BHP Billiton's Nickel West Leinster operation is a key part of one of the world's leading nickel producers and therefore they pay special attention to maximising uptime by anticipating maintenance issues that might otherwise cause disruption.
"One of our most important jobs is to make sure we have critical spares items in stock. Where you have big operations such as ours you need to have top-notch backup," said BHP Billiton Maintenance Services Planner Paul McGuinness.
Leinster, along with the Mt Keith and Kambalda nickel and cobalt operations, are part of BHP Billiton's Nickel West group, which is the world's third largest producer of nickel in concentrate. It provides 16% of world production.
Leinster alone can produce 40-45,000t of nickel in concentrate a year, from a total mineral resource of 34mt.
Leinster is particularly important to Nickel West because 75% of the company's nickel in concentrate is blended to ensure quality feed to the nearby Kalgoorlie smelter.
"Preventative maintenance is integral to a remote operation such as this," said Mr McGuinness. "We have a total of 47 Outokumpu float cells here, typically in sizes from 8 to 16m3 as well as two TankCells. We also have on site a 22m and 16m thickener.
"You need to make sure you have all the necessary components quickly at hand, right from the rake mechanism on the thickeners down to seals, cylinders and the myriad of parts that goes into each piece of equipment.
"It really is quite a science planning for your needs, because you just can't afford to lose time through the lack of critical parts," said Mr McGuinness, whose maintenance team is supported by the Australian Service Centre at Outokumpu Technology Pty Ltd .
A global leader in minerals and metals processing technology in more than 40 countries, Outokumpu Technology recently expanded its Australian Service Centre to provide world-class skills to enhance the efficiency of its customers' plants.
The centre is focused on key service areas such as process audits and optimisation, preventative maintenance, upgrades, spare parts management and excellence in training - with skills being a major issue in times of severe shortages affecting many sites.
"Outokumpu's expertise and service is valuable and we get accurate advice and assistance on issues, whether they are on- or off-site," said Mr McGuinness.
"We've also found their parts sourcing and value to be on the mark, it is reassuring to have support from people who are familiar with your plant and its needs. When you are on a remote and very busy site, you need to have security of backup."
Paul McGuinness works primarily with Outokumpu Technology's Perth-based staff managed by Mike Cook, including customer support engineer Stewart Gillam, who has been on-site at Leinster several times this year as part of his duties extending halfway across Australia.
"When you are trying to cover such a vast area- and where production hitches can have such major impacts - we work closely with companies to help prevent problems before they arise," said Mr Gillam.
"In the Outback, you can't just go down to the local store to pick up specialised parts. Where delivery lead times often run into weeks for customised parts and processes, you really have to think in advance and assess what you need to have on hand. It's practical insurance and considerably reduces equipment and plant downtime.
"We also strongly believe in continually supporting these sites, going out as needed to ensure that what we have recommended is working well in practice.
“For example, earlier this year Outokumpu provided the planning schedule, manning and equipment to install a 5m high rate feedwell in the tailings thickener at Leinster.
“I will return to site in the near future to ensure it is functioning as efficiently as possible,” said Mr Gillam.
“I will also meet with site personnel to discuss any maintenance, process and safety queries and to assist with preventative maintenance planning and process optimisation.
"We have visited Leinster several times this year, because we believe in the value of reviewing the performance of our recommendations on an on-going basis.
“We like to join the Leinster team during shutdowns to trouble-shoot and help plan improvements. After three years working on the site, Outokumpu Technology has accumulated a fair wealth of local knowledge to which we can add value through our global expertise.”
With a core of more than 20 specialist staff operating from bases in Sydney and Perth, the Service Centre is structured to provide vital skills at a time of unprecedented demand for them.
Outokumpu Technology can draw on a wealth of experience and expertise at the centre in areas such as thickening, flotation, comminution, analysers, automation and physical separation.
"We work extensively with companies to formulate site specific spares lists,” said Mr Gillam.
“The lists indicate accurate lead times, recommended quantities and up-to-date pricing, which in turn facilitates a more streamlined approach with regard to spares procurement and maintenance planning.
“As the lists are being constantly updated, they also alert the end user to any improvements or design changes that may have taken place. Over the last three years Outokumpu has developed a comprehensive spare parts database to allow for the efficient supply of spare parts.
"By building up a structured, tailored inventory on-site - which is one of Paul's key roles - you are paying a small price for peace of mind. This is just sensible economics, because downtime is hugely expensive and preventing it is hugely sensible."
The Australian Service Centre also offers comprehensive training programmes, both on-site and at off-site training venues across Australia.
The Australian Service Centre can be contacted in Sydney at 02 9984 2500 or Perth at 08 9211 2200.
(Released by Outokumpu Technology in October 2005.)