13th AusIMM Underground Operators Conference, Gold Coast, 16-18 October 2017

  • By Peter Hills FAusIMM(CP),13th AusIMM Underground Operators’ Conference Chair

The 13th AusIMM Underground Operators Conference (UGOPS) was held at The Star Hotel and Casino on the Gold Coast from 16-18 October 2017 and celebrated the 40th anniversary since the first event was held in Broken Hill on 17-18 October 1977.

As a fitting celebration of the birth of what has become a flagship and ‘not to be missed’ event on the AusIMM calendar, the recent UGOPS was the largest AusIMM conference in any discipline to date. Its 795 registrations exceeded the previous benchmark of any conference by 60 delegates and the previous record for UGOPS (in Adelaide in 2014) by more than 220.

In February 1977, the following advertisement appeared in the AusIMM Bulletin.

Broken Hill – October 17 and 18, 1977

The Broken Hill Branch of the AusIMM proposes holding an Underground Operators’ Conference on October 17 and 18, 1977, at Broken Hill. Short papers on specific topics of underground operations will be presented and authorship will be limited to people actively involved in underground operations.

The first UGOPS was a Branch event. UGOPS has evolved significantly since its inception, but the focus of the conference on high-quality, operationally-focussed technical papers and presentations remains the key ingredient to the ongoing success of the product. It is an ingredient that successive Conference Committees have sought to maintain without apology.

Nonetheless, UGOPS has evolved in keeping with the developments in technology, innovation and knowledge that not only mark our industry but also the society and the world in which we live. No longer are mines built solely on the knowledge, experience and expertise of the people who work at them. Mines can no longer operate without the collective experience of our entire industry and our academics, our consultants, our suppliers and our industry partners all have a role in any successful venture. No longer is the authorship ‘limited to people actively involved in underground operations’ but neither is the event a marketing opportunity and papers that do not focus on the specifics of underground operation do not make the cut.

With this in mind, a program of six keynote presentations, 38 papers and one holistic industry presentation was launched following opening remarks and an official opening by AusIMM President for 2017 Colin Moorhead FAusIMM(CP). In my opening remarks, I focused on the history of UGOPS, and I will take this opportunity to commit some of those remarks to paper.

The first UGOPS in 1977 was an initiative of the Broken Hill Branch and it was an important first step. Perhaps it was because it was a Branch initiative that it was five years before the second event was held in Queenstown, but Kalgoorlie and Mount Isa then followed at our now traditional three year intervals.

By this stage our mining industry colleagues had seen that the underground operators were on to something and similar events, including the Mill Operators’ Conference, had commenced and the Mine Geology Conference would kick off before we met again. It was four years before we met again in the historical mining city of Ballarat; arguably the cradle of the Australian mining industry with operations like Sovereign Hill and alluvial workings such as Canadian Gully and, of course, Eureka. Back on the three year cycle, we went to Kalgoorlie again and then Townsville for the first time; not a mining town itself, but certainly a city with a connection to mining. Another four years and we stayed in Townsville. Then back to the three year cycle with Perth, Launceston and Canberra…there must have been a good reason for that choice, and certainly as Adrian Pratt observed in his closing remarks, we demonstrated that we could play an ‘away game’. Probably just as well, as following a sojourn in Adelaide we found ourselves on the Gold Coast 40 years to the day after the first meeting. I think most would agree that we maintained our ‘away’ form. Figure 1 illustrates the 22 000 km journey that UGOPS has taken over those 40 years as its made its way from Broken Hill to the Gold Coast. UGOPS has travelled around Australia and will continue to do so; the next meeting will see it return to Perth.

Figure 1. UGOPS 40 year journey around Australia.

At the conclusion of the UGOPS17, 463 papers have been presented across the UGOPS conference series. Those papers have had 880 authors and involved the work of 692 individuals from across the industry in Australia and overseas. A total of 117 individuals have contributed to more than one paper.

We don’t know how many people attended the first seven UGOPS. However, we do have accurate records since the eighth event in 2002. Perhaps 1 000 people attended the first seven events; slightly over 2 000 attended the next five. An incredible 795 people were registered for UGOPS17, making it the largest AusIMM-branded conference ever and eclipsing the previous mark (set by an iron ore conference at the height of the previous mining boom) by 60 registrants. The incremental increase in registrations since Townsville in 2002 is clear in Figure 2. The growth, irrespective of the venue, confirms UGOPS as an increasingly important event not to be missed. If there is any downside to the growth that has occurred over the course of the last six events, it is that logistics dictate that it will not return to the towns of our underground mining heartland where it originated.

