Australia’s Mineral Technologies is a go-to for mineral processing solutions, its industry-leading products deployed around the world are the result of an innovation-driven company culture
Writer: Tom Wadlow | Project Manager: Thomas Arnold
The world economy in general is in a tough place with the full impact of COVID-19 still to be realised, and Australia is not exempt by any means as it heads into a recession.
Compounded by a poor manufacturing competitiveness index, it is tough to compete against the world’s larger manufacturing countries.”
You’d be forgiven for thinking that Alex De Andrade was casting a pessimistic light on Australia’s current industrial prospects.
Orator of these opening words, the General Manager of Mineral Technologies (MT) is actually something of a stout optimist, despite the obvious challenges that have been exacerbated throughout the course of 2020 by the coronavirus pandemic.
Indeed, for De Andrade and MT, what recent months have amplified is the reward to be reaped from innovating and thinking differently.
“A declining manufacturing sector coupled with a slowing COVID affected economy requires companies to focus on improving efficiencies and developing high quality products and services – and these challenges make it a very exciting space to be working in,” he continues.
“High value niche products and specialised services require innovation and advanced skills, and this is an area in which Australia has real capability and opportunity.
“Government, businesses and the private sector need to collectively invest in technology, developing key skills and continuous improvement to drive Australia’s competitive advantage and to create the jobs and manufacturing technologies of the future.”
Mineral Technologies ticks all three of these boxes.
Recognised as a global leader in mineral processing solutions, the firm is part of the Downer Group, a leading provider of infrastructure services in Australia and across the Tasman Sea in New Zealand.
Having started out 80 years ago, MT has gathered formidable expertise across a huge range of minerals including iron ore, mineral and silica sands, coal, chromite, gold, tin, tungsten, tantalum and other fine minerals, its 250 staff spread across four continents in numerous teams.
These teams produce and deploy solutions covering metallurgical testing, plant design and equipment supply, transforming ore bodies into valuable commodities for customers at home and abroad.
It is renowned for its spiral technology-powered gravity seperation range of equipment, and OEM producing centrifugal, magnetic and electrostatic separation solutions which are manufactured in-house to high ISO9001:2015 quality standards.
“In addition, the company has a full scale laboratory and testing facility that can offer process guarantees to our flowsheets with a strong R&D and innovation focus, which brings to reality new technologies and innovations in equipment and plant design solutions such as compact easy to operate modular plants, mobile mining units, innovative surge bin technology and 3D printing,” adds De Andrade.
“Supported by front end business development teams globally who have metallurgy and process backgrounds, along with highly skilled customer service technicians and spare parts support in the field on the back end, this makes Mineral Technologies a preferred end to end choice.”
The General Manager goes on to explain how MT’s portfolio of equipment and solutions has been subject to constant refinement, innovation and enhancement, a process of continuous improvement which, combined with regular releases of new products, keeps the company well ahead of the industry curve.
Its approach with customers is also entirely bespoke. After closely analysing a customer’s ground or ore body via its purpose-built metallurgical testing laboratory, MT will decide which smart flowsheet will produce the most cost-efficient process before producing a compact plant layout that incorporates any bespoke equipment required.
And because everything is managed, manufactured and thoroughly tested in-house, it can offer customers peace of mind in terms of safety and financials.
“Every percentage of valuable mineral lost in a process circuit equates to many millions of dollars left behind over the life span of the mine,” De Andrade adds. “Furthermore, it results in additional digging up of earthly deposits and unnecessary impacts on the environment as mining efficiencies are not maximised due to substandard equipment performance.”
This would not be possible without the 250 dedicated employees that keep the MT machine running on a daily basis.
De Andrade is quick to praise the endeavour and skill within the company, what he describes as the most rewarding part of the job.
“Only last week we ran a morning tea feedback discussion with 12 people, and the collective tenure among them was 80 years, which shows that when people arrive here, they stay with us,” he says. “The knowledge base here is without doubt what makes MT innovative and able to create cutting edge products better than the rest.
“Investing in our workforce and teams is key. We support multiple apprenticeships each year and were awarded the ‘WPC Group’ recognition for Employer of the Year for our commitment in training and skills development two years ago.”
This is underlined by frequent and meaningful employee engagement, De Andrade pointing to regular surveys, mentorship programmes and meet and greats – these involve monthly sit downs where randomly selected employees are invited to have an open discussion. Another priority is to boost diversity within the company, especially in leadership roles where currently two of 11 roles on its advanced leadership training programme are currently filled by women.
Indeed, engagement (which also applies to customers), forms a key part of the lean principles which MT identifies itself with, another pull factor for workers being the company’s location on the Gold Coast.
“We’re located a couple of kilometres from arguably the most popular stretch of coastline in Australia,” De Andrade says. “We also offer flexibility in terms of hours, with some teams starting at 4am and they can be on the beach by lunchtime after a solid day’s contribution.”
Products in action
So, what are some of the specialised products that MT’s people are responsible for developing?
The General Manager highlights several innovations that are currently making waves in mines all over the world, the first being the Mobile Mining Unit (MMU) which is designed for sites where traditional dredging is either not physically possible or financially viable.
MMUs are especially suited to sand environments that include organics such as tree roots, light clay and soft or friable rock, where they can reduce operating costs and heighten safety standards by eliminating the need for conventional truck and shovel mining.
These are currently being delivered for chemical company and MT customer Chemours, based in North America.
“We are in the process of delivering four mobile mining units over 30 months for the extraction of difficult to reach mineral sand deposits, where traditional mining methods didn’t stack up as the best business case,” De Andrade says.
