South AfricaGrappling with uncertainties in decision-making is at the heart of managing mines’ operations, and students at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) School of Mining Engineering are employing a high-tech programme to do just this.

Partnering with decision analysis software company Palisade, the school now has licensed access to the powerful @RISK software for its staff and 100 computers in its Mine Design Laboratory. Academics in different subject areas will be able to use the software in their own research, and introduce their students to new analytical avenues.

“An understanding of stochastic analysis – or probabilistic analysis – is a vital part of every mining engineer’s skill set,” says Professor Dick Minnitt, JCI Professor of Mineral Resources and Reserves at Wits. “Mines succeed on the basis of good decisions, and engineers must evaluate the uncertainties in every decision they face, before choosing the best one.  Stochastic modelling is a significant advance in thinking about the answers we get for any calculations, especially those involving variables that can take on a range of different values.”

Making an informed decision

“A probabilistic approach allows you to understand a problem by observing what could happen, as a universe of possibilities – a portfolio of possibilities rather than a single magic number – which allows you to make more informed, more robust decisions.

Wits students familiarising themselves with the @RISK software in the Mine Design Laboratory
Wits students familiarising themselves with the @RISK software in the Mine Design Laboratory

“The approach can be applied in various aspects of mine planning – from operations to finance modelling – so that the engineer can contribute systematically to any assessment of risk and opportunity,” says Mr Clinton Birch, Senior Lecturer in the School of Mining Engineering and teacher of a course in Financial Valuation.

Craig Ferri, the managing director of Palisade EMEA says: “@RISK is a software program that supports this probabilistic approach, helping users to make good decisions in conditions of uncertainty; the software allows students at Wits to explore the sensitivities associated with optimal mine designs in a much simpler, robust and intuitive way.”

Software training

Last year, Palisade trained 18 of the school’s staff and postgraduate students in risk and probabilistic modelling, covering areas including the treatment of decision variables, identifying key risk factors, and the communication of results to clients and stakeholders. The training also reinforced ways to incorporate the issue of uncertainty into both the curriculum and research projects.

The use of Monte Carlo simulation has for a number of years been part of the undergraduate-level Mine Financial Valuation course.

“Having access to @RISK means an in-class, hands-on component, along with tutorial sessions using @RISK in Mining Engineering’s Mine Design Lab,” says Minnitt.

Showing its appreciation

“We’re always excited when a pre-eminent institution like the Wits School of Mining Engineering adopts @RISK,” says Ferri. “We feel that academic partnerships are a real win-win situation, equipping a new generation of mining engineers for the workplace. The future is always uncertain, and being able to capture that uncertainty through stochastic analysis is an important step towards making the right decisions.”

The partnership supports the School’s vision of a prosperous mining industry leveraging digital technologies, higher productivity, modern skill sets and safer practices.

Longstanding history

The school and Palisade have worked together since 1997, when fourth -year mining engineering students began to use @RISK in the stochastic analysis of Net Present Values for their final year capstone mine design project. More recently, lecturer Alastair Macfarlane began using and applying the software in the postgraduate course on decision-making for mining investments.

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