Figure 2. UGOPS attendance statistics over 40 years (timeline scaled to the date of the first day).

We come to UGOPS for the value of the technical content. The UGOPS17 program was built around our keynote addresses. Joe Luxford and Mark Adams opened proceedings with a synopsis of contract mining. Contract mining is clearly the mining of most operations today. Paul Rouse, our only speaker to have been in Broken Hill in 1977, gave a contractor’s perspective of the rise of contract mining in Australia. Prof Michael Quinlan introduced occupational health, safety and environment (and told us a few things we would rather not hear but cannot afford to ignore). Our international guest keynote, Prof Lena Abrahamsson, spoke on human resources issues; Dale Elphinstone introduced us to innovation and the concept of ‘we didn’t know we couldn’t’. Prof Gideon Chitombo entertained us with his personal ruminations and insights of underground metalliferous mining over many years and his manner and presence was unchanged from the time he first called Australia home. I was personally thrilled to see Emeritus Professor Alban Lynch AO HonFAusIMM arrive to hear Gideon speak. It speaks volumes for the health of our industry and for the AusIMM that a metallurgist would go out of his way to hear a mining engineer speak and that the mining engineer would identify the metallurgist as his mentor.

Our papers followed our keynote addresses with strong papers surrounding the topics our keynotes introduced. We also had strong sessions on blasting technology, overseas projects and coal, productivity planning and costs, vertical development, ore reserves and production and safety innovation. Traditionally we acknowledge both the written papers and presentations in the plenary hall. The committee could not separate two written papers:

  • Improving safety through technology – Orica wireless electronic blasting system trial at Ernest Henry Mine by Conor te Kloot, Zao Liu, Tim Purvis, Steve Thomson, Mike Lovitt and Tuan Nguyen.
  • Long hole plug – addressing the hazard of bogged rods in ‘upholes’ by Sam Thomas, Gerry Noonan and Martyn Limbert.

Both papers addressed a recognised safety issue, which they analysed and solved through the implementation of a technological innovation that had the side benefit of improving productivity and reducing cost. Both papers encompassed collaboration between site personnel and their suppliers and provided a solution with the potential to benefit the wider industry. In doing so they full addressed the conference theme ‘Capturing the Opportunities: Communication, Collaboration, and Innovation’.

The best presentation of a paper was awarded to Jade Bullock for her delivery of:

  • Productivity and safety improvements supported by MST’s ImPact System and Glencore’s Mount Isa Copper Operations by Jade Bullock, Denis Kent and M Wilkinson.

It was a tough gig with some excellent speakers throughout the conference, and she just crept in over Jack Carswell, Alex Campbell, Rara Lowolo and Sam Thomas among others.

These authors added to a library of work that has been growing since 1977. A conference relies on people, our colleagues, being prepared to write papers reflecting on what they are doing and standing up to present their work to the industry so that others might benefit from and expand upon their knowledge. In a successful conference series, such as the Underground Operators Conference, there is an expectation that those in the audience who benefit from and expand upon that knowledge, will in turn present an expanded view.

It happens! A total of 463 UGOPS papers have been written by 697 people; it’s a conference series of many contributors with 580 single time authors. Only 117 people have been an author of more than one paper but it is important to focus on those individuals for a moment. Some 81 people have been an author of two papers, while 23 people have been an author of three.

Six people have been an author of four papers and we were joined on the Gold Coast joined by Mark Adams, Alex Campbell and Zao Liu. Dennis (Rick) Brake, Malcolm Dorricott and Józef Szymanski (with 4 papers in 1995) are also on that list. Seven people have been an author of five papers, including Chris Carr, Karl Guilfoyle (our earliest multiple author at UGOPS17 having presented at Queenstown in 1982), John Player, Tim Purvis, Denis Kent, Mike Lovitt and Alan Robertson; only Alan did not attend.

Gary Davison has been an author of six papers and the worst offender of all, Adrian Pratt, presented his eighth paper at UGOPS17.

UGOPS enjoys a valuable balance of many new people coming along, hearing and choosing to contribute in turn, and a small but equally valuable group of individuals who continue to contribute to the conference series, simply because that is what they do. A number of those people were members of the Conference Committee, who between them make up six per cent of all authors across the history of UGOPS.

