AUSTRALIA'S mining and quarrying regions are an indicator for the industry on a global level, where pressures to achieve greater resources processing rates have unearthed a hidden risk for company owners and managers. Situations are occurring where a processing plant is pushed to maximum capacity for the first time, and these are unchartered waters for site owners that have never tested their technologies at that high level or beyond the plant' nameplate capacity.

Engineering and design company Soto Consulting, which is at the forefront of plant analysis and capacity evaluation, says the digital simulation environment is the ideal test platform for plant owners and managers to foresee any complications.

"The fastest and most accurate approach is to review operational limitations of their plant using digital simulation means – not just old plants but also new ones which are constructed with conflicting performance requirements to that originally planned during the design specification phase for the plant," says managing director Frank Soto.

"As a rather common example, mine processing plant owners are aiming for a demanding a 14,000 tonnes/hour of their conveyor systems, which is a very fast rate and will almost certainly lead to new operational and maintenance issues that will impact on the operating cost of the plant.

"Pressures to increase rates are also taking existing plants into extra periods between shutdowns in operations, which extends the time frames between scheduled repair sessions. But perhaps the biggest cause for concern is that many plants are being tested under actual operating conditions with a high level of trial and error, taking guesses as to which parts may or may not work under the untested, increased workload.

"Our reasoning is that it is best to review a plant and assess it properly in the digital simulation environment before exposing it to a potentially crippling risk by taking chances 'on the fly'. We have proven digital testing and prototyping methods and we can work out if we will get the additional uptime, throughput and capacity they are chasing."

Soto Consulting believes this approach is a form of operational expenditure which optimizes a mine's capital expenditure. Using rapid prototyping and simulations, it enables identification of areas where modifications to an existing plant can increase throughput, reliability and maintainability.

"Sometimes this approach even unearths safety issues which should have been embedded in design but generally aren't, therefore improving access and safety for employees," Frank Soto says.

"As many plants reach their maximum operating capacity and now start to go beyond the original specifications the risk is that plants start to fail and breakdown prematurely. The peak performance and throughput may be negated due to extended breakdowns and outages that reduces overall plant throughput and increases operational expenditure."

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