The companies who do that best are generally the ones who are most competitive, and will therefore end up with the greatest market share. On the other hand, each industry faces its own unique variations on this challenge, and success lies in overcoming them in the best possible way.
The mining industry has the task of producing a primary product whose value is decided on international exchanges, and which fluctuates widely depending on global demand: in the past 50 years, the average price of metals has varied by a factor of 600%. At times of slumps, it is the mines with the least productive technology that close.
Another factor that puts a premium on technology is the fact that over the past 10 years the grade of the ore that is mined has declined 40% and the ore bodies themselves have become deeper and more remote. This means that the effectiveness and reliability of a mine’s equipment is becoming ever more critical to its success.
To tackle these issues, operators have to make the most of their suppliers’ R&D departments, and the good news is that significant advances have been achieved on many fronts. This means that when new mines are being planned, and old ones upgraded, the option is there to optimize production in a way that until recently would have been unthinkable.
An industrial revolution
One set of advances have occurred in the comminution process – the series of mills that crush and then grind the ore until the particles are small enough to separate on the basis of their densities. Other areas of progress include the increased efficiency of ventilation and the reliability of hoist systems. For example, our smart ventilation concept wires airflow sensors into our 800xA distributed control system. This can then optimise air quality throughout the mine and, as a result, halve the electricity needed to run its fans.
Finally, there is the ever increasing sophistication of the automation process. In the past, this has been more basic in mines than it has in factories but the latest versions have utterly transformed the way a modern facility works.
In each of these areas, ABB has been responsible for defining what counts as state of the art. In the comminution process, for example, it has pioneered the gearless design in which the mill cylinder becomes the rotor of the motor, which allows the torque to vary without the need for gears. It has since continually raised the power rating of its drives, allowing mills to become ever larger and more powerful. This allows a rise in the quantity of ore processed, which offsets the decline in its quality. We have also been first to fit high-pressure grinding rolls that can operate without water – useful if your mill is 4.5 km above sea level in the Andes, like the Toromocho mine in the Peru, where ABB provided the largest gearless mill drives in the world.
How it works
Automation is at the core of ABB’s work, and over the past 30 years we have acquired the world’s largest base of installed advanced process control systems. These allow a mine’s processes to feed real-time data flows into optimization controllers. For example, it can track the real-time positions of vehicles, equipment and personnel to maximize safety and productivity. It can also assess the properties of the rock being fed into the comminution chain so that each mill can be fine-tuned to rotate at the optimal speed, thereby increasing recovery and reducing energy consumption.
Furthermore, a mine’s electrical system is often separated from its process controls, and both may be made up of a collection of equipment made by different suppliers. Optimization requires everything to be connected to a single distributed control system that is able to integrate electrical, process, communication and safety systems and in so doing allow the mine’s operations to be planned, powered, maintained and documented in the most efficient and transparent way possible by a single team operating a common control system.