Improving productivity by integrating software developers into resource engineering

  • By Calvin Snodgrass, Head of Resource Engineering WAIO, Planning and Technical, Minerals Australia, BHP Billiton; and Tony Cockerill MAusIMM, Senior Mining Engineer, Resource Engineering WAIO, Planning and Technical, Minerals Australia, BHP Billiton

The use of in-house software developers in the simplification, standardisation and systematisation of processes across mine planning, geotechnical engineering, hydrology and closure planning

In 2011, the mining industry was facing challenges brought on by a shortage of capable and experienced mining engineers. To gain an advantage in this environment, the BHP Billiton Iron Ore Resource Engineering Department employed and integrated a group of data professionals with the intent to significantly improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the incumbent mining engineers. The vision was to have engineers engineering and the data professionals undertaking the technical support. Using the right people to do the right work. The benefits of this approach were seen as:

  • attraction and retention of the best people through increased job satisfaction
  • greater opportunity to analyse value-add options
  • mechanisation of the processes that add no value (ie data manipulation, scenario set-up and reporting).

This integrated approach to traditional mine planning has created time for mining engineers to analyse data and focus on insight. The two-way communication between the ‘solution’ providers and the end users has created a great culture of openness where ideas are shared and everyone is supportive of the outcomes. The tangible improvements realised between 2011 and 2014 gave rise to an opportunity to progress a similar approach across the geotechnical engineering, hydrology and closure planning disciplines. That journey began in June 2014 and is ongoing. The approach and systems described below have transformed the workplace and increased predictability and efficiency, whilst delivering more control and, ultimately, improving decision making.

Mining Workbench

The Mining Workbench is a collection of productivity tools for mining engineers, written in C# and Perl scripts. In short, it converts resource models into regularised mining models. By providing a standardised way of performing processing tasks, a consistent process output can be achieved, with less exposure to human error.

The Mining Workbench improves efficiency in the following ways:

  • automation of most data processing tasks
  • central management of standards
  • clear visual representation of tasks
  • reduces re-work through ensuring correctness and consistency.

For example, the Mining Workbench has reduced the time taken to generate a regularised mining model by at least 66 per cent.

In addition, the Mining Workbench has enabled the enforcement of naming conventions, which is vital in an environment where systems (such as the ones described in this article) must interface.

Advanced Planning Environment

Advanced Planning Environment (APE) is a schedule analysis tool that is used by mine engineers to analyse their schedule outputs (strategic and tactical), regardless of the scheduling package used. It is written in C#.

Key benefits of APE are:

  • historic record for all published plans
  • built-in standard analysis tools and charts
  • standardised exports for resource engineering customers.

APE is a collaborative tool for schedulers of different planning timescales, as it reads a range of schedules: from life-of-mine, to five-year mine plans, to two-year budget plans, to twelve-week plans. This provides a platform to perform plan to plan comparisons (ie current plan to previous plan and to plan above).

APE provides a central storage of schedules where multiple engineers working on a particular study can store their schedules. Comparisons can then be made in a standardised and consistent way. The central storage system also streamlines auditing processes and enables consistent reporting to downstream customers.


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Logistics and Infrastructure Optimisation Network (LION)

LION is a tool that allows users to quickly define and assess different supply chain infrastructure (crushing, processing, train loading, etc) and market scenarios using a Visio style interface. It also allows the user to generate standardised planning models, which are required by the in-house designed strategic planning software. It is written in C#.

Key benefits of LION are:

  • a ‘design’ surface for rapid infrastructure configuration
  • generation of standardised planning models
  • high level scheduling for instant valuation feedback
  • ability to test assumption uncertainty.

LION is driven by a standard assumptions set including mineral inventory, price, technical marketing, foreign exchange, operating and capital costs and process capability. These assumptions, as well as the guided infrastructure layout, are used to assess the alternatives, either through LION’s ability to export fully populated models for optimisation within the in-house strategic software, or with LION’s own internal high level scheduler.

LION’s internal scheduler targets maximum net present value (NPV) by scheduling options with the highest economic profit. Economic profit is a function of the revenue received over the opportunity cost of the inputs used, in this case supply chain capacity. In effect, LION attempts to put the highest NPV possible through each unit of capacity available in the supply chain. The financial calculations in LION have been built to mirror valuation model calculations where possible and incorporate price, royalties, penalties, operating costs and capital costs, tax and depreciation.

LION incorporates various analytics tools to help the user compare alternatives and dive deeper into analysis of options. This includes comparing plans on detailed financial metrics with the ability to overlay uncertainty around all input assumptions.

