Having recorded a slight decrease in operating profit for the year ending December 31, 2019, Master Drilling pointed investors to several positive mining technology innovation developments within its latest financial results presentation.
In terms of financials, the main headlines were a 6.9% rise in revenue to $148.3 million and a slight decrease in operating profit of 5.1% to $22.4 million. The company put the latter down to “adverse global market conditions and an uncertain macro operating environment”.
Koos Jordaan, Master Drilling Executive Director, focused on the latest with the company’s Mobile Tunnel Borer (MTB), Shaft Boring System (SBS) and automation, remote operation and digitisation efforts when addressing investors on the financial results webcast.
Starting with the MTB, the company confirmed the Phase 1 project it carried out for Northam Platinum at its Eland platinum group metals operation in South Africa was executed in the second half of 2019. According to Northam, this was a “performance validation project” that involved tunnelling on the 5.5 m diameter footwall conveyor decline at Eland.
The MTB is a modular horizontal cutting machine equipped with full-face cutter head with disc cutters adapted from traditional tunnel boring machines. Unlike these traditional machines, it is designed to work both on inclines and declines, with the ability to navigate around corners.
In Northam’s most recent annual report, it said the MTB trial would allow the company “to test and optimise both the efficacy of the machine as well as service functions that support the machine’s operation”.
At the end of February, Northam said: “The MTB trial was completed, yielding positive results, and will be applied to develop the Kukama belt decline barrel.”
This latest contract at Eland, termed the Phase 2 contract by Master Drilling, started up this quarter and will see a 1.5 km decline constructed in around 18 months, the raiseboring specialist said.
Jordaan said during the webcast that the company had experienced some delays in the start-up phase of this project, but recently it had obtained and “realised a steady build up”.
“Apart from this project, there is a lot of interest out of industry,” Jordaan said of the MTB, adding that the company was working on upfront engineering estimations for two other projects.
In addition to carrying out estimates for these projects Jordaan said an “alternative contractual business model” was under review for future MTB projects. This model is focused on the “capital nature” of employing the MTB and, Jordaan said, could “make a big difference as to the way we provide this service”.
Looking to the company’s vertical developments, Jordaan reviewed progress on the company’s SBS project.
In the second half of 2019, Master Drilling carried out an “experimental project” just outside of Fochville, in South Africa, to cut a 10 m test shaft of 4 m diameter. IM witnessed this in October, where the main cutting mechanism of what could eventually be its 45-m long, 450-t SBS was tested out in 300 Mpa rock.
When IM visited just over a week into these daily demonstrations, the machine was around 4.6 m below surface, no cutters had been replaced and Jordaan was satisfied with the machine’s performance.
In the webcast, Jordaan confirmed that the testing had seen the machine get up to “just short of a 1 m/hr instantaneous penetration”.
Such advance numbers could add considerable value to shaft sinking projects “if you consider the current complexities, safety-related issues, cost and productivity” associated with conventional sinking, he said.
Master Drilling, in order to mitigate the risks associated with bringing this mechanised technology to a largely conventional sinking industry, has split the development of the SBS into five phases.
Phase one – the testing that took place just outside Fochville – was concluded in the December quarter, while phase two to four – covering the assembly, manufacturing and commissioning of a machine and proving it to be commercially ready – had funding in place from Master Drilling’s partner, the Industrial Development Corporation.
Lastly, on the automation, remote operation and digitisation efforts, the company said it had completed several milestones during 2019.
One of these was displaying the ability to operate a raiseboring machine situated 3.5 km underground from a room on surface at the AngloGold Ashanti-owned Mponeng gold mine, in South Africa.
Jordaan said just over 20% of production was able to be completed by remote control during this project. “This helps you a lot if you have operations with high re-entry times,” Jordaan said, adding that it aids utilisation.
The company was looking to roll out this remote operation functionality across another four rigs in South America, North America, Scandinavia and India, according to Jordaan.
Looking at automation, Master Drilling has the capacity to employ semi-autonomous control on 42 rigs in its fleet. Jordaan said this has already shown to optimise the cutting cycle and provide a 20-50% productivity benefit at certain sites.
“We have also developed full autonomous control – the engineering side of it – and are waiting for the ideal project to apply and introduce it to industry,” Jordaan said.
When it comes to digitalisation, Jordaan was able to report that Master Drilling’s real-time operational reporting facility was continuing to be rolled out across all its operations. He also said additional modules were being developed around this hardware and system, which would provide even more benefits to users.