In the past, necessity was typically the mother of invention, but in this 21st century of rapid and perpetual change, waiting for necessity before innovating can mean a missed opportunity.
Take Saskatchewan’s potash sector, for example. A vast deposit lies some 1,000 metres to 1,600 metres beneath the ground of the province’s southern plains, and Saskatchewan is the world’s second largest producer of the commodity. With the increasing prices and high global demand potash has been enjoying in recent years – as well as favourable predictions for the long haul – the sector is in a very good place indeed. When it comes to innovation, though, the sector has lagged seriously behind. While automation in mine design and scheduling are the norm in other mining sectors, they are unchartered territory in potash. “In my experience, when it comes to automation, the potash sector could benefit immensely by observing and implementing what has already been learned elsewhere,” says Runge Mining’s Sebastian Van Der Hoek, whose company provides consulting, training and software for the mining and related services industries globally.
But, there is a good reason for that lag: automation in planning has not been perceived as necessary for potash. “Basically, in potash mining, the grades usually don’t vary greatly in any direction,” says Erik Rasmussen, mine engineer at the Mosaic K1 underground potash mine in Esterhazy, Saskatchewan. “Most of the development is productive, so basically no matter which direction you mine in, you’re going to hit product.”
Why change something if it is not broken?
Until 2010, K1 relied on a two-dimensional AutoCAD system for its scheduling and planning. It worked, but in contrast to automated systems, theirs required more human hours and was not without its limitations. “It was more of a Gantt chart and paper map approach,” explains Rasmussen. “There wasn’t extensive calculation of variables behind it, such as taking into account equipment availability or utilization, nor were we reconciling the planning with what the equipment was capable of historically.”
In 2010, Mosaic’s K1 staff decided to do something different: look into automating its mine scheduling and planning system. They recognized that without effective planning tools, decisions made in the present have the potential for long-term negative consequences.
The company brought in Runge, which began installing a complete suite of mine planning software that includes such features as detailed mine design capabilities, the ability to produce and schedule mineable reserves and capture operations scheduling complexities, as well as any variations to the plan, which can be fed back into the scheduling process.
“For long-term planning, with the new system, we get the numerical results panel by panel – how much ore there is, what the expected grade is supposed to be based on our modelling, and then based on what equipment we’ve decided to make available, and how long it’s going to take to both develop and mine,” says Rasmussen. “We also get an animation of all this, month by month, year by year – what the mine is going to look like in all the development and production phases. It does the same for the short term, but on a day-by-day basis, and it also allows us to outline both routine and planned tasks, so we can get a visual representation of what we’re doing for the next three months in a variety of different forms, as well as expected production tonnages.”