Product customisation in the mining sector is a major trend in the development of comminution equipment of late. Modern Mining approached a few players in this field to identify the drivers behind this trend and their individual responses to it. We also explore some key considerations for the manufacture of bespoke comminution equipment. By Mark Botha

The day – t o – day activities of mining operations are now more dynamic than ever, and every project has its own specific range of ore vari­ ability, says Kim Schoepflin, CEO of vibrating equipment service provider Kwatani.

She says scarce resources and cost pressures are increasingly challenging the mineral processing industry.

“‘The need has therefore arisen for each piece of equipment in the process to deliver efficient out­ put to the exact specification and at the lowest cost possible. The nee d for customised comminution equipment is driven by this need for efficient pro­ duction throughput to specification.”

She says mineral processing is complex and com­ bines a sequence of “interlocked unit operations,” each affecting the performance of downstream processes and impacting overall plant performance.

“Equipment sourced from a catalogue is limited to range of output parameters and does not fit the footprint of every existing plant and infrastructure seamlessly,” she says.

To Glenn Schoeman, business line manager at Sandvik Mining & Rock Technology, pressure on mar­ gins and sustainability in the mining sector mean that mines are working more closely with their technol­ogy partners and looking to companies like Sandvik for added value in their comminution offerings.

“An important aspect of this is our ability to cus­tomise equipment for optimal performance in the customer’s particular application. It goes further, however, to the way we customise our broader ser­vice offering. This requires us to listen closely to what customers really need, and to adapt the way we work to meet their requirements.”

He says this makes Sandvik’s research and development a “central element” of its success.

“A key task for our people is to gather accurate information from customers and to process customer feedback. This is entered into the R&D processes to guide our technical and strategic thinking.”

On a technical level, the focus on customisation also extends beyond the equipment provided by Sandvik.

“In our collaboration with the customer, we look at how our solution can optimise upstream and downstream elements of the process flow. Each technology provider’s input must contribute to the overall efficiency of the comminution process so that customisation impacts the bottom line.”

B&E International director Ken Basson notes that customers in commodity sectors such as gold, coal, aggregates, copper and diamonds are experiencing “considerable challenges”.

“On the one hand,” he says, “there is downward pressure on revenue as a result of either pricing vol­atility or beneficiation yields while, on the other, they experience ever-increasing input cost escalation.”

He says local currency volatility, combined with continuous depreciation against other major curren­cies over time, is proving to be a major cost driver in the mineral processing value chain.

“In this context, a vital aspect to consider is the

reliability and maintainability of the minerals pro­cessing equipment employed within the mining industry. With the ever-increasing capital cost of equipment, mines are extending the service life of their equipment.”

This. says Sasson, means that greater emphasis must be placed on preventive and predictive main­tenance philosophies.

“This situation has fuelled the need for product customisation, creating equipment that is fit-for-pur­pose, reliable, easily maintainable and suited to our harsh operating conditions in remote locations.”

Pilot Crushtec lnternational’s Africa sales man­ ager Fernando Abelho says changing operating conditions and the fact that previously un-minable resources are becoming viable due to new techno-  logy require customised products which, in turn, call for an extensive understanding of the ore and oper­ating conditions.

‘The reality is that clients often don’t have the resources to carry out thorough evaluations of their concessions. The cost and time involved in feasibility studies and in designing bespoke plants often means that only major players with consider­ able resources and a life of mine covering decades can afford these types of product or plant.”

This, however, is not a realistic option to the majority of operations and Pilot Crushtec’s “standardised” modular plants mean quick, proven and cost-effective solutions are on offer.

“This means the end-user can take advantage of favourable commodity prices in a shorter time frame and at a reliable rate. Should operating conditions change, the modular design allows for the plant to be relocated or the design to be changed with relative ease.”

Customisation drivers

Kwatani’s Schoepflin singles out cost and performance as the under­ lying factors driving the need for customisation.

“In manufacturing, virtual design software tools and digital prototyping of the ore and processing flows tear down barriers such as time, money, distance and language to create a team-like ecosystem in which met­ allurgists, engineers and end-users collaborate continuously from concept to production.”

She says the company believes in a better-designed result which “costs less to manufacture, does the job, increases productivity and meets the end-user’s needs.”

Sass on agrees that cost is an underlying driver for the customisation requirement. He notes that the South African rand has depreciated by 83% and142% against the euro and the US dollar respectively over the last 10 years.

“Current volatility in the financial markets will exacerbate this,” he says. “The significance lies in the fact that most replacement components to sus­ tain the minerals processing equipment must be imported.”

He believes this will create opportunities for local equipment manufacturers able to focus on in-house design and the development of minerals processing equipment. In addition, he says, more emphasis is needed on maximising the sourcing of spare parts locally.

