre. We are prepared to push the digital progress in mining and work with the industry so we present solutions that fit their single requirements, risks and conditions – and ultimately increase their productivity.
Some mines are breaking new ground in this area. Vale’s S11D iron ore mine in Brazil is the lighthouse operation when it comes to IPCC. The selection of fully truckless mining with a high degree of automation and digitalization is certainly remarkable. But there are other mines which have paved the way for IPCC in the last two decades. Codelco’s Chuquicamata copper mine and BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto’s Escondida copper mine, both in Chile, have both been front runners in the development of semi-mobile IPCC. And then we have the example of the EGAT-mines of Mae Moh in Thailand.
IPCC is set for continued growth
The growth of IPCC and for FLSmidth in this area is clear. We have several new installations coming up in India, as well as in China, and we are currently executing the next semi-
mobile expansion in a Brazilian iron ore mine. In total, FLSmidth currently has eight IPCC projects under execution.
We are seeing a particular interest in IPCC when it comes to mine expansions. One reason for that is that bigger opera-tions have usually already collected experience with conveyors, which are still the corner stone of every IPCC. Everything you do with an IPCC is trying to get the material onto a conveyor as early as possible. This is where the savings are. Another reason is that large operations often already have direct experience with IPCC and therefore are aware of the benefits, but also the limitations.
Part of the growth for us is natural shift in technology on the customer side, but in our experience, customers are also seeking advantages by working with a single pit-to-plant supplier. This means maintenance and technical support can be streamlined, which can increase time and cost efficiency. For instance, should a problem arise and the root cause is difficult to identify, it is a clear advantage to only have to enter into dialogue with a single supplier, who can effectively deal with all issues, rather than having to engage with a host of different suppliers. The daily benefits include more clearly defined responsibilities, reduced total cost of ownership and improved productivity.
THOMAS JABS is global head of mining projects at FLSmidth. He can be reached at Thomas.Jabs@flsmidth.com.