Raising Productivity: Urgent need to boost output

Urgent need to boost output

Productivity in mining activity is measured chiefly by output per man shift (OMS) and this reflects how efficiently operations are carried out. The Indian mining sector is unfortunately characterised by rather low OMS levels. Though labour to operate mines is easily available in the country, low skill levels and inexperience hamper overall productivity. Moreover, mechanisation in the sector (especially in underground [UG] operations) is far lower than global levels, resulting in low output. Further, safety standards for workers in the mining sector are also below global benchmarks.

Equipment productivity

In the mining industry, there exists significant scope for improving the productivity of equipment used in various operations.

In India, output from opencast (OC) mines is significantly higher than from UG mines. In fact, OC output is at par with global levels. Some of the key factors that impact OMS from a mine are timely availability of the required equipment, equipment handling and utilisation methods, and efficiency in equipment use. Considering the top coal producers in the country – Coal India Limited and Singareni Collieries Company Limited – the difference in output from OC mines versus UG is massive. On average, UG mines produce 0.8-1.24 million tonnes (mt) per OMS, while opencast mines produce over 12 mt per OMS.

Factors determining equipment utilisation

The average annual utilisation of key equipment in large mines (using both OC and UG techniques) stands at 70-80 per cent, at best. Thus there exists much scope for improvement. The key factors that impact equipment utilisation are:

  • Sequential operations: In the mining process, carrying out drilling, blasting, loading, hauling and dumping sequentially makes the whole procedure more prone to lower equipment utilisation. If one of the components breaks down it has an effect down the line as the utilisation of equipment in one sequence depends on the preceding sequence.
  • Unforeseen mining conditions: The inherent nature of mining activity involves a number of unforeseen conditions. For instance, while drilling, unknown geological conditions could emerge. As mining is carried out in dynamic conditions with many variables, these can impact equipment utilisation.
  • Lack of skilled manpower: Untrained workers tasked with operating equipment negatively impact overall utilisation levels. Thus, inefficiencies can stem from a lack of understanding of required procedures.
  • Power outages: Power cuts or irregular power supply is also a significant contributor to low utilisation of mining equipment, most of which requires power to operate.
  • Availability of spare parts: As most of the mining equipment is imported, spare part availability is a major issue. In case of a breakdown, the equipment may lie unutilised until a spare part is available.
  • Slipped usage: Transport vehicles are often used for “unproductive” uses not pertaining to mining activity which brings down the overall utilisation level. Besides, machinery/equipment that is not in working condition takes time to come onstream, essentially determined by the maintenance procedures.

New technology solutions

Mining companies have begun to consider investments in energy efficient equipment and devices, that not only provide good returns but also reduce the carbon footprint. However, most of the players in the industry are yet to integrate their enterprise, operational systems, supply chain systems, etc. Innovation-based technology adoption is likely to take even longer.

Internet of things is increasingly becoming an integral part of many industries as it presents massive opportunities in terms of efficiency gains. For the mining industry, it can enable miners to connect to the database enterprise, and collect exchange data from various software systems, devices, drives, belts, sensors, heavy earthmoving and mining equipment and other items embedded with electronics, firmware and network connectivity.

Another key upcoming trend is that of big data analytics which is expected to play a major role in boosting productivity and addressing material flow delays along with driving better asset utilisation. Big data platforms can utilise vast amounts of diverse, real-time inputs from multiple sources to extract real-time predictive and prescriptive analytics.

The way forward

There are a number of ways in which the productivity of mines can be increased. These include better planning for mine development, adopting standard operating procedures, rigorous training of manpower, timely servicing of equipment, regulatory changes with regard to worker shifts and deployment of new equipment, and geo-tagging of vehicles to check slippages. However, as these call for significant investments and change in business strategies, it may take some time before these become the new normal.