We see it every day and in every part of our lives, the importance of working with good people. Much of what we do to improve the technical performance of our minerals processing plants is driven by highly competent people. People who have the ability to analyse and understand a complex, interdependent system and find ways to make significant improvements.
The problem is, there are not enough of these people to cover all of our operations. How many times do we see plant recoveries improved by 1 or 2% through the efforts of an individual galvanising the team, only to see that successful individual move on to another project and the gains go with them?
Improvements are difficult to find, but the true challenge is sustaining them. In the following article I will discuss an example of plant optimisation and then discuss ways to lock in these opportunities.
Plant optimisation – an example
I was recently fortunate to attend a presentation, which discussed improvements achieved at the BHPBilliton Escondida flotation plant. These significant improvements occurred through a project, which applied the thinking and investigative tools available in the flotation discipline.
The aim of the project was to optimise the performance at the two copper flotation concentrators at BHPBilliton’s Escondida copper mine in Chile. This project was undertaken by a team from JK Tech, lead by Dan Alexander, and is the subject of a paper presented at the 2006 CMP conference in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada.
A number of differences between the two concentrators at Escondida were identified. The concentrators, called Leguna Seca and Los Colorados, were performing at vastly different rates in terms of throughput and concentrate grade. These variations are summarised in the table on the next page.
Although the float cells at the sites were also from two different flotation technologies, the discrepancy in grade and throughput were so great that it was decided to see if factors other than different suppliers and ore could help account for such a variation.
During the investigation, a number of contributing factors for the performance variation at the concentrators were discovered. Some factors, such as feed ore floatability characteristics and frothrecovery, were obvious ones. However, the project also identified a number of people factor influences, including maintenance and operator training, which could have contributed to the lower metallurgical performance of the Leguna Seca concentrator.
Plans were implemented to mechanically overhaul the flotation cells at Leguna Seca and additional operator training was provided. This resulted in a significant improvement to the circuit performance. It is clear that the high calibre of people on the project and their years of specialised training helped them identify the opportunities.
How can we capture the knowledge people generate?
Following on from this example at Escondida, I would like to outline three simple, yet key, ways to lock in plant improvements and capture them in an on-going basis. After all, the true challenge at sites is always to maintain improved levels when the experts are gone.
Benefits derived from improved maintenance procedures should be relatively easy to capture if carefully documented. The risk here is that a change in maintenance staff could negatively impact in the future if procedures, documentation and training are not of a high standard. So ensuring a plant’s maintenance procedures are comprehensively documented and easily accessible by operators is an obvious, yet key, step.
Without doubt, many benefits can be found through better training of flotation cell operators. The challenge in capturing these benefits is the need to provide not only robust initial but also on-going training. Operators rapidly develop their own approach to a given plant, which is a combination of factors such as their past experience, the methods used by existing operators and the physical limits of the equipment.
A new, influential operator can soon change the practices of a whole crew so training must not only be part of the induction process but provided on an ongoing refresher basis. On-going training also ensures that shortcuts or bad habits which have slowly crept into a plant’s operations are eradicated. Any operator training should include topics such as the operating strategy, the reasons that strategy is employed and also more ‘hands on’, practical areas such as troubleshooting, process optimisation, calibration, maintenance routines and critical spare parts.
This is one area where sustainable gains can be also locked in. Upgrading control hardware and software to automate a new operating strategy is crucial to combating the deterioration in the initial gains, which occurover time. Other aspects to consider are support hardware such as pumps. A change in operating strategy may improve the metallurgy but if there are shortcomings in the materials handling system, operators will soon revert to the old practices.
The Escondida example highlights our ability to identify substantial gains in our process plants. It also illustrates the importance of having a strategy for capturing those gains that relies more upon management systems and technology than it does on individual people.