Accuracy, speedy data analysis and process integration form the foundation of effective planning systems

By Russell A. Carter, Managing Editor

The topic of mine planning has bubbled to the surface recently on Internet mining discussion groups. There’s one major theme, surrounded by a galaxy of related questions: Is mine planning—specifically, long-term planning—a dying art, squelched by industry-wide focus on short-term results? Associated questions range from ‘Does long-term planning receive adequate management support?’ and ‘Does faster management turnover at the operational level risk short-circuiting any long-term plans in place?’ to ‘Should the same personnel be responsible for both short-term and long-term planning?’ and ‘Are planners being overwhelmed by floods of raw exploration and operational data, and do they have the time, resources or training to separate the wheat from the chaff?’

A brief example of how misapplication or misinterpretation of data can cost a mine is offered by software and services supplier Ventyx (formerly Mincom, recently acquired by ABB): Under-

estimating coal thickness by 6 in. (152 mm) over an area as small as 11 acres (4.45 ha) will result in a planned production shortfall of one unit train. If coal is selling at $50/ton, that’s $500,000 of revenue lost by the mine.

Bill Wilkinson, Ventyx’s product manager for MineScape, recently addressed the formidable problem of staying afloat in the rough waters of current mine-planning demands in a paper titled Top Five Challenges in Mine Planning. According to Wilkinson: “Geologists and mining engineers must account for a staggering array of variables—geological samples and data from the mine, the production capacity of available equipment, machinery and manpower availability, customer demand and commodity prices, product cost assumptions, and the health and safety of workers.

“Traditionally, the time and resources required to continually collect this data meant that no one could keep pace with the reality of what’s happening at the mine site. Furthermore, the process of developing mine plans may utilize disparate systems, which introduces inefficiencies in the process and more opportunity for error. Additionally, inefficiencies can be introduced by the technology being employed, especially for geologically complex areas and where large amounts of data are being modeled.”

His ‘top five’ challenges include:

  • Capturing the true complexity of mineral deposits—Geological models generated for initial feasibility studies are often not detailed enough to provide an accurate picture of a mine suitable for creating detailed production plans—and the software used to develop models in a feasibility study may not be suitable for the production environment.
  • Updating mine plans with new data from the field—Mine planning and scheduling has traditionally been such a time-consuming, labor-intensive process that it prohibits the timely generation of new or updated plans as quickly as new data is received. This is compounded by staff turnover and a short-age of skilled mine planners and geologists to execute planning.
  • Generating accurate production and budget forecasts—Managing natural variations in an orebody is extremely difficult, often leading to educated guesses and “fudge” factors based on past experience. Process inefficiencies and technology deficiencies delay or prohibit the inclusion of the latest mine data into the geological models and mine plans in time to stay ahead of operations.
  • Capitalizing on quick changing market and operational conditions—Because of the length of time required to perform some of the geological modeling and mine planning tasks, planning frequency may not be keeping pace with the frequency of change. Mine plans and schedules are difficult to adapt to the changing conditions of a company’s resources, such as its people, plant or equipment.
  • Streamlining the flow of information between the geological modeling, mine planning and mine scheduling processes—If mine planning and scheduling are not run from a single integrated system, geological and mine planning and scheduling data must be moved and reentered, increasing the likelihood of introducing errors and decreasing mine planning turnaround time.

In the final analysis, the right mix of short- and long-term planning is a thorny matter, hard to resolve because it involves so many separate facets of an operation’s structure. Concerning one related issue, though, there is no ambiguity: Software developers and ‘solutions providers’ are providing a steady flow of new or upgraded tools claimed to make data handling and analysis, production control and planning easier, with more meaningful results.

A quick scan of recent product-implementation announcements, as follows, provides a glimpse of how companies are employing these products in all phases of the exploration/development/mining sequence to meet their specific data management and reporting demands.

High-speed Core Scanning
All planning is based on data collection and interpretation, and the quicker these two phases are accomplished, the more time available for formulating valid plans and schedules. A new imaging tool developed by a small Quebec, Canada-based company is claimed to allow drill core analysis to proceed at higher levels of speed and accuracy. An interesting side note is that, in most cases, the latest data collection-and-analysis upgrades and innovations offered to the industry are based on the latest programming and hardware technology; in this example, however, the application traces its roots back to 1960s-era science.

Photonic Knowledge says its Core Mapper hyperspectral imaging application is a derivative of technology originally developed 50 years ago for remote sensing from aircraft and satellites that captures and analyzes information from across the entire electromagnetic spectrum. Much as the human eye sees light in three bands (red, green and blue), spectral imaging divides the spectrum into many more bands—and Core Mapper adapts this technology for use at drill-core scale with significantly higher resolution. The wavelength differences of absorbed and reflected light from core samples is analyzed in hundreds of very narrow bands down to a resolution of 2 nanometers, or 2 billionths of a meter of the visible and near infrared light spectrum. This technological application has a spatial precision of one square millimeter, much greater than a square meter as usually found in remote sensing.

