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Growing expectations and risk drive blasting bar higher

In every aspect of mining today, the watchword is productivity; drill and blast functions are no exception, and the pressure to perform better is equally on suppliers.

The demands do not end there, however. There are rising expectations that blasting delivers not only a safe and cost-effective blast result on site, but an outcome that satisfies stakeholders outside of the mine itself. The voice of communities is louder than ever, and all elements of mine activity must contribute to the operation’s social licence to operate.

The good news is that technology is being steadily evolved within the drill and blast space – constantly redefining what it means to be ‘best in class’. Through constant innovation, industry is improving the products we employ in the blasting process, as well as the way we plan, execute, monitor and assess blasts.

Mines are aware, for instance, of the value of whittling down the time taken to plan and execute safe blasts. There are many steps involved and these require careful checking and re-checking of parameters. Digital technologies are taking out much of the manual data collection and capturing traditionally associated with blasting. Not only does this contribute to productivity by saving precious time – it also reduces the likelihood of error and the need to manually re-check data.

Hand-held devices, web applications and on-mine connectivity are important parts of the technology ecosystem that allow productivity innovations to be applied. As operations strive to be leaner, without compromising quality, they must look to these technologies for improvements.

Most mines will also have to deal with the inevitable decline in their efficiencies as mining progressively increases the physical distance between the orebody and the mill. Every extra metre that a haul truck has to travel adds to the production cost, and these inefficiencies must be overcome.

Crucial to doing this is the alignment of key performance indicators (KPIs) among those involved in planning, drilling and blasting – and in other mine functions. Often there are different departments on a mine – or different suppliers if these tasks are outsourced – responsible for the respective duties that make up the process.

There may be pressure from internal stakeholders to hold down costs and this may lead to lower powder factors being used in each blast. When this cost focus leads to inadequate fragmentation, however, the result is damaging on downstream milling operations – who are essentially internal customers or stakeholders. This eventually undermines recoveries, revenues and overall enterprise sustainability. Digital data management and analysis plays a valuable role here; it allows management to garner – often in real time – an accurate quantification of its decisions.

Mining is necessarily a complex undertaking, with a variety of specialists whose focus frequently isolates them from colleagues in other functions. The danger of working in silos is that KPIs and incentives may conflict in unseen ways; data integration helps to reduce this risk. Of course, this also demands that every facet of the operation is leveraging the digital technologies that generate and communicate the data that management needs. The drill and blast functions certainly are.

This lesson about internal stakeholders applies as much to external stakeholders. Just as mines pursue best practice internally to improve performance, so they are increasingly required to adapt their operations to the demands of outside stakeholders. In the drill and blast space, this relates often to the impact of issues like blast vibration on communities. Larger blasts are popular for mines because they benefit from an economy of scale, and reduce mine downtime due to stoppages while blasting. However, while increasing the size of the blast and the powder factor may serve productivity in the short term, it may undermine the social licence in the long term.

Again, technology is helping to address many of these issues as it pushes out the best-in-class boundaries. Increasingly sophisticated software and modelling tools now facilitate better blast planning, while products like electronic detonators and advanced initiation systems translate these designs into highly predictable blasts. Electronic detonators allow multiple delays in a single blast-hole, so that there is less charge and energy released per detonator. The intricate timing delivered by these detonators ensures no overlap of individual holes.

This makes it possible to increase the size of the overall blast without raising the safety risks related to vibration, air blast, fly-rock or other dangers. Indeed, recent cases in the United States have shown how communities have the power to demand that mines use more updated technology if this helps to reduce the vibration impact.

In the industry’s quest to reach best-in-class drill and blast milestones and build further upon them, suppliers can be a great help to our mining customers. As we operate in a variety of locations and for a range of customers, we see what works best and we can compare results across sites. It is all part of a vital process of raising the bar for a more efficient and productive mining sector.

By Joe Keenan, Managing Director, BME