The Federal Government, the mining sector and research organisations are joining forces to address a decline in Australia’s new mineral deposits, by combining national research into drilling and data collection technology. Mining equipment manufacturers are also contributing, by creating exciting innovative products for the mining sector, providing a win-win solution for all parties. Carole Goldsmith reports.

Mineral and energy resources contributed 50% of Australia’s exports and 7% of its GDP in 2017-2018, reports MinEx CRC. This contribution is at risk because of the declining delivery of major new mineral deposits. Increased mining exploration, with more productive safer drilling and improved data collection technology is required to halt this decline.

If this does not occur, there will be fewer mines in the future. This in turn will decrease the long-term prospects for both mining companies and their mining manufacturer suppliers.

To address these issues, the Federal Government in 2018 provided a $50m grant to MinEx CRC over 10  years through its Cooperative Research Centre (CRC) program, to undertake vital mining exploration research to create new opportunities for finding minerals. The outcomes are expected to also grow the high-value Mining Equipment, Technology and Services (METS) sector.

The world’s largest mineral exploration collaboration, MinEx CRC brings together industry, government and research organisations. As well as the $50m in government funding, it is backed by $41m in contributions from geological surveys and industry partners, plus $49m in non-staff in-kind (NSIK) contributions, and $78m or 311 full-time equivalent (FTE) staff in kind, all as researchers.

“We commenced in 2018 and already have 10 years of exciting projects of research and collaboration planned between industry and research organisations,” says MinEx CRC’s CEO Andrew Bailey proudly. “The key to our work is that we are undertaking research that industry wants and that will be able to be commercialised. We work with seven universities across Australia and CSIRO to bring together research that industry can use. The participating universities are the Australian National University (ANU), Curtin, and the Universities of Adelaide, Newcastle, South Australia and Western Australia.”

The research is already into its first three-year phase with 95 university researchers from across Australia working on the 10 projects.

MinEx CRC education and training projects also include an additional 17 post-graduate PhD students, already underway at the participating universities, working on MinEx CRC research projects. It is also assisting in setting up training for 200 VET (Vocational Education and Training) TAFE students in specific drilling and mineral exploration fields.

Bailey explains: “Our research is broken up into three broad directives: developing more productive, safer and environmentally friendly ways of drilling holes in the ground, using coiled tubing drilling technology, which can cut drilling times by 30%-60 % of traditional methods; finding new technologies for drilling data collection; and thirdly, implementing a National Drilling Initiative utilising the best evidence of drilling and data collection from different States and Territories.”

He adds that some projects will take the full 10 years to complete, while others will be completed after the first three-year term.

Bailey is a geologist with experience across exploration, mining and research coordination, both in Australia and globally. He has an extensive background building and managing organisations and teams with successful industry research project outcomes.

“The 2019 Australian mining exploration spend was $2.5bn,” says Bailey. “Since the COVID-19 crisis started early this year, the exploration rates have been trending downwards. Exploration is considered to be discretional spending, which has been cut in the current crisis downturn.”

When asked about potential opportunities for mining and resources manufacturers in supplying new types of mining equipment, Bailey speaks about two of MinEx CRC’s industry partners’ global successes. Imdex, a leading global mining technology company headquartered in Perth, is producing mining and exploration technology and exporting it worldwide. Micromine, also Perth-based, writes and supplies mining software to mining companies across Australia and the world.

“Australian mining manufacturers wanting more business opportunities should contact Australian mining organisations like Austmine, the leading industry body for the METS sector, and METS Ignited, the government-funded Industry Growth Centre,” advises Bailey.

Moving forward, Bailey recommends: “I encourage all companies to have a three-to-five-year view to grow in the long term. Do research and invest in the future.”

AMT spoke to two Australian mining equipment manufacturers who are doing just that. Oreflow Australia and Austin Engineering are growing and moving forward by researching, innovating and investing in their ongoing future success.

Oreflow – Innovative custom-made equipment for gold and lithium miners.

Perth-based Oreflow Australia Pty Ltd designs, manufactures and supplies quality mineral processing and mining equipment across Australia and globally. Its clients are mainly gold and lithium miners.

Chris Comley, the family-owned company’s co-owner, Director And Sales Manager, says: “Mel King, our company’s founder and my father in-law, is highly regarded by the mining sector for designing and developing many innovative products. Mel is often asked by other mining specialists including metallurgists, mechanical engineers and EPCM (Engineering, Procurement and Construction Management) project houses to quote on projects that need his expertise.

Oreflow’s top selling products are vibrating screens, belt feeders, vibrating feeders, apron feeders and conveyors. ENCAPLOCK, the company’s patented dusting encapsulating system, prevents dust pollution, providing significant improvement within the plant’s working environment and enabling compliance with dust suppression environmental regulations.

Comley explains: “Mel developed ENCAPLOCK, which secures the dust screen’s rubber seal in place. In cheaper older systems on the market, the rubber seal pops off and the dust is not contained, causing environmental and safety issues for process plant. Our vibrating screens, which are used to wash and separate mined material, are sold all over Australia and globally in the Middle East, South Africa and the Philippines.”

King founded mineral processing equipment company Minspec in 2000, and started Oreflow in 2013. Now the two companies operate at the one site in Welshpool, in Perth’s south-east, and employ 14 loyal people, most of whom have been there at least five years.

