Routine maintenance, along with several other crucial factors, are key to improving uptime and increasing profitability for mines.

Given the business climate recently, it is understandable why many companies have had to cut back. However, cutting corners on crucial maintenance won’t pay off in the long-run – vehicle and equipment failures and malfunctions can slow and even completely stall operations by far longer for mines than routine maintenance operations would require.

Maintenance – working smart, not hard

Mining operations and machines, including drills, trucks and processing equipment, vary in nature and complexity, and each part has its own wear points, any of which could fail if unmaintained and cause significant periods of downtime.

While hesitation around frequent maintenance is understandable from a cost and productivity standpoint, technological advances in preventative maintenance have made these processes a lot more streamlined, efficient, and cost-effective.

Preventative and corrective maintenance are the two traditional maintenance approaches that the global mining industry has long relied on. However, predictive maintenance strategies have shown up as a far more efficient solution.

Devan Reddy, Field Product Manager – Power Management and Control Components at Eaton, said that with digital transformation creating new possibilities for the mining industry, predictive maintenance has become a crucial part of the maintenance conversation too. “And the benefits of predictive maintenance for mines are two-fold – not only does it help prevent catastrophic failure that can cause damage to personnel and equipment, but it also allows maintenance staff to plan correctly and put in place alternate processes to try and keep the plant operating.”

Examples of predictive maintenance and predictive maintenance sensors include vibration analysis, oil analysis, thermal imaging, and equipment observation. These innovations are increasingly being used in mines to ensure increased uptime by optimising how maintenance gets done.

“Ultimately, maintenance is a manual intervention, but the process of understanding when to perform maintenance can be automated. This is where Industrial internet of things (IIOT) can come in to play,” says Reddy. “IIOT fundamentally is all about getting information via sensors or equipment with intelligence built in. This information can be used to automatically raise alarms when pre-determined conditions, for example operating temperatures, are exceeded.

The growing need for alternative energy

Ageing machinery and normal wear and tear are not the only factors affecting uptime and necessitating maintenance. Mining operators at some of the largest mines in the country have reported operations and processes being severely affected by load-shedding. In fact, mines were forced to halt operations entirely in 2019 as a result of stage 6 loadshedding being implemented and requests from the national utility to reduce consumption.

Power interruptions cause loss in production output and, as a result, revenue. It also has implications for the safety and wellbeing of workers in mines, often requiring that personnel be evacuated and operations come to a standstill. From a life safety point of view, many mines are opting to install emergency lighting that is energy efficient and powered from off-grid sources to not only ensure the safety of workers but help prevent unnecessary downtime where possible.

Grid instability has also brought the topic of alternative energy sources such as solar, hydro and wind power to the fore, as well as replacing equipment with more energy-efficient models and installing uninterrupted power supply (UPS) systems to help reduce overall power consumption.

“UPS setups are crucial in mining settings for safeguarding critical devices, hardware and machinery from damage and arc flash incidents. Essentially, they allow mining operators to safely shut down and back up data in emergency situations, and before a power cut occurs,” explained Jaco du Plooy, product manager at Eaton.

From poor maintenance protocols to power instability, there are many factors that can have an enormously negative impact on production and profit, not to mention the possible risk to human life and the environment. For this reason, the mining industry should be focused on implementing new strategies that also employ digital technology to reduce unplanned downtime while still saving money with a positive bottom-line impact.

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