3D mining and the extractive industry

Materials World magazine
30 Apr 2017

3D mining technology could revolutionise the extractive industry. Claris Grimshaw reports on some of the latest software.

Promises made by producers of 3D mining software range from reduced risk and uncertainty to the ability to create, cost-free, the most elaborate mine sites imaginable. As a bonus feature, many will calculate the best operation schedules, taking into account specific production constraints and objectives. Is this too good to be true or only a surprise because of the mining sector’s slow experimentation with innovation?

Marni Rabassó, Vice President Natural Resources at Dassault Systèmes, France, a company whose expertise is based on computer-aided design but which has begun to expand its focus, believes it is the latter. ‘Looking at mining, it is pretty obvious that in terms of technology adoption they are lagging. So, there is quite a push to look at other industries and understand their best practices and tools and how to leverage those into the mining space,’ said Rabassó.

James Jobling-Purser, founder of 3DMSI, UK, has previously voiced concern (See Materials World, September 2015, page 38) that the mining industry has been slow to take up the technology and, even then, only patchily, although he noted that there was a growing appreciation of the benefits. Since then, that appreciation has grown, with more companies like Dassault Systèmes entering the market. USA-based GPS company Trimble Inc has also added mining services to its portfolio in the past four years, launching the SX10 system in 2016, and Australian mining software firm Micromine launched its latest software programme, Micromine 2016, in May 2016.

Delivering the goods  

The dramatic improvements promised may be partly down to the fact that the industry’s belated interest has left it behind other sectors, but it is also because of the huge amounts of data that 3D technologies can compile and analyse. Most versions use laser-scanning equipment to record detailed information about the mine, established or potential, including definitive coordinates for each point, creating an exhaustive map with all the geological information required for 3D modelling programs. The software can then virtually reconstruct the mapped area, showing fault planes, surface topography, important seams, and any other information required for planning and operating without requiring the traditional funding and personnel outlays.

Paul Hooykaas, Micromine Product Strategy Manager, and Frank Bilki, Micromine Technical Product Manager, explain what the company’s latest piece of software can contribute. ‘The Micromine Implicit Modelling module uses radial basis functions to model grade shells, lithology boundaries, faults or surfaces. Using 3D points, polylines, polygons or drillhole intervals as input, it generates wireframe solids representing features like lithology units or zones of a specified grade range, or wireframe surfaces such as fault planes or surface topography. These wireframes are readily displayed in Micromine’s Vizex (Visual Explorer) visualisation environment and are a valuable tool for finalising geological or grade interpretations. The intuitive tools then design an open pit using variable geotechnical parameters, converting between overall slope angle and batter angles/berm widths, and designing haul roads, slot ramps, switchbacks and cutbacks.’

Many versions of the software can also integrate a specific mine’s logistics, improving supply chain efficiency and profitability and providing real-time performance indicators to enable faster decision making. The ‘3D Experience’, offered by Dassault Systèmes, claims to offer mining companies ‘a clearer view of shipment forecasting as well as logistics planning that allows seamless integration of market demands and changes. The solution also provides real-time key performance indicators on the impact of planning decisions that can allow rapid adjustments to maintain deliveries, specifications and keep budgets on track.’

Getting on board

The approach is being adopted by many in the surveying, engineering and geomatics sectors and uptake in the mining sector is certainly improving, albeit perhaps more slowly. Adopting technological innovations can be risky, and mining is a sector with an acute awareness of risk, dependent as it is on commodity prices. Rabassó acknowledged that ‘it’s a big and scary thing to do. You are trying something that has never been done before. It takes time and conversations.’ Rabassó’s argument is that assessing and trialling projects virtually, using 3D software, reduces risk, allowing mine operators and stakeholders foresight and alternative options.  

‘Now that we’ve been using it, we can’t imagine not having it,’ said Kurt Ernstberger, Scanning Manager for surveying, engineering and geomatics company, Flatirons, USA, which has been using the SX10. ‘It eliminates the need to set up another unit, bring in that data from that scanner into the site, georeference it, make sure it falls where it needs to and do all that work in the office. With the SX10, everything appears when we download the files. Basically, it shortened our workflow.’

Hooykaas and Bilki are convinced that 3D mining technology is the future. ‘Within the context of ongoing research into wireless networking within mines, and the internet of things, future miners will have access to vast amounts of real-time information, with smart software having already extracted important knowledge from what would otherwise be an overwhelming mass of data. Things are so fast-paced and complicated nowadays, not to mention that mines are getting harder to find and are deeper than ever before, with more costly methods – there really is no other way.’ Rabassó feels similarly positive, stating, ‘If we can create a virtual world where we can literally try out anything just to see what the implications could be, imagine the level of innovation we could leverage from this!’

It’s not just the conservatism of the mining sector that has prevented appreciation and adoption of this approach, however. Previous software programmes, which are often tailored into bespoke packages, have been costly, with the steep learning curves often necessitating training for staff as well as the purchase of equipment. The benefits seem to justify the price tag, but perhaps acceptance of this latest technology will continue to be a slow process.

Dundee Precious Metals used Dassault Systèmes’ Mine Production Management and Mine Planning at its Chelopech mine, Bulgaria.

The program was used to form key components of a technology backbone, integrating with other vendors’ systems, mining equipment, and an underground Wi-Fi network, allowing the mine managers to visualise operations in real-time. Dundee Precious Metals saw an increase in production and a 44% decrease in running costs, without the need for additional equipment. Mark Cutifani, CEO of Anglo American PLC, based in London, visited the site to learn whether Anglo could adopt some of Dundee’s communications and data systems for its own operations and said he was impressed by what he saw. ‘This is where the innovations are – in the smaller mines.’

Great Panther Silver Ltd used Micromine’s original exploration and mine design solution at its Topia silver operation, Mexico.

The company wanted to organise its geological and mining data more effectively and introduce plans to secure the future of the business. Alistair Barrett, Mapping Manager, Great Panther Silver Ltd, Canada, believes Micromine has helped the company do just that over the past decade, by improving work practices and efficiencies. Barrett credits the software with helping them to introduce a smarter and more efficient way to plan and conduct exploration activities, saying, ‘Micromine has introduced significant benefits to Great Panther by improving work practices and efficiencies. The Micromine team have worked closely with Great Panther to ensure that they understand our needs and the Micromine solution continues to add value to the business.’

WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff, construction engineering company in the USA, trialled the SX10 before its launch.

Steve MacAulay, Vice President of Geomatics, UK, reported, ‘We can take a traditional eight-day job in the Fort McMurray region, where they’re drilling for samples to determine depths, among other things, and reduce it down to about three hours, so the efficiency gains are almost immeasurable. They’re off the charts.’ Another surveying job took around an hour. Without the SX10, MacAulay said that the job would have taken a full day. ‘It would have been a couple of thousand dollars at least. This is less risk, less exposure to the staff.’