Telling the conveyor data-driven story – FLSmidth and Overland Conveyor Company

Overland Conveyor Company, based in Lakewood, Colorado, has been operating since 1996 as an independent consulting firm. Its entire goal at that time and today was to provide excellence in consulting services surrounding long distance and/or high capacity conveying systems. In the mid 1990s the focus in mining conveyors was to go longer, further and faster and that is still somewhat the case today. But the increasing ability of computers to really wrangle that problem and analyse it in a better way enabled OCC to step up into that space, provide quality advice and build the software tools that could be used in analysis.

General Manager Paul Ormsbee told IM: “OCC then evolved from pure consulting to also selling software, as we realised that the software that we were using for our own purposes had a value in the market as well. We built Belt Analyst, which is a pretty significant conveyor system design software today. We also began selling our dynamic analysis software which simulates conveyor starts and stops plus the most difficult to control or evalulate conditions for a conveyor to operate in. That’s important because you can’t prototype a conveyor – a scale model doesn’t behave the same way and if you scale it up you may as well build the real thing. The only way to do it is to simulate it.”

So OCC ultimately became just as much as simulation company as an engineering company. “A lot of that relied upon us being able analyse specific vendor components; working as systems engineers and bringing everything together. Conveyors can be looked at as the largest machines in the world.” OCC functioned in this way until 2016 – when it was purchased by thyssenkrupp – later on they began a refocus and began making some strategic divestments including all of their mining portfolio going to FLSmidth in 2022.

An effective digital twin creates a useful link between the design and actual operations of a conveyor

Ormsbee: “But the reason thyssenkrupp bought us and the reason FLSmidth still has us is because we really do provide a very high level initial quality of engineering that sets up conveying projects to be successful. Not many people know how to do horizontal curves or long distance with dynamic analysis. A lot struggle with knowing how to set up a conveyor project from day one. We help with studies to define what is possible because there can be a lot of pay off in getting those early study works right. For FLSmidth this is all very integrated with their needs, providing excellence in conveyor technology towards their projects. Especially today, efficiency is really important in terms of the cost/tonne when operating a conveyor system.”

What about when FLSmidth sold of its ‘non core activities’ recently, which included some conveying related business, to KOCH Solutions, how did this affect OCC? Ormsbee commented: “When OCC came on board at FLSmidth, we were tasked with the product and project management for what they called the high performance conveyor group. FLSmidth is very serious about its MissionZero goals, and yes that means they are not interested in giant coal conveyors any more, or older conveyor technologies that make it more difficult to make those sustainability promises. It is also important to make the distinction between a high performance conveyor that requires specialised understanding and expertise and has high capacity, curvature, long distance or a combination of these; and standard mine or in-plant conveyors that a lot of companies can do and supply without much specialised engineering. FLS chose to move away from to these easier to accomplish, highly competitive standard conveyors and focus on high efficiency, carbon-reducing high performance conveyors. And that is in combination with related new technologies such as the Rail Running Conveyor.”

Ormsbee also has a dual role as both GM of OCC as well as being the Global Product Line Manager for High Performance Conveyors at FLSmidth. “So every large conveyor project that FLS is interested in, comes across my desk and I can propagate it through our engineering team. Our OCC engineers are very specialised in calculation and simulation plus heavy duty analysis and they work with FLSmidth engineers who are more focused on the actual project execution and delivery. It all integrates together. We see ourselves as conveyor best of breed for mining. There are challenges, such as understanding where the client is on the spectrum of CAPEX versus OPEX and trying to tailor the design on that basis.”

The unique thing about conveyors is that all the main components – belt, rollers, steel structure etc – can be sourced in the market by anyone, but the overall system is as far from off the shelf as you can get. Ormsbee: “We pride ourselves on understanding the system better than anyone else, and taking advantage of that knowledge base, that is both within the FLSmidth knowledge space but also what OCC has been doing for years. We very intentionally work our R&D towards educating the market and influencing the market as necessary.”

OCC since its foundation has had people intentionally on the committees within CEMA – that way it can for example work to influence the friction and calculation methodologies that the market is using, such as in Chapter 6 of CEMA’s Belt Book which is focused on belt tension, power and drive engineering. “This way we can ensure that the tools are there for everyone to use. It also helps to ensure that there is a common language so that when we do put out a conveyor, people understand that it is different and has the engineering behind it to make it more efficient.”