“Soon after Mel started Minspec, he got his first big break when Western Mining ordered two bucket elevators,” says Comley. “This kicked off Minspec’s capital equipment sales. Now 60% of our combined business turnover is in capital equipment for the mining sector and the rest is in maintenance of our equipment at mining sites.”

While King owns the majority of the Oreflow business, Comley and his wife Hailey own the balance, while their three sons Tait, Taylor and Isaac also work in the business. Sharon Bayle handles all the company’s contracts, technical writing and quality control.

Among the clients that Oreflow has supplied custom-designed and manufactured products to in recent years include: Primero Group’s Bald Hill lithium project, in WA’s Goldfields-Esperance region, where it supplied a belt feeder, horizontal screens and stacker conveyors; Endeavour Mining Corporation’s Ity CIL Project gold operations in southern Côte d’Ivoire; and its Hounde gold mine in Burkina Faso in West Africa, where it has supplied 18 horizontal screens.

“Western Australia’s Altura Pilgangoora lithium mine, one of the world’s largest open cut lithium mines, is also a major client of ours for spares and equipment,” Comley adds. “Altura ships the raw spodumene ore to China for processing into lithium. Our service team also mobilises to site regularly to help them run smoothly.

“Our Australian and global clients tell us what they want and our draftsmen design the products, using Autopad and 3D design solid works. We have a network of loyal local suppliers to ensure our reputation of the highest quality Australian made equipment endures.”

Covid-19 has affected Oreflow, explains Comley. Although the company has been inundated with requests for quotes in recent times, it is a lot harder to get the green light to proceed.

“We are however looking forward to growth every year,” adds Comley proudly. “Our industry is up and down and you can’t always predict what is available. We tender for all Australian and international mining projects within our capability and achieve a 30%-40 % success rate for projects that go ahead, so that’s a strong positive.”

Austin Engineering – Equipping global mining for over 50 years

Austin Engineering is one of this country’s great success stories. Since it first commenced operations 50 years ago, the Brisbane-headquartered engineering and manufacturing company and AMTIL member has grown rapidly. Today it is an ASX-listed business with an annual turnover of $250m, employing 1,800 people worldwide with operations across Australia, Asia, and North and South America.

David Pichanick, the company’s Global Manager – Market Development & Innovation, says: “For over 50 years, Austin Engineering has been developing custom-designed products for both the Australian and global mining industry, as well as for original equipment manufacturers (OEMs).

“In the mining equipment game, large global mining OEMs like Caterpillar and Komatsu don’t really know which country or mining site their products will go to, as they are sent around the world. So, the OEMs might make a generic dump body of 1.8 to 2.1 tonnes per cubic metre and that’s where companies like Austin comes in. We work closely with metal manufacturers to customise the generic dump body for the particular mineral and client.

“Each mining site has different requirements, whether it be a small miner or large multinationals like BHP, Rio Tinto and Glencore. We have to consistently innovate to maximise the size of the payload and reduce the overall cost per tonne to increase productivity and value-add for the client.”

Austin’s manufacturing sites are located in Perth and Mackay plus overseas in Indonesia, North and South America. Its engineering centres in Australia and North America form one global engineering operation focused on R&D for new innovative products.

Pichanick speaks excitedly about one of Austin’s recent innovative products: “Our unique two-piece excavator bucket won the 2019 People’s Choice Award and was second overall in the prestigious 2019 Swedish Steel Award. This two-piece bucket system was developed after BHP challenged us to produce a safer alternative to the one-piece bucket. BHP has been so pleased with the innovative product, that it has entered it in this year’s WA WorkSafe safety awards.”

The bucket features a reusable upper section and a consumable lower section, designed for quick and safe bucket change during scheduled maintenance intervals.

Austin’s top seller is its range of dump truck bodies, which comprises 80% of the company’s sales globally.

“We have many designs of those truck bodies and there’s probably one of them at every mining site around the world,” says Pichanick. “We have produced around 12,000 truck bodies in our 50 years of operation.

“Our truck bodies that go on the back of dump trucks maximise the pay load, carrying as much dirt as possible. The load from our ‘flow-control’ truck bodies empties slightly slower than other designs; however, slower dumping prevents the truck from lifting the front wheels off the ground and it controls the flow of material into mining hoppers. We offer the lowest cost of ownership for the customer, which ultimately increases their pay margin.

“Many of our engineers have been with us for 20 to 30 years and they are always coming up with new and innovative ideas for products, like our two-piece excavator bucket. People make the business and if you look after your people, you will have a great business.”

The COVID-19 crisis has presented Austin, like most businesses, with a host of new challenges, such as how it communicates with its teams around the world.

“We use Microsoft Teams, which is very effective and easy to use for communications with our Australian and global sites,” says Pichanick. “COVID-19 has made us a lot more aware of our processes of looking after our people and some of our technical people are working from home. Our factories are still operating, except Colombia and Peru, as those countries are in lockdown.”

For the future, Austin’s plans entail extending its already-impressive global footprint: “We want to grow, expand and set up in other countries. Austin has just signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the large South African mining equipment company Engineering Top Tech (ETT). They plan to sell our products across Africa and we will sell theirs globally.

“Mining is the backbone of Australia and it continues to make the resources the world needs,” Pichanick adds. “As a mining equipment manufacturer, we have to constantly come up with new ways to improve products for our customers.”

This article’s author Carole Goldsmith has shares in BHP.