By Russ Carter, Western Field 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): Underestimating 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 use 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 shortage 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, mine planning and scheduling data must be moved and re-entered, 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.

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 that it had no data management software system in place and 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 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. Micro-mine reported that Endocoal made strong progress in refining its Geobank database to ensure a validated and consistent overview of its exploration activities. Endocoal was then able to move swiftly into the phase of using Micro-mine’s resource estimation capabilities to build a portfolio of its 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 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.

Micromine has also developed a coal solution, Coal Measure, which is a fast, accurate and dynamic system for coal data management, coal data preparation, geology interpretation, gridded seam modeling, resource categorization, resource reporting, pit optimization, pit design, underground design, survey and plotting.

Providing fast, easy to learn, graphical tools, mine planners can create 3-D geological models for interpretation of the most complex faults.

A coal washability function will model a complete wash curve, calculate cumulative data from fractional washability data; provide access to regularization tools to interpolate missing data and compile a standard wash matrix; and features to export coal washability tables.

Possessing a comprehensive list of features, Coal Measure’s key benefits include accuracy, speed, exceptional user-friendly functions and integration features.

Into the Iron
In April 2011, Tucson, Ariz.-based Mintec Inc. announced that Fortescue Metals Group, Australia’s third largest iron ore producer after BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto, had selected Mintec’s 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. Mintec President John Davies said, “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. Geologists and engineers using block models to make mine plans and production schedules can create models without constraint, using the latest version of MineSight 3D. They can produce a more detailed block model, while maintaining the original block model extents,” Davies said.

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. “We are continuing to develop new tools and applications that will serve clients with underground and stratigraphic deposits,” he said.

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 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 provides an interactive, three-dimensional Computer Aided Design (3D 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 3D 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 3D is an extension of the MineScape Schedule tool, which provides 3-D visualization of mining blocks. Typically used for underground mine scheduling, Schedule 3D enables users to create, visualize and select designed underground stoping blocks, giving engineers a clear understanding of the scheduling steps, thus streamlining 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.