Q&A series #35 : Interview with Mark Bowater

About the guest

Mark is an Australian mining engineer. He has been open cut mining in coal and hard rock since 1989 and carried out a range of engineering and management roles at Rio Tinto and Thiess, until leaving employment in 1999 to start my own mining consulting company. Mark helps mines increase their profitability by improving their mine planning.He spent 10 years in a range of engineering and management roles in open cut coal and iron ore mines before founding a mining engineering consultancy in 1999. He grew that company to 35 people before selling it in 2013. He then spent 3 years out of the industry before re-joining in 2016 and have been carrying out various consulting roles since.
After many years working “in the industry”, it is now time for him to work “on the industry” and that is by influencing fundamental change in mine scheduling across more than just the sites he directly consults to.

Topic of discussion: An expert approach to mine planning and mine scheduling.  

Mine plans, are the template for all future productivity, and are crucial to success but are only effective if you know how to schedule and execute the plan.  

The ultimate purpose of mine planning is to devise a strategy that will optimise project economics within the physical constraints of the deposit characteristics. 

An unreliable mine plan is a one that has a short shelf life. It has a short life before it becomes redundant because the plan is wrong and so it needs to be rescheduled. 

Mine planning requires the close co-operation of field personnel, design groups, manufacturers, management and financial agencies in an engineering appraisal of mining alternatives and project economics. 

Focal Mining offers the following services:

  • Consulting services 
  • Technical audits 
  • Continuous improvement 
  • Mine planning training 
  • Public speaking 

In this GRT Q&A Series, I am in conversation with mine planning guru Mark Bowater. He is an Australian Mining Engineer by trade and is the Principal Consultant of Focal Mining Solutions. He is based in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia. 

Q1) Welcome to the GRT Q&A series, Mark. It’s a pleasure to have you with us. Can you please tell us more about Focal Mining Solutions and what drove you to establish the company 2 years ago?

I previously founded, operated, and built a mining consultancy (Echelon Mining) to over 30 employees between 1999 and 2012. But this time around I wanted to do things a little differently, so I established Focal Mining Solutions (FMS) with the objective that it would only ever be me and that it would be very flexible in terms of the services or products provided, depending on where I believed I could add most value. So, now I am carrying out a range of consulting tasks from mining studies and engineering through to helping companies improve their mine planning. But FMS also sells products such as my book and engineering mentoring programs.

Q2) How does mine planning contribute to helping mines increase their profitability? What is the past, present and outlook of a mine ‘balance sheet’ that has been optimised through mine planning?

Mine planning is a fundamental part of mining profitability. Firstly, it determines and dictates the quantity and quality of ore that will be produced for sale within the following period. But in addition to that, poor mine planning costs the mine money and therefore reduces profitability. There has been a lot of work on “optimising” mine plans to produce a plan that shows improved outcomes, such as profit margins or tonnes produced, and we have very good optimisation tools available for use now. But that is a somewhat pointless exercise if our mine plan is wrong in the first place, because it ignores the impacts of variability and task dependencies, is based on erroneous reserves, or has incorrect assumptions built into the plan. We need tools and training for our planners in producing a reliable, accurate and achievable mine plan in the first place, that can then be further optimised. I know of a consultancy with a background in Theory of Constraints who have carried out over 80 interventions where they have worked with the mine site on how to follow the mine plan and the communication and co-operation required across the mine site. So how to effectively execute the mine plan and they have achieved at least a 20% improvement in profitability every time, in addition to improvements in safety and other key areas.

Q3) To what extent is poor mine planning costing the mining industry? What do the global figures amount to in the different mining driven economies? 

I do not have any figures at my fingertips, and these would be very hard to come across because it is not something that is focussed on in the industry, or that anyone ever tries to measure or calculate. But I can say with a high degree of confidence that on a global basis it would be huge, and I believe would run into the billions annually. Our lack of high quality mine planning and ignorance of the impact that variability plays means that mine sites carry inventory in front of every task from drilling through to shipping, if you were to work out the holding cost of inventory on a global basis it would be a very big number. But not only that, it leads us to build flexibility into our mine plans to cater for them not allowing for variability. Flexibility is achieved by creating spare faces for equipment to relocate to when required. Spare faces require additional material to be mined earlier than it needs to and grows the size of our voids, subsequently increasing haul distances and other related costs. In addition to all of that, poor mine plans result in equipment parking up, relocating, or taking short cuts such as digging half width faces. All of those are inefficiencies that increase the cost of mining.

Q4) Please take us through mine scheduling and can you give us an objective critique of the model that has been there for 30 years? What are the shortcomings? Areas of growth? How are compliance to plan and accountability changing the way things are done?