“The minerals processing equipment employed on site must be fit-for-purpose, meaning that it must be reliable in harsh and remote locations. It must also be easy to maintain, with minimal technical complexity, so that the equipment design minimises the mean-time to repair and reduces downtime.”

He says “very strict” health and safety protocols are required to operate mobile crushing plant specifically, so access to the equipment is highly restricted during operation. This, however, means that the equipment’s performance cannot be effec­tively monitored and improved upon where required. Product development should therefore overcome the impact of these restrictions.

“Locally produced spare parts must be avail­ able more readily and at lower cost than imported variants. Equipment must be designed to accommo­date larger production demand fluctuations without compromising quality. Customisation should also optimise the client’s unit cost of production to maxi­mise profitability.”

To Sandvik’s Schoeman, one of the strongest drivers for customisation in mining is safety, “with zero harm now a well-applied principle in every mine”. This, he says, aligns closely with the company’s own commitment to safety and design philosophy.

“Another important and closely related driver is automation,” says Schoeman. “As technology develops, especially in the digital arena, we are able to make our equipment both safer and more productive”.

“While automation systems have been integral to our equipment for over 20 years, the power of digitalisation and connectivity is leading to many advances, including telemetry tools that optimise equipment availability and uptime, while reducing overall running costs.”

He cites, as an example, the fact that wear pat­ terns can be tracked more closely, and the data represented on information dashboards.

” These offerings can be customised to each user’s requirements. ensuring that they serve the imperative of continuous improvement.”

Abelho says Pilot Crushtec lnternational is seeing an increase in demand for its off-the-shelf mobile and modular equipment.

“This is the case especially in times of economic turmoil, as time is of the essence to take advan­tage of opportunities and operators need reliable solutions.”

He says concessions can be mined, income generated, and the operating conditions fully under­ stood “in record time”.

“It is then possible for more specialised or larger plants to be erected while revenue streams continue to flow in.”

Industry responses

Addressing Pilot Crushtec’s response to the need for bespoke comminution equipment, Abelho says the company is continuously refining its range, despite the fact that its modular range has remained consistent over the last 15 to 20 years.

“Improvements to products often result directly from a particular operating condition, we haven’t encountered before or an insight from a client. This means a constant and steady evolution of the pro-duct range based on an immense range of operating conditions.”

Clients often require “new” solutions for specific objectives. Should this present an opportunity for products that will meet the needs of a larger mar­ket, the company will invest time and R&D spend to develop the product.

“This enables us to offer ready-made solutions backed by large parts holdings as we have under­ taken the research and evaluation phases prior to roll-out.”

He describes the benefits to the client as “numerous” and cites the financial perspective as an example.

“Funding is tied up for shorter periods. in terms of both Capex and Opex. Many specialised solutions entail long lead times, so critical spares lists must be more comprehensive to negate the impacts of breakdowns, which ties up cash flow even further.”

Schoepflin says Kwatani’s response to the need for customisation is a “significant investment” in its engineered solutions abilities to offer its customers a value-added benefit.

“This is the sum total of our experience, coupled with the specific expertise we bring into analysing the customer application and developing the most cost effective and technologically relevant solutions.” She says Kwatani’s in-house team of mechanical engineers and metallurgists consults extensively with each customer to provide customised screening and feeding solutions designed to deliver optimal processing performance and tonnage at the lowest cost of ownership. These solutions can be tailored to replace the existing equipment footprint, which avoids changes to the plant, if and when required. “We have invested in a fully-fledged, in-house laboratory for material testing, coupled with our in­ house process sizing software. Each Kwatani design is produced using the latest 3D modelling and design techniques.”

She says all designs are subjected to finite ele­ment analysis to verify engineering integrity, and all vibrating equipment is tested at Kwatani’s in­ house test facility for conformance to the design specification.

Sasson says B&E International has over 40 years’ experience in minerals processing and offers “truly bespoke” comminution solutions.

“We owe this to our technical expertise as an operator, an equipment designer and a manufac­turer. Our service offering gives customers the option of three different value propositions: build, own, operate and transfer (BOOT), as well as engineer­ing, procurement, construction and management (EPCM), and toll processing.”

He says the BOOT concept generates interest, especially from junior miners, as it reduces financial and operational risk. The company designs, con­ structs and operates a minerals processing plant on behalf of the customer, allowing them to focus on other aspects of their business.

“In this model, we own the plant for a pre-deter­ mined period. Once our contractual obligations are fulfilled, the customer has the option to take over the plant at a value agreed on in the BOOT contract.”

He says B&E International has executed several of these con­ tracts with great success.

“In the EPCM model, the customer opts to self-finance the plant, and contracts us to operate it on their behalf, at a fixed rate.”