UGOPS17 was also an opportunity to meet up with past colleagues and friends, make new acquaintances and enjoy some lighter moments. Registration drinks was an initial opportunity to meet old colleagues and reminisce, but it was also a ruse to get as many of our nearly 800 delegates registered before the serious business of the conference started on Monday morning. A number of delegates then attended a private function hosted by the Swedish Ambassador and Atlas Copco.

One of our Platinum Sponsors, Sandvik, sponsored the Welcome Reception on Monday before a further round of private functions. Caterpillar hosted the Networking Hour on Tuesday evening prior to the Conference Dinner hosted by Downer. Steven Bradbury OAM, Australia’s first Winter Olympic gold medallist, provided tremendously entertaining and in part, enlightening dinner entertainment (Figure 3). The part played by Colin Moorhead, Alex Campbell, Geoff Dunstan, Dan Bruce, Jack Carswell, James Isles, Luke Kros and Darren Stralow in Steven’s show demonstrated the ‘have a go’ nature of our mining industry professionals. Alex Campbell and Geoff Dunstan put up a credible performance (Figure 4) but all would be well advised to keep their day jobs and not be too concerned about PyeongChang 2018.

Figure 3. Steven Bradbury entertaining the audience.
Figure 4. Alex Campbell and Geoff Dunstan with their ‘trophies’ (the smiles belie the fact that they can no longer walk).

The conference was rounded out by four well attended workshops.

The Australian Centre for Geomechanics hosted a post-conference workshop for 63 delegates on ‘Shotcrete Design and Performance’ facilitated by Winthrop Professor Phil Dight. The workshop was aimed at mine site personnel involved in the design, implementation and quality assurance of shotcrete/fibrecrete in mining, and included presentations on fibrecrete performance in squeezing ground, how shotcrete works: chemistry, aggregates and cement, shotcrete as a support system: how it works, key aspects of shotcrete logistics and application, from a single fibre to fibrecrete: making tough shotcrete, mix design, testing leads to failure, and failure leads to understanding, shotcrete performance optimisation and audit using 3D laser scanning and design approach for shotcrete in mining. Presenters included Ian Hulls, Warren Mahoney, John Gelson, Des Vlietstra, Tony Cooper and William Joughin. The technical discussions throughout the workshop provided a welcome forum for the exchange of ideas about the various shotcrete products and technologies. Summary provided by Christine Neskudla.

A total of 62 delegates comprised of current Cave Mining 2040 sponsors and other mining professionals with a general interest in the future of large scale underground metalliferous mining attended a caving workshop hosted by Prof. Gideon Chitombo. The workshop was a success enabling delegates to discuss and prioritize the range of generic challenges industry is expected to face in the foreseeable future as well as identifying opportunities in the form of disruptive technologies that should ensure the successful implementation of caving mining methods in the envisaged future challenging environments. Summary provided by Gideon Chitombo.

A workshop on diesel emissions in underground mining was presented by Freudenberg and attended by 13 delegates. This is clearly a topic of growing concern for the mining industry as the potential impacts of diesel emissions of the health of workers is becoming better understood through medical research. The industry is certainly responding with technological advances in ventilation systems and electric powered equipment; however, as we all heard in the paper presented by Chris Davis on Wednesday, there is plenty that needs to happen. Summary provided by Peter Hills.

Joe Luxford and Mark Adams facilitated an interactive contract management workshop with 26 mining engineers on Sunday. The strong interest from both mining companies and contractors demonstrated the need in our industry for more contractor management forums and training for all participants in contracts management. The interest was confirmed when the planned three-hour workshop ran for 5 hours. Joe and Mark shared their combined 80 years of experience in mining, with a significant part of that involving mining contracts in one form or another and from both sides of the fence. The workshop covered the main areas of concern including: selecting the right contract for your project, drafting and negotiating contracts, contract administration and managing the contractor/client relationship. The workshop provided a forum for the participants to discuss their challenges with contracts and learn how others were dealing with the same issues. Most importantly, it gave engineers from both mining companies and contractors the opportunity to freely discuss the main issues with their peers on the ‘other side’. Summary provided by Joe Luxford.

Finally, a group of nine, led by Committee Member Don Grant, toured the operations at Dugald River and Ernest Henry in Northwest Queensland. By all accounts, everyone enjoyed the trip as evidenced by the smiling faces outside the Ernest Henry portal (Figure 5). Neal Valk and his team at Dugald River and Aaron Harrison and his team at Ernest Henry are thanked for their organisation and participation in this event. Summary provided by Don Grant.