Mine scheduling typically works as follows:

  • Mine planners are provided a geological model that has been further subdivided into waste and ore blocks by design engineers, such that ultimately the mine planner has a database of reserves used for scheduling.
  • Historical data is analysed to determine equipment production hours and productivities which are then key inputs into the schedule.
  • Planners collect other key information such as current face positions, planned equipment maintenance, current stockpile and inventory quantities, and planned product sales for use as inputs to the schedule.
  • Planners will communicate with a wide range of stakeholders before carrying out any scheduling including production personnel to collect feedback on strategies and tactics to use, critical issues that may occur and to assist in general ownership of the plan by those who will be charged with executing it.
  • Typically, with mid to longer term plans, the draft plan needs to be reviewed at a mine management or company executive level. Often those plans will come back with a request for a review and subsequent improvement of the plan outcomes. This is generally when optimistic plan inputs come into play, leading to plans that are not achievable.
  • Once the plan is finalised, then it is distributed to a large range of stakeholders, both on site and off site (such as the logistics team). The mining company will generally hold one or more planning meetings around that plan and how to ensure it is executed correctly.
  • Invariably most plans become inaccurate relative to the actual mining operation at some time during the life of the plan – often leading to a need to reschedule the operation as it is not possible to use the forecasts from the previous version, or to make decisions based on the old plan.

We put an extraordinary amount of labour time and effort into deterministic plans that are based on single point assumptions for all elements, they therefore ignore variability and other impacts. Not only that but we have a blind faith that our deterministic plans are right and that we should be able to do what the plan says, well if we’re good at our job and we talk about it enough we should be. But that just shows a high level of ignorance of the very high number of factors over which we have no control, issues such as weather delays and variability of the ore body to name just two of many. We need to stop talking in concrete quantities and dates like we genuinely believe that it will happen exactly as planned and instead start talking in ranges and risks and uncertainties. I don’t believe in compliance to plan measures, that just shows how little we understand variability, as I further discuss in one of the following questions, we should measure how well we managed and executed the plan (so adjusted to suit the variability that does occur because we understood what was important in the plan and what was just noise), rather than a hard compliance to plan measure.

Q5) What challenges have you faced in the transition from ‘working in the industry’ to ‘working on the industry’ and how have you gone about to influence fundamental change in mine scheduling across the mine sites you deal with? 

I am carrying out a combination of working both in and on the industry now and the primary challenge has been my time. It is hard to find the time to write articles and books and interact with mining stakeholders on a global basis when you are flat out on consulting tasks. So, I am still in a transition period. 

I have used the production of quality content for free circulation as my primary source of influencing change so far. I’ve written over 20 LinkedIn articles to date and those articles have been read about 35,000 times in total, so the response has been good. Similarly with my book Crimes Against Mine Planning, I have distributed over 2,200 copies of the book to date and the feedback has all been very positive. I really would like to facilitate discussion that is long overdue on a range of mine planning issues, such as deterministic scheduling, optimistic mine plans, lack of mine Plan KPI’s etc. That is probably the next objective for me, is to encourage and facilitate those discussions.

But I believe it is just the beginning of the journey of trying to influence change. I have recently launched a mining engineering mentoring program and I’m aiming to mentor a generation of mining engineers around the world. What better way to improve mine planning then to start at the base, the people who create the plans in the first place. I envisage public speaking being part of the influence process sometime soon, this will start with online webinars, but then hopefully progress to conferences and courses.

Q6) In your experiences, are mine planners and mine executors well versed with knowledge of why we plan and how we execute the mine plan? What can be done within a mine set-up to be able to holistically answer these two important questions?

Firstly, there is a gap in knowledge about mine planning between planners and executors, that is just natural as it is not the executor’s role to know the mine plan as well as the creator of that plan. So, while the planners will be well versed in why we plan, that is not necessarily the case for the executors. That is particularly the case where mine planning has a poor track record and so the mine site has very little confidence or faith in the plans produced, executors are more prone to wondering why we plan the mine when to them it seems a waste of time.

Executing the mine plan, I believe is something that is typically not well understood by any of the stakeholders of mine plans. Most of the focus is on the tasks themselves and how long they will take, where I believe the critical component in a mine schedule is not so much the tasks themselves, but the interaction between tasks. It is when two tasks reach a point of overlap that we now have an issue as one task will not be completed in time for the following task and so equipment either must go into idle or be walked to another working area in the mine. Executing the plan is all about monitoring and managing those interactions.  

Q7) Let’s look into the future. What do you envisage for mine scheduling in the next 10 years and what role will technology play in the evolution and efficiency of mine scheduling? 

Well, that is an interesting question, what I would like to see is the following:

  • We have probabilistic scheduling capability built into our mainstream mine scheduling tools and we are carrying out schedules that include variability and show ranging on the outcomes as standard practice.
  • Our information collection tools connect to our mine schedules and so the schedules are updated automatically on a regular basis.
  • We have separated benchmarking from mine planning. Benchmarking is used as part of a continuous improvement process to increase productivity (rather than mine plans being used for this). Mine plans are subsequently no longer overly optimistic and instead represent reality, positioning them to be the tool to use to operate the mine effectively and efficiently. We aim to use mine plans for that now, but we can’t because our mine plans are too optimistic and therefore fundamentally wrong.
  • We have a much better understanding of variability; we understand the impact it has on mining, and we monitor and manage it accordingly.
  • Mine sites employ KPIs as part of their continuous improvement process for mine planning, that is we are continually striving to improve our mine planning processes, rather than our mine plans and understanding what a good mine plan looks like is a key part of that.

While technology is undoubtedly important for change, I think that our head space and approach are more important. We can’t fix the issue until we recognise there is a problem in the first place!

Find out more about mine planning and mine scheduling and if you would like to download the free e-book or purchase a copy for your office, please follow this link: www.markbowater.com.