The third option, toll-based processing, removes any operational or financial risk from the customer, as the company charges a fixed cost for processing their commodity.

Sandvik’s core focus, says Schoeman, is on crushing and screening process equipment and services, and the company has developed a flexible product range to suit customer requirements in hard rock applications.

“The design flexibility caters to extensive cus­tomisation wherever necessary,” he says. “Our R&D efforts are informed by customers’ input and our global experience at many hundreds of mining sites.” These developments include wear and spare parts, with a range of special alloys to customise the crushing chamber, the profiles and wear-resistant properties of which can extend chamber lifetimes by up to 20%.

“We have also developed a world-first product to mitigate the impact of metal contamination in a crushing and screening circuit. An electronic tramp iron relief system, the E-Dump, samples hydraulic pressure 200 times per second, reacting instantly to uncrushable objects or fine material packed in the crushing chamber.”

Key considerations for customisation

To Schoeman, “it all starts with a clear understanding of the customer’s brief and knowing exactly what the final product must deliver. Working back from that point, we design our product offering to provide a customised solution.”

The Sandvik Plant Designer, an internal process design program, ensures that such customisation is effective and accurate.

“Aspects such as the correct crushing chamber selection play a vital role in this process, as the opti­mal output from the crusher will also enhance the efficiency of other production elements such as vibrating screens, chutes and conveyors.”

He says it must be borne in mind that customi­sation applies not only to new items of equipment but also to existing equipment in the process plant. Conditions at mines, including ore body character­istics, change constantly, affecting the performance and longevity of the equipment.

“Ongoing collaboration with the mine’s metallur­gical manager and engineering professionals allows us to optimise the technology as conditions change.

This might be fine-tuning the bed depth on a screen or flagging the performance of a chute.”

Schoepflin views understanding the exact cus­tomer requirements and budget at the outset as “imperative”.

“In an advisory capacity, Kwatani builds trust with our customers and they soon rely on us to understand their process needs, and on our abil­ ity to merge those needs with equipment solutions aligned to the plant infrastructure and cost budget.” She says the company tests the client’s material and application to the required efficiency and tonnage output at its in-house laboratory.

“Our laboratory houses testing screens and other vibrating units. We are able to adapt every screening parameter prior to defining the screening parameters and designing the solution.”

Sasson adds that fit- for-purpose equipment should be easy to maintain. with minimal mean time to repair. The equipment should also be reliable to minimise mean time between failures and should be manufactured with as little complexity and at the lowest cost possible, with maximum local content in terms of spares.

“At the same time, the equipment must meet or exceed the client’s quality conformance require­ments while meeting their operational demands.”

Pilot Crushtec’s Abelho notes the “many factors” to consider, some which, including understanding the operational conditions and the ore characteris­tics, may slip under the radar.

“Many Central and West African mines struggle with long rainy seasons and a high percentage of clay in the feed material. Plant setup and produc­ tion values can vary greatly between wet and dry seasons, meaning that some of the equipment setup must be flexible and suited to varying conditions.”

He says clients should bear in mind that bespoke equipment can only be serviced and maintained by one supplier, and that finding parts during break­ down can be a challenge.

There is also the likelihood that operation of bespoke equipment will be highly specialised which also makes finding resources a challenge.

“Skill levels and the remoteness of the site are other important factors. Many mines are located in remote areas where third party assistance is limited or even non-existent. Hi-tech solutions can be very reliable, but when they do need attention, it can take a technician two or three days just to get to site.”

Milestone customisation projects

To demonstrate the importance of understanding the customer, their ore. application and the true per­formance and potential of the process equipment, Schoepflin relates a case study where Kwatani opti­mised equipment performance.

A customer struggled with underperforming screens which were unable to deliver to the original design parameters. The client also wanted to increase the tonnage throughput by 17%.

After evaluation and consultation with the client, we customised a solution to increase the existing screen’s delivered tonnage. One solution could have been to replace the existing screens with Kwatani’s new, larger screens, but this   would   have been costly and time consuming.”

Instead, the company offered a simple solution whereby the screen’s existing gearboxes were replaced with alternatives delivering greater vibration without exceeding the out­put torque provided by the motors driving the gearboxes.

“With our range of locally designed and manu­factured exciters and gearboxes in our product portfolio, we could provide the customer with two new exciter gearboxes, delivered to site and opera­tional within two weeks.”

She says that, as a result of the intervention, the drive motors also drew lower Amps, resulting in reduced power usage.

In another instance of customisation, this time at local platinum mine, Sandvik had the opportunity to introduce to industry its CH870i cone crusher.

