Specialist engineering firm METC Engineering understands that completing working projects early contributes to improved investment returns.
It is with this in mind, along with an experienced and fast-moving team, that the company is driving cost-effective projects and designing and building metallurgical plants in an open and flexible environment throughout Africa. GERARD PETER reports.
Currently, the company is delivering seven complex process projects in the region, namely, Ivanhoe’s Kipushi zinc project (DRC); Chemaf’s Mutoshi copper-cobalt mine (DRC); Gecamines’ copper, cobalt and geranium refinery (DRC); Karo’s PGM concentrator (Zimbabwe); Resolute’s Syama gold mine expansion (Mali); EPCM for Dasa uranium project (Niger); and Northam’s base metals refinery upgrade (South Africa).
METC Engineering is also conducting a DFS study for Rainbow Rare Earths’ Phalaborwa process project and the Omitiomire copper project in Namibia.
The company’s success is also due to its thorough understanding of trends that determine how metallurgical process plants are designed. Nico Maritz, Technical Director explains that when it comes to traditional commodities like gold, PGMs and base metals, a combination of fewer near surface resources and environmental pressures results in a distinct swing towards underground mining.
“As opposed to weathered surface ores, the ’fresh’ ore mined from underground typically requires a more complex metallurgical treatment process to extract the valuable metal,” he adds.
On the other hand, there is still an abundance of surface resources, particularly battery metals. While the mining process is not complicated, Maritz points out that these minerals are inherently more complicated to process metallurgically.
“As such, we do not take a cookie-cutter approach when it comes to designing these plants. Now, every project requires us to apply critical thinking and to go back to the fundamentals of the design phase and other disciplines rather than to simply leverage on our experience.”
The company has also noticed a trend where projects are fast-tracked to faster production times. At times, this results in vital trade-offs and concept development being missed which can place the project at risk of changes, rework and delays occurring during the execution phase.
METC Engineering Director, Dr Steve Cathey cautions against taking shortcuts during the planning phases of a project. “There are many development paths that one can take in bringing a project to execution, but there is only one that will most ideally suit the project owner’s particular requirements, be they time-, cost- and/or performance-related.
A robust and comprehensive desktop/prefeasibility/feasibility study process ensures that all reasonable paths are considered upfront and enables the client to reliably choose the correct path before investing their money into developing along this path. Taking shortcuts in these study phases (almost) always results in, at best, expensive and time-consuming design rework or, at worst, the eventual failure of the entire project.”
METC Engineering: Technology enables optimisation
Maritz points out that there are key factors that must be taken into account when designing a plant. He explains that safety, the circular economy, sustainable procurement, localisation, doorstep-community involvement and carbon footprint are key drivers to each and every element of a mining project, and the process plant is no different.
“Over and above these, something that METC Engineering prides itself on is the amount of value engineering that we include in our plant designs. A good plant design is one that is intrinsically safe, uses the least possible footprint, where it is physically easy to perform maintenance and where an allowance is made for future expansion or modification.
Paying attention to these aspects during the design phase not only results in a more efficient and sustainable plant, but the capital and operating costs are often lower because of it,” he adds.
As is the case in many mining processes, technology plays a vital role in optimising the design of metallurgical process plants. Maritz states that the software available today allows the company to link each engineering discipline and each phase of the design process together into a singular data source.
Although this does take some upfront effort, the benefit is that the design becomes more robust in terms of interdisciplinary integration as well as unplanned (or planned) changes. “For example, the downstream and engineering impact of a late modification to the process flowsheet is automatically calculated rather than relying on engineers to anticipate the impact, and possibly missing something that would eventually become an issue in the construction or commission phase, where it is extremely expensive to correct.”
The digitalisation of design data has also enabled METC Engineering to automate its workflows. For example, it can assign unique IDs to each of its designs. This ensures that the company can track the progress of equipment during fabrication and manufacturing phases. The company also uses geolocation to track the movement of equipment until it is finally handed over on-site.
Maritz says that the company is increasingly using drones to do topographic surveys and gather information about the social impact of a project. “We use drones extensively on brownfield sites to do inspections of existing infrastructure that are difficult to access. Also, during the execution phase, we use drones to monitor progress and conduct quality control checks,” he adds.
Localised approach has enormous benefits
METC has vast experience in both brownfields and greenfields projects. When it comes to the former, there are both benefits and challenges. “Because brownfields projects are already set up and meet regulatory requirements, such as having an environment permit, you start work on the project a lot quicker,” Maritz notes.
On the other hand, brownfields projects can be more challenging than greenfields because there is usually an existing fixed process and/or infrastructure to integrate with and it is there that most challenges will arise. Weighing in on this point, Cathey adds, “You also have interference from people in an existing operation who are accustomed to a certain way of working and will not consider new methods.”
METC spends a lot of time on the interfaces and tie-in points to make sure that all risks are identified and mitigated. Also, the company uses its value engineering skills to develop designs and project plans that minimise any downtime of the wider operation to install the new plant.
“We are comfortable working on both brownfields and greenfields projects. However, for me, greenfields are special because we can put our METC stamp on them right from the beginning,” Cathey adds.
METC continues to make great inroads in the African mining sector and is due, Cathey points out, to its approach to localisation. “Localisation is also a major consideration as many African countries have strict requirements in place to support and develop their local industries.
“When it comes to finding a local partner, METC believes that the more real value the partner brings to the venture, the more sustainable and effective the relationship will be. Therefore, METC goes to great lengths to find local partners in each country that can add real value to the partnership, the project and ultimately the host country.”
Already, the company has set up three local entities on the continent, one in Tanzania and two in the DRC, and plans are afoot to set up similar companies in other African countries.
“In addition, our team has vast experience and a deep appreciation of the challenges today’s projects face and deal with these efficiently, whether it be the processing of complex ore bodies, complex supply chain and logistics, shortage of skilled labour and experienced construction contractors or brownfields project integration,” Cathey concludes.