According to Photonic Knowledge President Eric Roberge, two junior companies—Northern Gold Mining Inc. and Armistice Resources Corp.—recently begun using Core Mapper in their drilling programs.

Northern Gold Mining has retained Photonic Knowledge to provide and operate the Core Mapper technology to enhance the determination of mineral and metal content in drill core samples from Northern Gold’s Garrison gold property, 90 km east of Timmins, Ontario. Near-term, NGM plans to use Core Mapper to analyze approximately 100,000 m of drill core from previous operators on the property with the expectation that several hundred thousand meters of past, current and future core drilling, and possibly including reverse circulation drill cuttings, will be mapped using the technology.

Armistice, moving forward to begin production at its McGarry gold mine in the Kirkland Lake area of northeastern Ontario, entered into a long-term service agreement with Photonic Knowledge following an extensive evaluation process over the past year; the application will involve scanning of about 6,100 m of new and historic core.

Armistice expects the technology to allow it to obtain an understanding of the mineralogy and hydrothermal alteration facies associated with historical resources more quickly and efficiently than with the visual method normally used by Armistice.

Also, in this structure of highly altered volcanics, Armistice believes the new technology will allow it to better understand the mineralized system of the prospective area, specifically, the two types of gold-bearing environments within the alteration zone: green carbonate and pyritic mudstone.

Core Mapper results can be integrated with geological modeling allowing visualization in 2-D or even 3-D, and is capable of mapping and analyzing up to 2,000 meters of core per day, said Roberge, who also noted, “The major advantage of this technology is its ability to provide a picture to geologists with a field of view that is 1,600X larger from the conventional handheld spectrometer and 900X more precise.”

Counting the Coal
Australia-based mining software provider Micromine reports that a varied spectrum of mineral producers have recently applied products from its solutions portfolio. The list of clients has expanded to include Endocoal, an Australian coal exploration and development company; and two Nevada gold mines belonging to Newmont Mining Corp.

Endocoal, an ASX-listed company, is one of the larger holders of EPC tenements in Queensland’s Bowen Basin, with 11 tenements across approximately 5,200 km2. Endocoal’s stated intention is to become a long-term, sustainable supplier of diversified coal products to global markets. Its two main projects are Orion Downs and Rockwood: At Orion Downs, the company reports 36 million mt JORC resource of export-quality, direct-ship thermal coal and is planning a “flagship” surface mine at the property’s Meteor Downs South location; a bankable feasibility study is currently under way for this project, and the company is tentatively planning first production from the mine during the second half of 2013.

At the Rockwood project, Endocoal reports a 312.5-million-mt JORC resource of high rank, low volatile, PCI coal, minable by underground methods, and has set its next exploration target at delineating 400- to 900-million-mt of resources.

In the early stages of its exploration program, Endocoal recognized it had no data management software system in place and had a clear need for data control, validation and a ‘single truth’ data source. Second, the company didn’t have the capacity to create data models and the cost to outsource resource estimations was deemed too expensive.

The company’s first step was to conduct an assessment of the different software products in the Australian market. By January 2011, Endocoal decided that it was going to invest in two Micromine products: Micromine for resource estimation and Geobank, a data management software solution that provides an environment for capturing, validating, storing and managing data from diverse sources, using a scalable data model that can be tailored to meet specific exploration and mining requirements.

Endocoal began implementation of the software in February 2011. Micromine reported that Endocoal made strong progress in refining their Geobank database to ensure a validated and consistent overview of their exploration activities. They were then able to move swiftly into the phase of using Micromine’s resource estimation capabilities to build a portfolio of their coal reserves.

Endocoal believes that with the Micromine software running internally, it will receive long-term benefit from being able to undertake resource modeling in-house. “We believe it will be simpler, faster and cheaper to format prior to being forwarded to external consultants to develop the resource models,” said Charles Lord, Endocoal resource geologist.

“We now have a formatted database, so we are able to achieve quicker turnaround times and to track data from the field to the database more accurately. Our internal and external workflows are more sound and consistent, and most importantly we have total confidence in the quality of our data,” said Lord.

Controlling Costs, Pumping Up Production
Newmont’s Midas and Leeville underground gold mines in Nevada, USA, recently installed Micromine’s Pitram Control solution.

Both mines are located in the Carlin Trend near Elko. Midas began production in the late 1990s, under the ownership of Franco-Nevada Mining Corp. In May 2001, Normandy Mining purchased Midas from Franco-Nevada. Six months later, Newmont became owner of the mine following its merger with both Normandy and Franco. The Leeville mine began production in 2006. It was Newmont’s first underground mine in Nevada accessed via a shaft.

Leeville employs around 250 workers on a typical shift and has 11 haul trucks in the mine fleet. The Midas mine has low and high grade ores, both of which are trucked to the surface by its truck fleet.

