In 2014 Anglo American embarked on an ambitious plan called FutureSmart Mining to overhaul its mining operations using the latest and best technologies to deliver improved efficiencies, better safety performance and cleaner mining.
That programme was expanded over the years, and the report card shows a $2 billion annual value haul, which the group expects to increase to $3 billion by 2022.
Speaking to analysts on Tuesday, group technical director Tony O’Neill detailed an extensive list of technologies and productivity improvements that not only reflects in bottom-line performance but brings Anglo closer to world-beating safety and environmental standards.
In 2017, Anglo’s operational excellence was in line with the upper 60% of its peers. By 2021, it had improved to the upper 80%.
High tech blasting
Matt Daley, group head of mining, outlined the sources of this improvement: better blast design delivering finer ore fragmentation, higher truck and shovel payloads, and a 20-50% reduction in weekly blasts.
The ability to digitally visualise and plan blasting programmes contributed to a 50% improvement in drill and blast execution versus the planned outcomes.
These productivity improvements fall under a programme known as P101, which O’Neill says faced resistance within the group when first launched. That resistance has since subsided as the financial and operational results have become evident.
Mogalakwena platinum mine in North West province has been the site of considerable technological innovation, with digital optimisation yielding a 23% reduction in truck haul cycle times, and a 40% improvement in empty truck speeds on the main haul route.
Anglo plans on replacing the mine’s existing road haulage fleet with 40 hydrogen trucks as part of a move to carbon neutral mining.
The Minas-Rio iron ore processing plant was reconfigured and optimised to increase process efficiency, resulting in a 7% year-on-year throughput rate, with a state-of-the-art geometallurgical modelling system delivering a 2% increase in mass recovery from the process plant.
Remote asset monitoring has proven effective at anticipating maintenance problems before they occur, yielding a 12% increase in weekly operating hours at the Moranbah Complex Coal Plant in Australia.
Kumba’s latest record results for financial 2020 were ably assisted by a 5% gain in the critical lump fine ratio that in turn translated into improved revenue and profitability. Kumba is able to optimise ore blends to customers’ requirements by adjusting crusher and screen settings.
Advanced process control applied to process plants in Brazil and SA resulted in a 4% reduction in water consumption, and 4-12% energy savings at mills, with an 80% reduction in micro-stoppages through better process optimisation.
One of the key innovations is a digital transformation platform known as Voxel, a cloud-based agglomeration of all data within the group. Anglo opted for the development of in-house rather than off-the-shelf tech solutions as this would give it ownership of the intellectual property (IP).
“The data we generate is our asset and we need to treat it like any other asset and get the best return from it. That’s what Voxel sets out to do. The IP is owned almost entirely by Anglo, and Voxel comes out ahead of off-the-shelf solutions,” said Arun Narayanan, group chief data officer at Anglo.
Many of the productivity improvements logged by Anglo come out of the Voxel programme and the application of machine learning and artificial intelligence to common mining problems, such as the ability to spatially track on-site materiel and equipment, and understand what is inside ore stockpiles.
Just as Uber reduces the number of wasted minutes expended by drivers and passengers, Narayanan says Voxel, applied to the mining environment, allows teams to assess what ore bodies exist and which should be prioritised for production.
“We have geoscience apps that allow us to use AI to quickly analyse ore bodies and refine the ore body definition,” said Narayanan.
Not broke. Will fix
One of the most impressive outcomes from this technological onslaught is better asset protection through predictive maintenance. The traditional approach to maintenance was reactive, waiting until a machine broke, resulting in unplanned stoppages and missed production targets.
Anglo introduced continuous monitoring on production assets, allowing for early prediction of anomalies. This resulted in five “catches” that helped protect 1 212 hours of downtime.
Anglo developed systems to identify and track those exposed to Covid-19, and this has proven accurate in case identification.
Mining is the new cool
Another interesting technology is the use of microwaves to produce a softening in rocks that allow for better fragmentation on blasting, which in turn reduces water and energy usage.
O’Neill said this raft of technological improvements was made possible by a team that was drawn to Anglo by the challenge of pushing it towards a cleaner, more efficient future.
“We had the idea that mining was not cool. But we’ve been able to attract people from organisations that we thought were cool.”