In two minds on the challenges of underground mining

In two minds on the challenges of underground mining

Mine hoisting is about people: the miners who descend the shafts to extract essential minerals; and the engineers who ensure their efforts are efficiently and safely supported. Here we capture the experiences of two ABB engineers in hoisting.

“What's an engineer’s greatest fear? When a salesperson has sold the project, but nobody can engineer it!” Johan Engelbrecht is never short of a pithy joke, an anecdote, or a challenging question, like “Why is aluminium foil shiny on one side and dull on the other?” (To be revealed.) He’s also a legend at ABB, for his knowledge of engineering and process-driven industries, and his aptitude for innovation which he’s been applying to delivering first-ever projects for 40 years.  

ABB intern, Aime Parker, started her studies in chemical engineering, but decided “atoms were too small to get my head around” and became absorbed in electrical engineering instead. Her first internship at ABB was in sales, which she says was a revelation. By the time you read this, she will have graduated from Queensland University of Technology with a double degree – in electrical engineering and environmental science – and will soon complete her second ABB internship, in Hoisting for underground mines.  

These two problem solvers – the Engineering Manager at the pinnacle of his career, and the engineer at the start of her journey – have an easy rapport. They talk about the never-ending variety of projects in the engineering field, the power of digital transformation and the importance of the sales-engineering partnership.  

ABB brought Johan to Australia from his native South Africa in 2010, to mentor a local sales team and grow the company’s hoisting capability within the Asia Pacific region.  

Initiating a life-of-mine customer relationship  

One of Johan’s first calls was to a zinc, lead and silver mine, then owned by Xstrata (which merged with current operator Glencore in 2013). Johan started a conversation about the hoisting needs of the mine, and proposed a couple of technical variations on solutions. The mine didn’t have capital to invest at the time, so Johan suggested a series of upgrades to improve production of the installed base, making progressive use of funds as they became available. "Today, they are our best client, regularly upgrading and servicing their hoists with ABB, and not so long ago we delivered them a new hoist," said Johan. Having a person who could "talk technical" with sales in mind "turned the tide", he says.

Aime will start her engineering career with an insight into sales, having completed that two-year internship back in 2022. “It felt like a great opportunity, because I’d only done engineering and science, to get out into the real world and acquire some business sense,” she says. From a financial perspective, she says it was a “bit of a revelation” that “your time is money, and other people’s time is money, and that any bid must combine calculations of time, hardware, software and other resources.” The experience also helped Aime to hone her communication skills, to listen and read between the lines of what customers really need, and to frame opportunities and solutions accordingly.  

The widest imaginable playing field  

The variety of challenges at ABB has been magnetic for Johan, who started his training with the company as an apprentice electrician in South Africa in the mid-1970s and subsequently completed a junior engineering program which saw him commission his first mine hoist in 1977. After running his own contracting business for several years, he joined ABB as a senior technician in 1983 and rapidly progressed to become Engineering Manager with a team of up to 34 engineers reporting to him.  

“We did some great projects,” he recalls: engineering a drive system for locomotives; designing machines for the pulp and paper industry; designing a Morgan mill to produce steel rods; and tailoring rolling mills to make cooking foil for the aluminium industry. Engelbrecht explains, “Machines can’t actually roll aluminium to the thinness of a single sheet, so they roll it as two sheets and split them out at the end – the shiny side of alfoil is where it came in contact with the steel drum, the dull side is where it touched the other sheet.”  

He subsequently helped ABB sales teams to improve the accuracy of their bids and proposals, and then worked on commissioning installations in China.  

Aime knew when she started studying electrical engineering that there could be a diversity of opportunities ahead of her. “Hearing everything Johan has done just confirms that it could take me wherever I want!”  

Nourish your brain: aim to improve on the specs  

Johan adds, “I say to our engineers, ‘Don't think what you're doing today is what you'll do for the rest of your life. Open your eyes to what's happening around you. Be innovative. Whatever job you are assigned, don’t aim to just finish it as it is, but keep hustling, researching, thinking about how to improve the process.’” He emphasises that ABB’s encouragement of its employees to constantly improve has given it a strong advantage in the market.  

During the Covid pandemic, he led an engineering team to deliver an extremely challenging – never mind Covid isolation restrictions –hoist upgrade project for a BHP Group copper, gold and uranium mine in South Australia.

When the opportunity first came up, pre Covid restrictions, Engelbrecht went to Sweden to discuss the technicalities because this type of upgrade had never been done before. “I was determined to figure it out, and it has been one of our greatest successes”, he says. A subsequent complex brake overhaul at the same site, for which ABB installed and integrated a new drive, led Macmahon mining and construction services contractors to praise ABB Australia for being able to deliver mine hoist projects that nobody else can achieve, with confidence and professionalism. 

Digitisation is streamlining every aspect of mine design and operation  

Aime is currently working on another BHP Group project for its Minerals Australia operation at Prominent Hill copper mine, also in South Australia. Using the Zuken E3 MCAD design platform, she is adjusting the plant circuit diagram of the hoist at Prominent Hill, to exactly mirror the project as it will be installed. The program automatically generates wire numbers – time-saving reference points – and a list of spare parts for the project, which will help enable maintenance and repairs of the hoist over time.  

“I've never used this software before,” says Aime, “so it's been about wrapping my head around the schematics and how to flip terminals and how to change wire diameters, and details like that.”  

Johan points out that previously, the generation of such a system diagram would have involved 10 to 15 draftspeople working by hand, but digitisation has completely transformed electrical engineering to enable more streamlined and standardised practices, and to integrate safety measures into every installation.  

He’s currently working on a project for Glencore’s Mt Isa operation, to automate the safety testing of one of its hoists. Implementing a single control room has enabled full remote control of all hoists at the site, but daily brake testing is still manually executed. “They want ABB to design a system to carry out a semi-automated test which allows the operator to press a button to initiate a routine that confirms the machine’s brakes are performing to the highest safety standard.”  

The hardest part of this project, says Johan is documenting the process to enable change management at the mine, so that people understand why this is a better procedure than manual testing. Aime is streamlining this and other documentation for the hoisting team, tasks which have the additional benefit of familiarising her with current projects.

Passing the baton to new globally collaborative teams  

Johan says Aime is well placed to join ABB’s new Hoisting Young Engineer Exchange program, launched in 2023, in which Australian graduates will be seconded to work in other ABB centres, such as Canada, Poland, South Africa, Sweden and China, with hands-on engagement at various mining sites. The program aims to bridge the growing skills gap in the global mining industry by fostering professional growth, adaptability and innovation in the rapidly evolving mining sector. This next generation of talent will continue to advance the business as powerhouses like Johan segue to retirement. (Graduate engineers interested in the program can apply via job advertisements on this dedicated landing page.)  

Having flagged his intention to retire at the end of 2023, and become more engaged in a wide range of his other interests, including amateur radio operations, cycling and fishing, Johan says he will still be available to ABB as needed.  

He knows he’ll miss the camaraderie and banter of the Hoisting team. “And I’ll miss part of our diverse approaches to engineering challenges.” He adds, “You know the saying: Great minds discuss ideas, average minds discuss events and small minds discuss politics!”  

Aime is excited to apply her skills to real world mining projects: “There are so many aspects to mining and mine hoists, so many variables to consider, that I think it will test me a lot more than some other fields I could explore. It’s a fantastic opportunity to work on massive machinery and huge important projects … and I know I have some really big shoes to fill.”  

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