Can the greater use of in-pit crushing and conveying (IPCC) systems by Australian mining companies reduce their exposure to the fluctuating commodities market, equipment and tyre availability problems, diesel fuel costs and requirements and help companies with their carbon credits?
According to SRK Consulting's Scott McEwing it can.
"While an IPCC requires an investment, in the long-term it helps mining companies reduce their capital and operating costs," he explained.
"Your traditional truck and shovel mining operation is equipment intensive and has a heavy reliance on diesel fuel.
"You have loaded trucks travelling up and out of the mine 24 hours a day, so you need a fleet of trucks and a roster of drivers. You're burning up huge amounts of diesel and wearing tyres, at a time when there is a worldwide shortage of them," McEwing stated.
"The IPCC option provides a significant saving in operating costs because you are using less trucks, less fuel and less manpower. And to me there's no doubt that reducing carbon emissions is also becoming a key driver to having an IPCC."
McEwing added that IPCC systems can be used for either ore or waste, or in specific instances, both.
He explained that in an ore focused IPCC installation the primary ore crusher in front of the processing plant is relocated into the operating mine.
The crushed ore is then carried out of the mine by a conveyor back to the processing plant.
As the crusher was required regardless, the capital cost is largely driven by the conveyor system.
"Offsetting the capital cost of the conveyor is the reduction in the fleet truck size, as less trucks are required to transport the ore."
One miner, Vale, has already begun implementing the system at the world's largest iron ore mine - the S11D operation.
It signed a $140 million contract with ABB to install shiftable conveyor belts as a replacement for off-highway dump trucks.
This is the first time a 'truckless' solution will be used on a large scale at an iron ore mine," according to the company.
It stated that using "a truckless system significantly reduces operating costs and produces lower carbon emissions.
"If the S11D mine were to be operated using trucks it would need around 100 trucks and consume 77% more diesel per year."
Veli-Matti Reinikkala, head of ABB's Process Automation Divisions, stated that "this unprecedented project will use the latest automation technologies to create he mine of the future, a benchmark mine in terms of productivity, safety, and sustainability".
"This project will also allow Vale to increase production by approximately 90 million tonnes, while reducing emissions and improving operational efficiency and process safety."
McEwing, who is a mining engineer and consultant at SRK, said that mining companies often overlook the use of an IPCC because of a desire to get a rapid return on their investment.
"As a result of the boom and bust cycle in Australia's mining industry, it has traditionally had a truck and shovel mining fleet, which has a high emphasis on short-term flexibility as opposed to looking at a project's long term optimisation.
"A lot of mining companies put in place a traditional operation because they are looking for low risk, early payback on their investment and to make hay while the sun shines.
He added that "one of the problems with the Australian mining industry is that for too long there has been a reluctance to put the right amount of initial investment into a project so that it is more financially stable.
"If you go to other parts of the world, they're not afraid to heavily invest in the right infrastructure for the long term. The benefit is that once they go into production, their operating costs are low, so they can keep mining, even when commodity prices drop. The IPCC concept has been well proven across the globe by many major mining companies."
McEwing said that IPCC's can be used to mine a range of commodities and are best suited to deep, long-life mines.
He believes that during the evaluation stage of a project, engineers should compare the costs and weigh up the benefits of an IPCC system to a traditional mining operation.
"Studies have demonstrated that operating costs can be significantly reduced which shows that if you're prepared to outlay that extra money upfront, there is the potential for large savings in the long run.
"Back in the early days of FMG, we recommended the use of a surface miner. It was new technology for the iron ore industry, everyone else was still focused on drill and blast, truck and shovel. It was leading edge, Fortescue implemented it and it worked. The IPCC system isn't leading edge, it's well established and should be considered."