Historically perceived as being slow to adapt to technology and change, the mining sector is undergoing a major transformation. Companies have often cut costs to increase profitability, but these companies are now under increasing pressure to reduce costs and increase productivity in a sustainable manner.
“We have seen environmental and social impacts in greenfield projects and related costs into all phases of the life cycle of mining operations. We can no longer focus exclusively on the economic aspects of the business,” says Walter Valery, Global Director Consulting at Hatch - providers of engineering, technology, and full end-to-end solutions to the metals, energy, infrastructure, digital, and investments market sectors.
“We need to find and apply technical solutions for reducing water, energy consumption, and greenhouse gas emissions, while enhancing business and financial performance.”
The industry is cyclical in nature, representing a key driver of change and indeed a pressure on companies to derive greater value and cost efficiencies wherever possible. Throughout his career, Valery has played a key role in elevating and running technology and technical consulting at high, strategic levels within corporations; and worked closely with colleagues in mergers and acquisitions, business improvement, and financial areas.
This, he feels, has provided him with a unique understanding of the market and where companies are looking to invest, and how they choose to do so.
“I’ve built and worked with teams of credible and well recognised specialists in the industry, allowing us to establish strong links with clients, understand their needs, provide solutions and, in many cases, assist them with decision making,” he adds. “Partnering with clients through consulting and technology will lead to novel solutions through the generation of new ideas and innovations, ultimately leading to our clients’ success.”
Companies are looking for smart, strategic partnerships, and new ways to deploy capital. Hatch has an Advisory group specialised in market studies, strategic development, business improvement, and operational readiness to enable clients to achieve the full potential of both new and existing assets.
“Additionally, we are expanding the reach of our investment activities and leveraging our deep, technical insight to identify opportunities that others miss.”
The alignment between engineering, technology, consulting, and digital capabilities in the company is something that Valery considers a key differentiator between Hatch and any other company that works with the mining industry.
“The combination of technical specialists and engineers from different fields and cultures also ensures delivery of the most advanced solutions in brownfield and greenfield projects,” says Valery.
In his role as global director, Valery has global responsibility for consulting in mining and minerals processing, as well as minerals processing engineering projects in the Australia and Asia region. This allows Hatch to combine the learnings obtained from optimisation consulting (brownfield projects) with technology development, and rapidly implement them in greenfield design and expansion projects.
At the very core of delivering value to its clients is sustainability.
“In both our consulting optimisation and engineering projects, our team proposes innovative resource and eco-efficient mining and processing practices, from mine to plant, to increase overall profitability and reduce environmental impact, thus delivering ‘positive change’ for our customers and establishing long standing relationships,” he says.
“Aligning with Hatch’s strategy, we embrace our clients’ visions as our own, and work closely together, as partners, to develop better solutions that are smarter, more efficient, and innovative.”
Working with technology in the mining industry requires a key understanding that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Valery recognises that there are a number of factors that make each operation unique. Be it different orebody and ore types, geographical location, local environmental factors, local politics, economic climate, company culture, market fluctuations, existing equipment, and processes, or even historical practices.
A successful mine-to-process optimisation demands a very good understanding of many of these.
“Extensive data collection and analysis, mathematical modelling, and simulation techniques combined with extensive industrial experience are required to identify solutions tailored to each operation,” says Valery.
There is an industry-wide challenge surrounding new orebodies discovered near the surface, as the majority of exploration drilling and expenses still occur at these depths. These new deposits have typically lower grades, more complex mineralogy, and are increasingly more difficult to treat. For these, the question becomes: How do we extract the resource efficiently and profitably?
“We are working with many clients, suppliers, and technology partners to develop and utilise more efficient technologies to extract valuable minerals more economically and with less environmental impact,” says Valery.
To this end, Hatch has been developing and working on projects to implement concepts to increase resource and eco-efficiency in the industry. These solutions may incorporate a number of alternative operating strategies in the mine and processing plants and new circuit flowsheets; in most cases, using existing or relatively easily-adapted technologies for implementation in the short term. “We consider integration of mine and plant design with a range of possibilities and opportunities, such as high intensity and selective blasting; early waste-rejection through pre-concentration including sensor-based ore sorting; energy efficient comminution technologies including high-pressure grinding rolls and stirred mills; coarser flotation/separation processes, less water and generation of less tailings,” says Valery.
“While we work on how to extract value economically and sustainably from these orebodies, the next obvious challenge is how to find additional ‘Tier One’ orebodies that are long-life and have high grades.” These Tier One orebodies will prove crucial to meet the growing demand for resources in the next decade resulting from a growing population and the industrialisation of developing nations.
“If past discovery rates and sizes are a guide, this demand is unlikely to be met. Therefore, it is necessary to search elsewhere, in places that have not been searched before; that is, at greater depths on land and in the oceans,” he says.
“There are some initiatives underway, but there should be a lot more work and faster development in these areas if we are to meet the demand for mined resources in the near future.”
Another challenge is one of fostering change at the actual mine sites, working with the mine and plant operators to embrace a newer model of operating.
Historically, it was commonplace at a mine site to see mining engineers barely speaking to their colleagues in the processing plant. It was also very common to see the mine managing its costs and KPIs to deliver certain volume with certain grade to ‘their customer’, the downstream processing plant.
The result? Both mine and plant spending significant effort, time, and money to run and optimise their operations in isolation. The challenge then becomes one of cultural change.
The technical aspects of integration and optimisation of the entire production chain in a mining operation are relatively easy compared to the cultural changes required,” says Valery. “The solutions are not standard and need to be tailored to suit each operation, as well as its people and culture.
To be successful and maintained in the long term, any implementation will need the operation’s people to ‘buy in’ and be motivated and incentivised to change. This can be facilitated by knowledge transfer: providing training and education in what we are changing and why it works.”
Throughout his career, Valery has set up technology centres all around the world, which further foster and enable innovative thinking across the industry. Valery is also a board director at AMIRA International, an independent global member-based organisation of mining and supplier companies, and an adjunct professor at the Sustainable Minerals Institute and School of Earth and Environmental Science at the University of Queensland.
“Greater idea generation and execution comes from large networks of leading researchers and industry experts with varying backgrounds and experience, and collaboration with technology and research centres are essential,” he says. “Working closely with and supporting the education sector further demonstrates how collaboration will continue to play a key role in answering the challenges of today and tomorrow. A very good example is the collaboration with the Sustainable Minerals Institute at the University of Queensland in Australia.”
Looking to the future, the best practices and the innovative thinking of today will need to change as the industry continues to evolve. Understanding this continuously changing landscape will prove crucial in order to continue to operate in the industry and not fall behind.
Valery observes that some recent industry discussions are not based on a technical understanding or insight into the mining industry today or in the future. For example, the conversation surrounding automation of mining trucks and remote operation and control centres is not actually presenting anything new.
“There is nothing futuristic about these solutions: they are well known and have been extensively discussed for more than ten years,” he says. “They have been adapted from other industries for a few large mining operations.”
In the mining of the near future, it will be crucial to utilise more efficient technologies to extract valuable minerals more economically and with less environmental impact.
The industry will need to utilise people (and their energy) by adapting and training them to acquire the skills required by the mining industry, thus creating local jobs, supporting regional development, and building more sustainable mining communities.
Hatch is well positioned to continue to bring together industry professionals, technologists, and education sectors to enable this industry change.
“Companies will not be able to afford to sit still waiting for someone else to develop a single solution for current and future challenges,” says Valery. “Rather, they are already engaging with suppliers, service and technology providers to use the best of technology and engineering to develop tailored solutions.”