August 2009

Agility through simplicity

Sometimes the most adaptable solutions are often the simplest ones

By B. Sundararajan

Cerro de Maimon project in the Dominican Republic

The last couple of decades have seen a move by manufacturing and marketing companies towards operational methods described as “agile.” Simply stated, agility indicates the deployment of processes and tools to respond quickly to customer needs and market changes without compromising budget, time, quality and profitability targets. While the catalysts for this move include recent technological advances and the increased availability of Six Sigma and Lean Process experts, the most important drivers are the attitudes of people and organizations who have imbibed agility into their work ethics and organizational cultures.

The world-leading Canadian mining industry comprises many such organizations and experts who have incorporated agile practices into everything that they do, be it plant design, mineral processing, material handling or procurement. The challenges that mining engineers routinely face require agility and adaptability not in just how they do things, but also in where they have to do them.

Mid-term results

Because mining is a complex, multi-process business, mining engineers and project managers, first and foremost, have to establish a trust-based working relationship with their clients or employers. Right from the initial survey stage, engineers on the ground must determine all possible situations likely to arise, assess the risks and success factors of alternative courses of action, put in place controls to mitigate those risks and, most importantly, constantly evaluate and monitor progress in order to agilely and adaptively take corrective measures to keep the project on track.

The story behind one exemplar of the natural agility of Canadian mining engineers was recounted by Daniel Houde, senior project manager at Met-Chem. Houde described a scenario at Met-Chem’s recently concluded Cerro de Maimon project in the Dominican Republic. Met-Chem’s client, GlobeStar Mining Corporation, runs a precious metals mine there. The orebody, containing both sulphide and oxide ores, was expected to mainly yield copper, but also minable quantities of gold and silver.

Coming on board around the project’s midway mark, Houde, along with other Met-Chem and local engineers, quickly determined that in order to finish the project on time, they would need to procure equipment for the milling and crushing plants in double-quick time.

Simultaneously, after assessing the quality and grade of the ore, Met-Chem designers and planners also determined that it would be best to go with the tried and tested methods of milling, crushing, grinding and metal recovery.

This decided, the team determined that it would be feasible, fast and cost-effective to procure high-quality used equipment for the plant, given that this was a relatively small mine operation. Met-Chem engineers carefully evaluated the Montreal-based manufacturers of much of the required equipment and figured out an innovative way to ship it to the island mine site.

Since considerable quantities of silver were present in the ore, the process engineers opted to use the Merrill-Crowe process and counter-current decantation (CCD) as opposed to traditional carbon leaching or carbon-in-pulp processes. This design decision immediately impacted the nature of the rest of the plant and tailings pond design, and the type of equipment to procure.

Simply the best

The Cerro de Maimon project required constant adaptation on many fronts on Met-Chem’s part. The site was located in rough terrain in the middle of an island. This created major transportation issues not just for the people, but also for the equipment. Additional challenges were posed by the weather (this is hurricane country) and the language (knowledge of Spanish, though not an absolute necessity, was nevertheless quite advantageous).

Despite these hurdles, Rocio Ramirez, marketing manager at Met-Chem, reported that they “finished the job on time, within budget and to the enormous delight of their client.” The engineers and project managers of Met-Chem demonstrated agility and adaptability in their approach, their thinking and their execution.

The beauty and elegance of the solutions they devised lay in their simplicity. First, it confirmed that the tried and tested can, at times, work just as effectively as the state-of-the-art. Perhaps more importantly, it confirmed that relationships with the client are paramount. This, perhaps, is the secret of agile mining — keep it simple, make it quick and do it right.

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