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Douglas Morrison is the President and CEO of the Sudbury-based Centre for Excellence in Mining Innovation (CEMI) and network director, Ultra-Deep Mining Network.
Of the five important issues the mining industry in Canada needs to address (demographics, mine productivity, environmental performance, exploration, and remote mine development) the most critical is productivity.
Nationally, the decline in productivity is common in every sector of the economy. Equipment gets older and needs more maintenance, or customers relocate and delivery costs increase.
In mining, operations get deeper, hotter, technically more difficult and logistically more complex, and every day these factors erode mine productivity.
For underground mines, the extraction process has three phases: the development cycle (creating tunnels to access the ore), the ore production cycle (drilling, blasting and ore transport) and the backfill cycle (filling the voids created by mining). The production rate and the backfill rate are inextricably linked; they have to keep pace to ensure mine stability.
By the early 1990s, paste tailings backfill was developed in Ontario and roughly doubled the backfill rate. Even though any improvement in the production cycle cannot be implemented unless the backfill rate is also improved, many mines have not adopted paste-fill.
Over the last 25 years, the development rate has declined steadily, increasing the time it takes to get to a new ore-body. As equipment increased in size, cost and task-efficiency, utilization of the face (work done at the dead-end of a new tunnel or drift) has declined.
The new equipment also made the work much safer than it was before the 1980s, but the decline in face utilization reduced the advance rate for a single-heading to less than 20 per cent of the pre-1980 rate. Work practices absolutely have to be safe, but they also have to be efficient.
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