“This tried and tested model came with the latest components and upgrades, including our automation and connectivity system (ACS) and the My Sandvik Productivity platform,” says Schoeman. “This had been on the customer’s wish list for some time, and the installation transformed the mine’s processing operation, moving it a step closer to becoming a mine of the future.”

He says the mine is currently looking to replace a second existing crusher with one of these models.

In B&E International’s case, bespoke solutions requested by customers have included design changes to third party equipment, in one instance involving the requirement for a truck unloader system (TUS).

Sasson says the imported TUS was to be used in conjunction with a stacking conveyor system at a mine. The material conditions were such that the TUS could not achieve the required throughput tonnages.

“Given the design of the unit, reliability was another major concern which caused frequent down time. The client approached us because the original supplier would not perform design changes to address the performance shortcomings.

“After our redesign to suit the local conditions, the TUS met the customer’s expectations and the unit continues to operate in a reliable and cost-effective manner, while throughput conformance has been exceeded.”

A milestone project for Pilot Crushtec involved the DoppiaTrac DR400, which Abelho says was one of the world’s first mobile double-rolls crushers, if not the first, designed and built for the coal industry.

“Uncertain demand means that mines often require contractors on site to boost production without having to invest in major new plant. Mine contractors can now process coal to Eskom standards, while minimising fines using mobile equipment,” he says.

“Should the mine require additional production, its contractors can now mobilise and establish a site within hours as a direct result of market interest in taking the double-roll crusher methodology and creating this mobile plant setup.”

He says the company’s engineers invested time in research and development, understood the ore characteristics, the parts required, the crushing methodology and others, and were able to “take that idea and convert it into a now standardised product, which has effectively become available off the shelf.”

The company has also recently developed a modular low-level apron feeder for clients to tip into, so avoiding the requirement for civils structures.

“It started as a client request and, after some evaluation by our product committee, we identified an opportunity for a product that could solve many of our clients’ problems. Two units have been supplied and a third is currently in production.

“Interestingly, the first two units are for use in a diamond mining application. while the third unit is meant for a coal operation. The fact that the clients opted for a standardised solution means that they will have better insight into the operating parameters. Lead times, too, are shorter, the parts supply is stable and the unit dimensions are well known for rapid and accurate installation”.

Parting shots

Schoepflin says Kwatani’s products and services can be thought of in terms of their relation to the three industrial revolutions, the first of which concentrated on the production of goods while the second focused on mass production. The focus of the Third Industrial Revolution was mass customisation of goods and services. “Looking ahead and upon the commencement of real-time decisions, the internet of things, artificial intelligence, mobile networks and other digital technologies, cost effective customisation has been empowered significantly, but this means progressing customisation into the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which will include real-time customisation.”

She says that, with the advance of artificial intelligence, the Fourth Industrial Revolution will allow for multiple activities to be tackled simultaneously, in real-time and in a customised manner.

Sandvik’s Schoeman agrees that technology is opening up opportunities to provide high-level technical support remotely, by using innovations such as interactive goggles linking mine personnel to the experts. “This allows closer and more hands-on intervention and support where the customer demands it. We can also share valuable technical insights regularly, in video format and through popular platforms such as WhatsApp. These value-added services are increasingly in demand as part of the bouquet of customised service offerings.”

He says Sandvik’s success in customising solu­tions lies with its commitment to R&D through a technological road map which guides the company’s product development into the future.

“This process draws data from our on-site experience and regular customer surveys. What we learn is fed into our technical and executive meetings which drive our innovation efforts continuously.”

Basson says B&E International’s approach and solutions have an important application among emerging mining contractors.

“There is much talk about awarding mining projects to emerging contractors, but these young companies still face a variety of challenges that hin­der their success. Chief among these is the lack of technical expertise and experience, and the capacity to raise finance for the necessary capital equipment for their projects.”

The company is partnering with emerging con­ tractors to provide its four decades of experience in designing, engineering, building and operating its own mobile and static plants on a toll basis.

“In these joint ventures, we provide the equip­ment and the technical aptitude to execute the projects. In the process, we also upskill the emerging contractors and help them develop into major play­ers in the industry.”

He says B&E International uses its resources and in-house manufacturing capabilities to minimise the capital cost for its JV partners.

“Our cost-effective processing plant, operated on a toll basis, facilitates the entry of new players into the market. Our input gives new entrants the opportunity to get projects going by mitigating our partners’ financial and operational risk. We operate the plant at the lowest possible cost per tonne, on a continuous and sustainable basis, and assume that key element of risk in the joint venture.”

The company also offers consultancy ser­vices to mining companies, with a specific focus on the optimisation of existing operations such as upgrades and process optimisation studies. Pilot Crushtec’s Abelho says the limits of new technology and materials are being tested continuously, opening up customised solutions for challenges that were previously difficult to resolve, whether it be due to cost or to technological limitations.