Figure 5. Freddie Breen, Amanda Weir, Luke Morizzi, Aaron Nankivell, Martyn Gobbie, Prosper Soka, Jeff Phillips, Don Grant and Gangatha Dabula at the Ernest Henry Portal.

Conferences such as UGOPS17 rely on the support of sponsors and exhibitors to make them a success. Our Platinum Sponsors Atlas Copco, Dyno Nobel and Sandvik have been long-time supporters of the UGOPS Conference Series. As have our Gold Sponsors Caterpillar, DSI Underground, Maxam and Orica. Six silver sponsors, 11 event sponsors, five conference supporters and ten media supporters are also thanked, as are the conference exhibitors. The exhibition was sold out with 56 exhibitors occupying 62 booths in the exhibition hall and registration area.

We were very pleased to have the support and presence of the AusIMM Management Team and staff including CEO Steven Durkin, COO Miriam Way, Ben Barnett, Kara Emmerson, Susan Greenbank, Melissa Holdsworth, Rachel Magill, Emma Maslin and Eliza Sanneman at UGOPS17 with us on the Gold Coast to ‘make it all happen’ together with ten members of the AusIMM Board including President Colin Moorhead, Immediate Past President Rex Berthelsen, and Alex Atkins, Chris Davis, Steven De Kruijff, Diana Drinkwater, Janine Herzig, Pamela Naidoo-Ameglio, Sara Prendergast and Dale Sims. Particular thanks to Colin for opening the conference and to Sara and Diana for their opening remarks on Days 2 and 3. Also to Steven Durkin for his words at the dinner and his address on Day 3.

In common with all AusIMM conferences, non-members had the opportunity to join the AusIMM as part of their registration; 103 people applied for membership as a result.

We had a very successful conference for the 40th Anniversary UGOPS Conference. It is perhaps fitting that the first disciplinary-specific AusIMM conference to reach the 40 year milestone was the largest conference that the AusIMM has ever held. There are many reasons why this might have been so. I was supported by an enthusiastic committee with a significant amount of UGOPS committee experience (Figure 6). Mark Adams has been on the committee seven times and chaired the conference in 2005, Malcolm Campbell lined up for his second UGOPS committee, Chris Carr has contributed to three UGOPS committees and chaired in 2014, Katrina Crook was part of her first UGOPS committee and was the representative for the SE Queensland Branch. Geoff Dunstan was part of his third UGOPs committee, Anne-Marie Ebbels her second, Don Grant his third, Paul Harper and Joe Luxford their fourth, Adrian Pratt his third including as Chair in 2011, Iain Ross his second and John Stanton his fourth. It was also my fourth. That total of 42 is a key ingredient in the success of the conference, not because the committee writes all the papers, but because the committee knows what makes a good paper, knows what elements have the potential to make a good paper and are prepared to assist authors to reach that goal. Therefore, it is able to assist the authors in writing a conference volume and making conference presentations that make the conference an unmissable date on the calendar for delegates. In addition to the committee, a further 18 people assisted with reviewing the papers. Over half of the 31 reviewers had fulfilled that role in the past, some on numerous occasions, but it was also pleasing to see 14 new names on the list bringing a fresh perspective to the process.

Figure 6. Conference committee L-R, John Stanton, Katrina Crook, Iain Ross, Chris Carr, Paul Harper, Don Grant, Anne-Marie Ebbels, Geoff Dunstan, Mark Adams, Malcolm Campbell, Joe Luxford, Adrian Pratt and Peter Hills (Chair).

However, it wouldn’t work without the commitment of the AusIMM staff employed to make it happen. Eliza Sanneman and her event management team and Mia Wotherspoon and her publications team were integral to the success of the event. Quite simply, it would not have happened without them.

A conference like UGOPS17 is built on reputation. While I value the input of the committee and the AusIMM staff in making the event a success, the delegates turn up because of their experience (if they were there) and or the reputation (if they were not) built over past events. While I hope people enjoyed and learnt from our Gold Coast meeting (and I’m relieved to say that comments from many delegates led me to believe that was the case), it is all an unknown at the time of registration. That is the real value of a committed and experienced conference management team. It is also the value of a conference committee that in large part has ‘done it before’. Some will retire for the committee and Geoff Dunstan has already advised the committee of his intention to do so, others will join with Alex Campbell already throwing his hat in the ring, but it is my hope and expectation that 70 per cent of the committee on the Gold Coast will still be there in Perth; my role of Chair will pass to Anne-Marie Ebbels. Others will come and go after that event; renewal will occur; critically though, the product will be maintained because demonstrably, that is what is valued.

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