Courtesy of Alex Henderson
Alex Henderson wants to radically change how underground mines operate. But, says the Sudbury-based consultant, dramatic improvements do not necessarily need to be expensive and risky. Based on his extensive experience in Ontario’s biggest mines – he worked for Falconbridge and Xstrata in the early 2000s and for Vale for more than nine years – he said he believes a step change in productivity can be accomplished using existing proven technology. As general manager of underground mining technology at Vale, Henderson had the chance to prove out concepts such as Rail-Veyor, a type of remotely operated railcar first developed in the 1960s and used to transport ore and waste. Henderson gained rare real-world experience with this and other alternative technologies, and today he hopes to help operations make the leap to commercialization and improved profitability.
CIM: You stepped away from Vale in 2013. What did you take away from your time there?
AH: Around 2010, as general manager of mine and mills technical services for the base metals North Atlantic operations, I put together an outline for a two-year project, worth roughly $50 million, to demonstrate components of high-speed development and production. And the core to that was the Rail-Veyor – figuring out how we could integrate Rail-Veyor into the development process such that we could achieve 400 feet per week or 17 metres per day, where traditionally we would get maybe 600 or 800 feet per month per crew. At the production stage, where current operations would get about 1,000 tonnes per day from a stope, we came up with plans on how to achieve over 3,000 tonnes per day. I knew there were risks associated with doing that, because typically if the economy does slow down, then research and development is one of the first areas to get hit. At the same time I was pretty excited with the opportunity, and it was pretty obvious that they were very committed to seeing significant change as funding for the project was supported at senior levels in the organization.
CIM: You recently published three white papers on underground mining practices. What message did you want to get across?
AH: It starts with the idea that technologies already exist today to cause a step change in underground hard rock mining, but we haven’t re-engineered our mining processes or redesigned our mines to use that technology in the most efficient manner.
I put together what I call a five-step process to implement step change technology. And that is based on what went well, what didn’t go so well at Vale, and what some of the key components are that have to be in play in order for a company to implement step change technology. Because, although we had demonstrated it, we hadn’t commercialized it, and that was where I would say the project failed.
CIM: Was that failure a matter of a time, funding or something else?
AH: The first step in my five-step process is you have to have a compelling reason to change and this needs to come from senior people in the organization. When the project started, senior officials in charge of the base metals operations clearly understood the compelling reasons why the base metals needed to have a step change. With changes in personnel there was a breakdown in communication and the reasons why I was doing what I was doing.
But it wasn’t just one thing. Various factors caused the project to be discontinued, including the drop in metal prices. These are all key learnings that I’ve built in to the five-step process.But it wasn’t just one thing. Various factors caused the project to be discontinued, including the drop in metal prices and the change in senior leadership at Vale. These are all key learnings that I’ve built in to the five-step process.
CIM: How has the mining industry reacted to your ideas?
AH: Initially, when I started my consulting business in 2014, I focused on junior mining companies because I thought they were more entrepreneurial and able to make decisions quicker. I talked to a lot of junior mining companies and what I seemed to constantly run into was, “Well, we really like your ideas, Alex, but we need to borrow money. And in order for us to borrow money we have to have a proven bankable, feasibility study meeting the NI 43-101 requirements. And although your technology is proven, some of these process changes in mining methods aren’t [proven]. So we don’t see how we can raise capital if we are proposing significant change.”
Last fall, I completely changed my approach. I went out to the majority of the mining consultants and said, “If you have a company struggling to make its project economical and it wants to take a look at how technology could change that, I would be open to working with you.” I also focused more on mid-size to larger mining companies and put a lot more emphasis on the five-step process rather than the technology.
That began to open things up, but I would say definitely that the company that’s been the most aggressive all along is Dundee Precious Metals. Dundee visited Vale’s 114 ore body demonstration plant when we were demonstrating what could be done. And one of the comments that vice-president of operations David Rae made was, “We came up expecting to see a material handling system (Rail-Veyor), but we saw a total new way of mining.” The Rail-Veyor there is only a tool. I started the five-step process at Dundee’s Bulgarian operations in the early part of this year.
CIM: Are other companies starting to come around?
AH: I think in terms of where the mining industry is and where things are in general with the sustained lower metal prices, people are becoming much more aware that it’s not just cost cutting and capital avoidance that’s going to allow companies to stay prosperous through this process. Rather, it’s their ability to adapt to new technology and make sustainable changes to their operations.
CIM: You say we need to re-engineer our processes. Is that something you can see applying to existing operations?
AH: The process is very applicable to existing operations. At the 114, it became very apparent to me that we needed to put together a plan for how we transform our existing operations and begin to adopt the technology. Even with Dundee and the Bulgarian operations it’s more about transforming existing operations, rather than trying to come in with completely new technology. It has to be appropriate technology for the capability of the operation.
CIM: What technology already exists that we are not using in the best possible way?
AH: The concept the Rail-Veyor is based on was developed by the French in 1965. So it’s technology that has been around for a long time. A scooptram can move material at 80 to 100 tonnes per hour, whereas a continuous loader like the Häggloader or Schaeff loader can move material at 350 to 400 tonnes per hour. Historically, these loaders were pieces of equipment that were used for development purposes and people would say to me, “Well, how can you use a Häggloader in an open stope?” You can’t. You have to redesign the way you mine the stope in order for you to get the full benefits of the Häggloader. We can’t force existing technology on our existing processes. We’ve got to re-engineer our processes and re-design our mines in order to use that technology in the most efficient manner.