Innovation Doesn’t Always Look Innovative: A Case Study in Mining
By Josh Weiss & Rhae Adams
The role of innovation in enterprise has never been pushed further into the spotlight than it is today. Disruption from inside and outside nearly every industry on the planet has challenged large organizations to coordinate and hasten their innovation initiatives. While it is easy for organizations to be overwhelmed by the ever-evolving technological options presented to them (drones! blockchain! machine learning!), it’s important not to lose sight of the real goal: generating economic value.
The focus on flashy technology can distract from what is truly important to a company. Especially in established industries, incremental improvement to operations, products, or business models remain critically important to generating value from innovation. Technology is just a tool and innovation teams should treat it as such, focusing first on a deep understanding of the root cause of the problem. By focusing on a system as a whole instead of a specific component, we’ve learned that sometimes, a simple and holistic approach provides the best results.
Solve the Problem – Don’t Worry About How
Take, for example, the rock crushing system inherent to the mining process. A known issue for some gyratory crushers is the tendency for the inlet pit to be overwhelmed by material. When too many rocks fill the pit before they can be fed passively into the crusher, the rocks interlock and create blockages. While not damaging to the hardware, these issues restrict or stop flow to the crusher and can grind operations to a halt, requiring time and resources to clear. This is not a mining-specific problem; other industries that deal with material handling such as agriculture and food processing have similar problems that they have developed solutions for over time. While this may mean many solutions exist, they can be costly or require crusher downtime to implement.
The First Mode team was tasked with solving this problem for an operation, taking a system-level view rather than starting with a solution in mind. We started by reviewing the entire solution space, from permanent hardware to reactionary operations. In order to make the solution broadly applicable, we set ourselves a basic requirement set:
the solution must be implementable at a current operational mine
it must have minimal impact to the mine operations
the cost must be low
This immediately ruled out solutions such as conveyors and permanent rock breakers, which are costly and require installation. Modification of the crusher also became a less desirable solution. While machine vision and a modeling-based solution sound like a technology-forward way to understand the problem, they did little to solve it.
In order to justify and verify the best solution, the team analyzed the root cause of the problem. Through research, it was clear that most blockages occur due to too much material being dropped into the crusher pit at once. This led the team to review in detail the processes before, during, and after the crusher, thus determining an appropriate solution.
The answer was remarkably simple: by modifying mining trucks to dump slower, the mine could continue to operate at peak efficiency without the need to modify the crusher.
Simple Solution – Real Value
It was clear to our team that when we focused on optimizing the process by ensuring the maximum amount of material constantly flowed through the crusher, the extra material building up in the crusher pit was unnecessary. By decreasing the amount of rock in the pit, the crusher could operate just as effectively without the concern of a blockage forming.
While several mines solve this problem with conveyor belts and pit geometry to slow the material feed, slowing the truck’s tipping proved to be just as effective and more cost efficient. To ensure the rest of the system was not impacted by this change, First Mode also verified that the extra time at the pit did not impact the nominal cycle time of the truck. In fact, the total time of a truck circuit decreased due to a more efficient process, with the additional benefit of not needing the occasional reroute to a stockpile when the crusher blockage needed to be removed.
This study, which we’ve provided in a more detailed White Paper, demonstrates that sometimes, the most valuable innovation looks incredibly boring and mundane. In this case, the innovation was not the forced use of a trendy technology, it was looking across interfaces to make an improvement in one part of the system, impacting another. By approaching the problem as a system-level issue, the mine saved days of downtime and millions of dollars in operations and infrastructure cost. A simple solution, while not the most obvious, is sometimes the best.
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