Automation in laboratories is opening new doors in mineral process optimisation. The reason: automation delivers detailed and accurate data in real time, so plant adjustments are effective in boosting the bottom line.
The benefits of automation go beyond the rapid turnaround time, according to Martin Matthysen, director, SPA (sampling, preparation and analysis), Sub Saharan African and Middle East at FLSmidth.
It also gives laboratories the capacity to deal with high volumes of material while delivering the highest quality of results. Automated laboratories radically increase the accuracy and precision of analytical results, and reduce health, safety and environmental risks.
However, automating a laboratory demands highly specialised equipment and expertise, says Matthysen. These resources often do not reside in-house in many mining companies.
“The result is that we see greater demand from customers for our operate-and-maintain (O&M) service,” he says.
“Rather than the mine running its own laboratory, our experienced technicians can bring a level of knowledge that ensures the laboratory investment delivers full benefit. Everything we do is aimed at optimisation, which has a direct impact on the financial performance of the mine.”
He emphasises that this service allows the mine management to focus on their core responsibilities. At the same time, the latest technologies in laboratory testing and analysis are applied to achieve optimal recoveries from plant processes.
As system integrators, FLSmidth custom designs a solution that suits the customer’s conditions and strategic requirements. The design approach also prioritises safety, environment and ergonomics.
Expert of choice
This skills base of FLSmidth’s sampling, preparation and analysis unit – previously IMP Automation – has been developed over more than three decades of service to the mining and metallurgical industries. The company has provided complete solutions from sampling to analysis since 1987.
“Our turnkey laboratory solutions utilise the highest quality of laboratory instruments and equipment, and are guided by the extensive experience of our in-house experts,” he says.
So successful has the business been in creating value for customers, that it has installed over 95% of all automation solutions in the global mining industry over the past dozen years. The basis for this track record includes ground-breaking innovations in laboratory processes.
“One of our most exciting developments has been the improvement in the traditional fire assay process for the platinum sector,” says Trevor Bruce, product line manager in FLSmidth’s sampling, preparation and analysis areas.
“The manual procedure has been known to take anywhere from one to 12 days to report results on the samples, as aspects of the process such as sample batching, backlogs and repeats were so time-consuming. Our new method – which also isolates the operator from exposure to molten ore, acids and fumes – can produce and report results in less than four hours.”
Its expertise in platinum group elements (PGEs) is in continuous development, and has recently led to an order from a customer in Russia. This involves completely new technology which promises to avoid the loss of valuable material from the customer’s plant.
“We saw the need to read lower than the one-part-per-million classification in traditional pyrites, as material with a lower PGE content was being discarded to waste,” says Matthysen.
“In a research and development phase taking about seven years, we built the capability to read to levels ten times greater than before.”
Iron ore leader
In the iron ore sector, the company has successfully operated a quality control laboratory at a large load-out station on South Africa’s west coast.
The contract with the customer was recently extended for another three years, based on nine years of flawless operation. With independent global laboratories regularly checking results from this site, there has not been a single dispute.
“We are also the only iron ore laboratory in South Africa with the relevant ISO accreditation, which is vital to our ongoing operation at the project,” Matthysen says.
Apart from the Greenfields projects they supply, FLSmidth is also well-equipped to engage in brownfields work. With the fast pace of technological advancement, laboratories need continual modernisation.
“Laboratory equipment, if well maintained, can remain accurate and effective for decades,” Bruce says. “However, there are ongoing changes in our technological environment that need to be accommodated. Computer hardware and software quickly goes out of date, for example.”
He notes that this often requires the replacement of various aspects of an existing laboratory system. More importantly, there is the complex alignment of computer protocols and languages that makes for effective upgrades.
“It is not a case of simply swopping out a computer or two,” he says. “An integrated approach allows us to advise on how the old and new systems fit together, and to implement the necessary upgrades.”
Fit for purpose
Bruce highlights that no two laboratories supplied by FLSmidth sampling, preparation and analysis are the same; each is custom-designed and fit for purpose. Developing the specific solution for a customer is based on a thorough assessment, starting with sampling.
“It is vital to ensure that the samples being taken for the new plant are representative of the total,” he says. “Then the sample’s physical characteristics and size are analysed so that we can determine the most efficient method of transporting it to the laboratory.”
Preparation of the sample for analysis is the next stage, followed by the analytical process itself – all based on what the customer requires as the outcome. The process flow is designed in close collaboration with the customer to ensure that all necessary information is shared.
“The completed laboratory must generate the analytical data that the customer requires, so that they can use that data to underpin their plant optimisation process,” says Matthysen.
The experience embedded in FLSmidth’s sampling, preparation and analysis allows the team to estimate the economic value of potential performance improvements.
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This in turn paves the way for easier decision making by customers who are considering new or upgraded laboratory facilities. Each project is analysed in terms of the plant’s historical data, which details recoveries and other important parameters.
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The improved performance can then be converted into predicted future revenues or savings. This allows for the pay-back period for a laboratory investment to be estimated and assessed.
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