Knowledge Repository

The Knowledge Repository (KR) provides a better way to manage data across Western Australia Iron Ore (WAIO) through a single source of truth and ease of access. KR is used for all data other than the mine schedules, which are
stored in APE.

Key benefits of KR are:

  • metadata store for resource engineering data
  • ensures latest versions used by tracking updates
  • ensures version is current by tracking dependencies
  • integration with other systems – ie the Mining Workbench uses the latest available version transparently.

Data is registered as an ‘asset’ and passes through several stages, namely, draft, validated, published and (once replaced by newer data) superseded. A SharePoint-Nintex workflow governs the process for changing the status of an asset from validated to published. The published assets are the ‘master’ dataset.

The integration of these tools means reporting is focused on insight and not verbalising inputs, which have effectively become metadata to a schedule or scenario.

Geotech Workbench

As with the original concept, the goal was to have geotechnical engineers focused on geotechnical engineering with the data professionals providing technical support. This aim was distilled down into ‘enable calculations and preferred methods’.

The Geotech Workbench is a collection of tools for geotechnical engineers to perform initial validation on drill hole data and standardised workflow to analyse the dataset. Drill hole data is extracted from databases owned by the geological data management team (outside of resource engineering) and imported into the Geotech Workbench. From here, engineers perform automated validation, exports to other tools for visualisations. Once validation is completed, histograms and other domain processes are performed using standardised methodologies. The tools are written in C#.

The Geotech Workbench improves efficiency in the following ways:

  • reduced time spent by engineers in preparing and synthesising data
  • reduced consultant costs
  • geotechnical modelling is more up to date and consistent across the team
  • data analysis is streamlined, consistent, validated and outcomes are stored and controlled
  • geotechnical engineers can spend more time in decision-making within their fields of expertise
  • improved overall pit design timeframes (geotechnical engineering not on the critical path).

Hydro Workbench

As with the Mining and Geotech Workbenches, the objective was to improve the hydrology value chain. The capture and management of hydrology data contains lengthy manual manipulation and approval steps. The data and process flow were not optimised.

The Hydro Workbench improves efficiency in the following ways:

  • the hydrology team can spend more time in decision making within their fields of expertise
  • reduced time spent by internal hydrologists preparing data for external consultants
  • hydrology modelling is more up to date
  • capture of data is standardised
  • data interpretation outcomes are stored and controlled.

In addition, the utilisation of GIS technology provides a more visual way to analyse data.

Closure Workbench

This product provides substantial automation and tools for closure cost valuation. A workbench-type solution was developed to provide a standardised workflow for reporting outputs for the annual financial reporting schedule.

The manual spreadsheet-driven processes used previously required significant amounts of time and effort.

Provision of a workbench-type software solution has created an automated alternative to the spreadsheets. It provides repeatability, and a low cost method of generating output closure cost metrics, freeing up closure planning specialists to focus on managing key cost drivers. It also meets financial reporting requirements by improving source transparency, accountability and auditability.

Effective change management

Some of the technical insights gained over the past two years include:

  • Fail early, fail cheap – but learn from it.
  • Break projects into smaller modules or tools, each with a defined scope, a description of the minimal viable product (MVP) and clear acceptance criteria.
  • Ten per cent of the way in, revisit the scope and redefine the MVP and the acceptance criteria.
  • Openness and consultation are the keys to success. Openness is having two-way conversation between the solution providers and the end-users. Consultation is building awareness through regular communication to those not directly involved (managers/supervisors) so that they are supportive during implementation.
  • Do not underestimate the resistance to change. Adopt the ADKAR change management model (awareness, desire, knowledge, ability, reinforcement), which represents the five outcomes an individual must achieve for change to be successful. Early engagement with all stakeholders is key. Create a project charter before any work begins. Communicate what is going on continuously and build a general awareness.
  • Ensure sponsors are active and visible.
  • Provide a vision and roadmap of the planned changes.
  • Branding the change to create excitement and buy-in.
  • Being cognisant of the amount of change a group experiences (change saturation).
  • Piloting the roll-out to gain lessons learned before expanding.

Acknowledgements

We would like to thank all of the resource engineering people who have contributed to our success. In particular, John Kirk for embedding software development capability into the team, Jeremy Abercrombie-Higgins for his knowledge, vision, work and documentation in this area. Special thanks also go to Lukman Sasmita, Barry Vayler and Arturo Maldonado for their work and support.

Thank you to our first reader, Joanne Heyes. Your suggestions and revisions greatly helped the readability of this article.

Image courtesy BHP Billiton. 

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