There has been a realisation in the mining industry that it’s far behind in terms of technology and innovation. According to Louis Marais, CEO of Somerset West-based company Stone Three Mining Solutions, the mining industry faces a number of challenges that could be alleviated by technology.
“In the Financial Times last January, the CEO of Anglo American, Mark Cutifani, acknowledged this and noted that the budgets for innovation and R&D are 10% of those of the oil and gas industries,” says Marais. “The mining industry also faces many other challenges: dropping ore grades, labour, energy costs and supply, politics and the global economy. So there is a resurgence in the belief that a new focus needs to be placed on innovation and technology.”
Stone Three Mining Solutions optimises mineral processing plants through machine vision based smart sensor technology, consultative data analysis and advanced process control services. It develops and engineers a range of machine vision solutions including froth sensors, particle size analysers, volumetric material analysers and bubble sizers that measure and optimise mineral extraction processes for the mining industry.
“As technology companies we have an important role to play in transforming the mining industry. To make this happen, in a somewhat reluctant industry, the only way is to build long term relationships based on trust. Additionally, you need to empathetically understand the challenges your clients face.”
Stone Three Mining Solutions’ business model is based on optimisation consulting, an incremental set of value offerings that build on one another, starting with a basic needs analysis and ending with implementing advanced control.
“The first differentiator we have is the ability to provide an end-to-end solution. Some technology providers will be able to supply sensor equipment but that’s the end of their scope of work. Others rely on the client putting in the right sensors before they can provide their services.”
“We provide a full range,” says Marais. “From the needs analysis, to the sensors right through to advanced control. Running a mine is a complex business so we take ownership of innovation in our clients’ minds. We start by understanding the client’s needs, we supply the right sensors and then we analyse how plant behaviour is reflected in the data provided by the sensors. We then design a control philosophy for the plant and finally implement it.”
Marais says the entire process is a consultative one based on trust.
“For example, we’re correlating our sensor data with blasting patterns for one of our clients. The blasting methods determine how your rock fragments and that has a huge effect on your downstream process. By monitoring the particle size distribution of ore at various stages in the crushing circuit, you can determine how blasting affects the downstream process – this is an example of data analysis. Another way we’re providing value for one of our clients is by correlating mill feed particle size distribution to the different feeders located under a stock pile. We do this because it’s very important to feed your mill with the correct coarse to fines ratio.”
Marais says Stone Three’s second differentiator is that it supplies a wide range of products.
“If a client needs us to optimise a plant, we can supply a variety of different sensors to get the job done. We can provide a particle size analyser in one place, a froth sensor somewhere else and so on. It enables us to provide the complete package and it benefits the client because they deal with a single company. For example, First Quantum Minerals’ mine in Kansanshi, Zambia, have six particle size analysers and six froth sensors. Anglo Platinum in Mogalakwena North have five particle size analysers and thirty four froth sensors. It enables them to closely monitor and manage their process performance.”
Closely tied to the range of products offered is the ability to craft custom solutions.
“If a client comes to us with a requirement that entails machine vision, and there is nothing available on the market, we can run a project all the way from feasibility through design to the implementation and industrialisation of the product. If needed, we have the ability to use advanced techniques related to machine learning, data mining and modelling to develop such technology. Custom solution development is another way of building trust with our clients: if we can design a complete sensor solution for a client from scratch – and they’re quite complex – it shows that we’re highly capable as a supplier in the machine vision world.”
Stone Three developed a camera based classifier that identifies different types of material on a conveyor belt for Anglo American Platinum.
“That conveyor is used to transport different batches of material at different times and it’s important for the process not to load the wrong material. The system has been running for three years now and is highly reliable. Another solution we’ve developed is for Multotec who supplies, among many things, rubber linings for grinding mills. These liners wear over time so the idea is to replace them at the correct time: too early and it gets costly, too late and the mill can be damaged. We developed a laser-based scanner that scans the inside so you can measure how worn they are and replace them when needed.”
Marais says the fourth differentiator is a high level of support.
“The world of processing plants we service is very harsh. There’s dust, moving equipment and extreme weather conditions so your system needs to be robust and reliable. But your support also needs to be reliable so we have an in-house remote support infrastructure. We can log into any of our sensors remotely and see how they are performing. We also have a live display of all sensors in the office which shows their status, the images they’ve captured and the data coming from them. This maximises the up-time of the sensors and makes sure that if they do go down, we can fix them as soon as possible. A lot of issues can be solved remotely, which is very efficient. Kansanshi Mine in Zambia is very remote and we’re able to provide online remote support to it, and deal with daily challenges faced in such a tough environment. In Lesotho, we are able to effectively support a mine at high altitude in harsh weather conditions.”
Marais says culture also plays a very big role.
“It’s easier for us to talk to customers in Southern Africa, such as in Lesotho or Zambia. The cultures are more aligned and there are also many South Africans in those countries in the mining industries. We’re in the same timezone so we can react quickly: we can go to a site very quickly if needed whereas an overseas vendor would require a few days to get to site. ”
Marais says the culture fit is just part of the overall advantage Stone Three Mining has when dealing with mining clients in Southern Africa.
“They can be confident that we know the region, we can support them and we have experience in building and monitoring products that suit their requirement. Our goal is to play a key role in the modernisation of the mining industry,” he concludes.