Mining remains a key contributor to South Africa’s economy, with the country currently ranked fifth in the world in terms of mining contribution to gross domestic product. Despite its contribution to the economy and employment, the sector faces major challenges that are putting budgets under pressure, often resulting in the deferment of practices such as preventative infrastructure maintenance.
By Otto Botha, MD of Waco Engineering Services
While South Africa is ranked as the world’s top producer of platinum, chromium and manganese, its mining sector and related industries have to deal with hurdles such as load shedding, rising energy costs and tough economic conditions, forcing asset managers to tighten their purse strings.
These challenges not only impact the cost of extracting minerals from underground mining operations, but also impact activities such as smelting and processing, which have been hard hit by escalating energy costs.
Mining remains one of the biggest consumers of power, accountable for 8% – 10% of the country’s electricity consumption. Yet, electricity tariffs have surged by some 520% between 2004 and 2019, putting huge pressure on mining and smelting operations’ cost base, making them less competitive in the world market.
Due to spiralling energy costs and the inflationary rise in material costs, smelters and ore processing plants have seen production costs escalate exponentially over the past two decades, with these costs now five times higher than in 2004.
In light of these adverse factors, smelting and processing operations are often forced to scrap or delay their preventive maintenance plans. While this may be perceived as a money saving strategy in the short-term, neglecting preventative maintenance could ultimately prove costly in the long run. Structures may become structurally unsafe or high-risk during this time, and as a result, will have to be temporarily supported and made safe whilst the permanent solution is being designed.
This is where smelting and processing operators can benefit from outsourcing to temporary works consulting companies. Temporary works refers to a specialised field within civil structural engineering and covers any temporary structure, such as scaffolding, structural supports and shoring, that is erected during the course of a project and then removed upon completion.
Legally, temporary works must be managed and overseen by a “competent person” – someone with the required qualifications, the right training, sufficient knowledge of the subject matter and experience. Very few asset owners in the smelting and processing industry have these skills in-house, so they have little choice but to take on temporary works partners if they want to comply with the law.
Outsourcing to a temporary works partner also brings the added benefit of allowing project owners to not get involved in a civils project directly, but rather focus on their core business. The right partner can often provide a full risk ring-fenced solution that includes doing an inspection to see what is required, doing the design, supplying equipment and even the erection of temporary works structures.
Temporary works companies can also act as specialist consultants to permanent works engineers, who for example would do a structural assessment of a smelter and building, particularly where preventative maintenance has been neglected. A temporary works partner would typically assist with planning the constructability and sequencing of operations required to support and ensure the safety of a structure before work commences to replace components that need to be replaced.
Depending on the company’s policy and philosophy around maintenance, some plants might choose to only fix infrastructure once it fails, but this is a short-term view and does not consider the long-term longevity of the plant. Smelting and processing environments tend to be very aggressive, so when things start to really fail, they most often do not fail in isolation. This can obviously have serious financial implications.
This is why preventative maintenance should be a key objective of any asset owner, as the consequences of not proactively managing their assets could be extremely costly, coupled with the operational risk of unplanned downtime and emergency repairs, which are typically very expensive.
Preventative maintenance has also always been part of health and safety – one of the core values embraced by the mining industry. The safety of people is non-negotiable when it comes to key infrastructure that can impact the physical wellbeing of workers. Yet, many also underestimate the impact of preventative maintenance on the emotional wellbeing of employees, when a company demonstrates that it is living the values of health and safety by ensuring that work areas are safe.
While for some asset owners, preventative maintenance may not be at the top of their mind, it should really be seen as an investment in the future of the plant, as it increases the longevity of assets and helps to prevent major repair costs. Remember, failing to plan, is planning to fail.