Pitram, according to Micromine, is a mine control and management reporting solution that records, manages and processes mine site data in real-time, providing an overview of a mine site’s activities by converting data into meaningful information. The mine benefits from its implementation though improved managerial control that provides the potential for managers to reduce costs, increase production, and improve safety and business intelligence capabilities.

Pitram Control is one of four products that comprise the Pitram product suite. The Pitram suite provides an upgrade path from the entry level Pitram Report solution, through to the fully automated Pitram Optimum solution.

System implementation at the two Newmont mines began in December 2010 and was completed in September 2011. Keith Preston, head of monitoring and dispatch at the Leeville mine, reported to Micromine that, “After considering a variety of mine control solutions, Newmont decided to introduce Pitram Control, and include some functionalities specific to Pitram Optimum. Following the implementation, both sites are already beginning to see the benefits that the solution has to offer.

“Pitram Control has improved safety by consistently monitoring miners and mobile equipment. The solution also provides detailed and real-time production data that is vital to maintaining efficient underground operations,” said Preston.

Micromine’s North America Manager, Colin Smith, said, “Safety is very important to Newmont, therefore Pitram Control’s safety capabilities were a major consideration for the company. Eventually, Pitram Control will interface with Mine Site Technologies’ tagging system at both mines. This interface will ensure that personnel in the control room know the exact location of equipment and miners at all times.”

Into the Iron
In April 2011, Tucson, Arizona, USA-based Mintec Inc. announced Fortescue Metals Group, Australia’s third largest iron ore producer after BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto, had selected MineSight software for mine planning.

MineSight Applications’ Perth manager, Glenn Wylde, said at the time, “This sale represents a significant breakthrough for us in the Pilbara region. Along with the sale to BC Iron last year, and headway at other major sites, we are pushing hard into one of the largest growing mining regions in the world.”

Previous to the Fortescue announcement, in December 2010, MineSight Applications announced it had landed a deal in Mongolia, winning a contract to supply software for open-pit operations at the massive Oyu Tolgoi copper project.

In November 2011, Mintec introduced MineSight 7.0. According to Mintec President John Davies, “The integration of the tools in our short-term planning suite—MineSight Interactive Planner, MineSight Haulage, MineSight Schedule Optimizer and Material Manager—provides a formidable tool for rapid schedule evaluation.

“MineSight Version 7.0 removes the limits on block model sizes,” said Davies. “Geologists and engineers using block models to make mine plans and production schedules can create models without constraint, using the latest version of MineSight 3-D. They can produce a more detailed block model, while maintaining the original block model extents.”

The latest version provides 64-bit support for drillhole management programs, MineSight Data Analyst, (MSDA) and MineSight Torque. “We have various multithreaded critical engines for performance, and the new 64-bit applications will run faster and have unlimited memory footprints,” said Davies. “Some of our MineSight Economic Planner runs are 70 times faster than older versions prior to 64-bit technology.”

Davies said that for clients, the improvements mean easier modeling and integrated mine planning. “And we are continuing to develop new tools and applications that will serve clients with underground and stratigraphic deposits.”

New Name, New Version, New Features
The latest release of enterprise software provider Ventyx’s MineScape product suite, Version 5.2, includes multi-language support, greater performance improvements to increase mine-planning speed, new design features, and other enhancements that further increase usability, according to the suite’s developer Mincom, which was acquired by ABB in mid-2011 and merged with ABB’s Network Control business group under the Ventyx name.

Additionally, MineScape 5.2 introduces four new plug-ins:

  • Haulage Roads, which guides engineers through the process of planning mine-haulage roads and dragline paths. Complex road designs can be completed in minutes, according to Ventyx, allowing engineers to compare multiple design concepts, including horizontal and vertical alignment and cut-and fill volumes.
  • Ring Design, which provides an interactive, three-dimensional Computer Aided Design (3-D CAD) environment from which users can perform underground ring drill mine design and blasting. Visualization and design tools enable users to take into consideration both planned and prior mining at different levels, and generate complex underground mine designs within minutes.
  • Underground Survey is specifically designed for underground surveying, which provides storage, management and processing of large quantities of survey-point data, as well as standard survey and orthogonal measurements. The 3-D CAD visualization tools enable users to view any selection of survey points and measurements stored in the database, with the capability of drawing schematic drives for which orthogonal measurements exist.
  • Schedule 3-D is an extension of the MineScape Schedule tool, which provides 3-D visualization of mining blocks. Typically used for underground mine scheduling, Schedule 3-D enables users to create, visualize and select designed underground stoping blocks, giving engineers a clear understanding of the scheduling steps, thus stream-lining the process.

Other improvements include the ability to integrate third-party plug-ins, new CAD dimension and measuring tools, improvements in plotting capabilities to make design time faster and more intuitive, and support for Microsoft Windows XP/7 64-bit operating systems.