Maintaining Mining Momentum
By Ed Sullivan, on behalf of the North Central Group Ltd.
With the mining sector booming, some operators choose to run equipment until it breaks down, figuring that emergency maintenance is just as practical as scheduled maintenance. Yet, in terms of added downtime, maintenance costs and safety issues, the gamble may not be worth it.
The resurgence of mining continues to have a dramatic impact on local economies across Canada, putting to work manpower, heavy equipment and capital throughout the country. Yet, while investment funds are readily available, the demands on skilled personnel and maintaining maximum uptime can threaten the ultimate profitability among some mining operations.
"In most regions those problems are related, and to some extent that situation encourages some mining operations to run without scheduled maintenance of equipment," says Dan Schreiner, president of Prince George, BC-based North Central Machine Group. "During boom periods it's often difficult to find qualified skilled workers for trades and staff positions at mining operations. Also, there is the tendency for mines to run at full throttle, putting aside equipment maintenance until the market slows or equipment fails."
Schreiner says that some operators will argue that with or without scheduled maintenance the bottom line is the same. He cautions that while the frequency of need to repair or rebuild equipment may be similar, the consequences of ignoring regular scheduled maintenance can be much more dramatic and painful. The downtime resulting from unplanned equipment failure may be considerably longer than with scheduled, well planned shutdowns for maintenance. Additionally, the equipment repair or replacement may be considerably more expensive. Plus, there may be some increased safety risks resulting from catastrophic equipment failures.
"The downtime period may be far more extensive than foreseen," Dan Schreiner says. "First of all, catastrophic failures can be very time consuming to repair or replace. They may cause 'consequential' damage to other equipment, worsening the scale of service problems. There is probably no backup equipment, and the size of mining machinery is relatively large, making repair more difficult and time consuming. Mechanics, welders and technicians are in heavy demand during peak periods, so it can also take time to muster a qualified crew, and there may be some distance involved, which means travel. So, mining companies who need outside maintenance services may have to wait longer than they would hope to get on-site service. If there is a major rebuild or replacement involved, downtime can be extensive and expensive."
Mr. Schreiner says the mining industry is not unique in such problems, His company is a specialist in maintaining, repairing and rebuilding equipment used in the pulp & paper, sawmill, utilities and mining industries. Each of those sectors tends to run hot and heavy, he says, which makes scheduled maintenance and service contracts all the more important.
"Not everyone can repair mining equipment," adds Dan Schreiner. "Not only is the equipment big and bulky, but it takes a highly organized approach to repair it correctly, economically and safely."
North Central Group places great emphasis on organization and planning when it comes to equipment maintenance and repair. Every job goes through a several steps before the crews arrive on site. A preliminary job audit, job hazard analysis, equipment requirements, detailed schedule and pre-job review is completed to maximize the productivity of the crews. Numerous examples have proven a return on investment of 8:1 or greater when quality planning and scheduling of work is completed.
Methodical planning can save time and money, in term of both downtime and equipment repair. For example, North Central was recently called out by a Central BC mine operator to repair or replace a large process water tank that was in danger of collapsing. The top eight feet of the tank walls were severely corroded, so the mine operator wanted to have the walls cut away, replaced and reinforced. Also, the condition of the tank roof was in question.
"We evaluate and propose the best ways to help the customer and handle the job," says Mr. Schreiner. "So, I asked some basic questions: How much capacity do you need in the tank, and what level do you normally run at? One of our proposals was to simply remove the top section and roof because it wasn't needed in terms of capacity for the operation. Also, the tank did not actually require a roof."
The mine management agreed to that proposal, and in the end it cost less than 40% of what it would have cost to do what they originally requested. The North Central crew was able to do the work while the tank was operating, so there was no mine downtime - as opposed to the two weeks it might have required otherwise.
Dan Schreiner feels that safety is as important as any other component of the repair planning process. Whether at the shop or in the field, his firm depends on a high level of planning to reduce the safety risks of working on big machines, whether crushers or scooptrams or conveyors. Safety is integrated in the work plan on every job, "But the big payback in optimizing maintenance is in minimizing downtime - compared to letting it break and then fixing it," Mr. Schreiner concludes. "Some mining operations may choose to dispute that, and maybe they have been fortunate. But in the long run, the latter policy will increase downtime. And that is expensive, especially in a booming market."
Established in 1965, the North Central Group offers project management, quality and field services to commercial and industrial customers, plus a wide range of machining, engineering, pipe fabrication, machinery manufacturing, repair, overhaul, installation, construction and maintenance.