OCC is also free to consult on any conveyor systems, even if they are not part of an FLSmidth project, as long as there is no conflict of interest. It is worth pointing out as well that its type of specialised high performance conveying consultancy falls into a small world that also includes Conveyor Dynamics, AC-Tek and just a handful of others, so while it is very competitive there is also a mutual understanding across all these companies of how important it is to apply technology in the right way and are all interested in propagating the benefits and potential of conveying throughout the mining world.

On to conveyors as a major tool in helping mining decarbonise. Ormsbee: “We are more busy that we have ever been with studies related to quantifying the net benefits of technologies like in-pit crushing and conveying versus trucks. Over the past five years especially, every project in which we have been associated with bidding and wanting to supply has had steps related to quantifying why conveyors are being chosen from a sustainability point of view.”

Are more studies becoming real projects because of the carbon reduction factor and has this swung the pendulum away from miners mainly focusing just on CAPEX? “Yes that is true and there are also incentives in place by many governments in mining countries for mines to take a greener route. That said the payoff of a conveyor over 20-25 years can be huge. People are understanding the net benefits more and more.”

The devil is in the data

Looking at software, data and simulation, what do they enable us to do today related to conveyors? “We like to say what gets measured gets managed. So many people operate their conveyors and get data from them, but have no way to understand what that data means. At OCC we have put a lot of effort into helping people look at their data and use that data to guide the way forward. Often maintenance decisions are just made by a senior manager with the most experience but a much better approach is to use real data as the basis for decisions. No machine when you install it and run it should ever be ‘done’ with its design phase – and this is particularly true of conveyors. There are always things you can tinker with operationally to increase efficiency and reliability. We have the benefit of 25 years of people calling us when something goes wrong and they don’t know why.”

Because OCC always investigates and identifies the problems from the data and pinpoint the reason(s), it can then build these learnings into its software. Today, data from some of its customers is streamed to OCC in real time, so it can give automated feedback based on its specialised software tools we have developed over decades. This is supplemented this with human feedback as well.

While the customer might have noticed an upward trending oil temperature in a gearbox until it becomes a problem – OCC looks at this from the point of view of what can be done to reduce the load on that gearbox to improve its reliability. It provides a virtual representation of the conveyor but not one just showing tonnes delivered, power used etc – OCC’s solution is closer to a true digital twin and even goes beyond that in that it shows the dynamic changes of the conveyor lifecycle while also providing understanding on how to improve its performance. It really gives you active feedback. “A lot of people are now offering to apply analytics to data, in terms of AI and machine learning – we are much more focused on grounded physics-based simulation that reflects the data but also our experience and knowledge base from 25 plus years of real projects and results. We can really tell the customer what is happening.”

Ormsbee adds: “An effective digital twin creates a useful link between the design and operations of a machine that have traditionally been disconnected. The design of the machine is constantly evaluated and updated to result in improvements towards the operation. Ultimately you create a concrete understanding of the effect that each change to the design has on the operating characteristics of the machine. You are always keeping in mind what was the conveyor design originally intended to do, and now it is running are you operating within those ranges?”

As stated, OCC has clients for whom it provides feedback continually on live data. But at the other end of the scale it can also offer what it calls a conveyor system health check – a one off approach where it will get a batch of data relating to an incident and we then create a data story around that to help guide the way forward in terms of actions. Of course, this is more reactive, where you tend to replace components when broken and has the highest cost. Then you have preventative maintenance where you replace components periodically with a moderate relative cost. Predictive thermal, acoustic, oil and vibration analysis based maintenance can mean a lower cost again. But the lowest possible maintenance Ormsbee argues is proactive or what some people call prescriptive – looking at correct system behaviour taking in to consideration the original design and changes that have been made and predicting failures on that basis.

Ormsbee concluded: “Data driven analysis goes all the way from beginning of a project to the end, and we will try to quantify in our simulations what the most important pieces are that you need to control to be successful on the project. Is it most of the drag coming from the belt rubber? Or is most of the drag coming from the alignment of the system? You identify this with data at the design phase but then during project execution, you create supplemental QA/QC data to help ensure you are achieving what was required at the design phase. This could include getting rubber or idler rolls to test.”

OCC has done a lot of difficult terrains projects recently where the conveyor has a lot of ups and downs – its ability to simulate the various loads that are possible allows the selection of the right motor size and then guarantee that with partner suppliers – for example with Innomotics on gearless drives. It then verifies everything with the real data upon commissioning. It never just relies on historical engineering of ‘similar’ projects though of course through FLSmidth it has that experience too, it is enabling the data to tell a more complete story. “When you don’t know something you have be conservative and design larger – the more you know and the more you back with data, the most efficient you can be – and that could include something like opting for a lower tension belt.”