“MT has designed, manufactured, delivered and commissioned three of the MMUs with the fourth unit due to be commissioned in Q4 2020.”
De Andrade also points to an extension of the company’s flagship electrostatic separation range as an exciting product development.
“The new HTR400 delivers increased throughput and next generation technology along with the benefits of greater flexibility in configuration as well as improved usability and ease of maintenance,” he continues.
“These machines have been developed to offer additional sensor adoption and through IoT connected devices they can be set up to offer a live dashboard to the operator’s mobile device for key setpoint prompts and optimisation recommendation messages.
“Coupled with glassless composite material electrodes, the cost of spares and fragile damage in traditional electrodes is overcome and far safer to store and maintain without compromise to performance.”
The third product example carries the name of its creator in chief.
Inspired by development team leader John Lyons, the Lyons Feed Control Unit (LFCU) delivers world-beating feed control technology in the form of a smart surge bin, a solution which enables consistent slurry density at the LFCU discharge point.
“While these units were initially utilised to stabilise and control the feed to processing plants, we are now also finding application in stabilising tailings discharges and in desliming and upgrading fine heavy mineral feeds,” the General Manager adds.
“The stable density and feed control are benefits to the process, but the main benefit to MT’s customer is the fine particle separation with much less water than competing technologies require.”
In Western Australia, Mineral Technologies is currently fabricating 10 LFCUs for a world-renowned iron ore miner, one of several deployments of its equipment across the country.
Indeed, another cost-effective process solution comes in the form of MT’s new range of modular mineral plants.
Building on 80 years of engineering prowess, these are ideally sized for road, rail and ocean freight, meaning they can easily be transported to mining sites and are easily assembled (up to half the time taken for conventionally constructed plants).
Through an agreement with Primero, the company is also aiming to commence two major Australian mineral sands projects by the end of 2020, a development which should see the MT modular design segments form the overall solution for the wet concentrator plant and mineral separation plant.
Away from Australia, in Senegal, MT delivered engineering services and equipment to the largest mineral sands plant in the world at Grande Côte Operations. Here, the company conducted the first metallurgical testing, designed the wet concentrator plant and delivered process equipment including gravity spirals and LFCUs, as well as a bespoke 7,000 tph surge bin and tails densification modules.
Another mineral sands separation module (2,500 tph) is being delivered to a customer in South Africa near MT’s factory in Richard’s Bay, while chrome tailings recovery solutions have also been developed for the major chromite producers (including Samancor). The Samancor modular plants leverage the latest wet high intensity magnetic technology, a system which processes existing waste streams from current operations, essentially recovering what the conventional plants leave behind.
“Goes without saying as the world’s leading gravity separation product manufacturer that MT has also developed and improved multiple spiral models recently, as every percentage of separation efficiency equates to cash for our customers,” says De Andrade. “Spiral models include the CT1, CS1, LC1, HC34, WW7 and an automated range. Some of which are currently undergoing final testing regimes globally and specifically in North America at some of the world’s largest Canadian based iron ore mines.”
These are just some of the examples of MT’s solutions at work.
The company is proudly engaged in projects at various stages in India, Brazil, Madagascar, South Africa, Namibia, Sierra Leone, Vietnam, Egypt, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Sri Lanka, USA and Mozambique, the aim very much being to expand this global presence in Western Australia and Europe in the coming years.
Central to this will be keeping its offering fresh and relevant, something which its R&D team will continue to drive thanks to MT’s financial commitment to its work – each year between 15 and 20 percent of profits are channelled into these efforts.
De Andrade adds: “We have a clear technology roadmap, and currently our focus is on supporting the new products previously discussed, while also enhancing our existing equipment ranges with IoT connected sensors and feedback loops that offer an intelligent product service over and above just a high-quality performing product.
“This means products that offer the operator or owner a prompt message when its optimal set points have slipped or where optimisation is possible by adjusting a simple setting.”
Mineral Technologies is also determined to offer more employment opportunities in the fields of additive manufacturing and automated production systems, the development of industry skills also viewed as key to both the company’s and Australia’s standing as a global pioneer in mining technology.
For instance, it is mentoring various studies in collaboration with educational institutions, the idea being to yield faster development cycles and tap into skills that exist outside of the organisation. Internally, MT runs a series of projects under the label of ‘voice of the customer’, again ensuring it avoids slipping into being what De Andrade terms an organisation with a sell by date.
This leads the General Manager to outline his priorities for the coming year as the conversation draws to a close.
Although 2020 has presented enormous challenges in light of the COVID-19 outbreak, De Andrade is optimistic that numerous targets can and will be met, not least because several exciting mineral sands projects are expected to commence in Australia by the end of Q4.
Employee wellbeing, both physical and mental, remains the number one priority on site, in company factories and offices, and at home, with many staff having to work remotely.
Virtual engagement will be crucial here, both in terms of internal communication and with customers, another aim being to maintain or even improve the amount of time spent engaging with customers.
And in a nod to the futuristic, Mineral Technologies will be utilising augmented reality and headsets linked to its latest equipment manuals and maintenance procedures for key equipment ranges.
This would not have been imaginable 80 years ago when the company was founded, De Andrade quick to remind us that MT and its employees have a tremendous legacy to uphold.
It is a fitting place to end, as the General Manager concludes: “We have several people who have been with MT for more than 40 years and are linked to some of our original product inventors, which I believe is something special. Hearing some of their stories is both fascinating and inspirational in many ways, and we are planning to make a book full of archive material to celebrate our past.
“Maintaining that balance of experience and up and coming management will be key for the next 80 years of MT. This succession planning, in combination with embracing industry 4.0 principles and innovation of new products, should create the winning formula for us moving forwards.”