The basis for the design of minerals processing plants has not fundamentally changed in the past 50 years. The design of these plants has typically been the responsibility of the customers selected engineering firm, and the outcome has largely been driven by two primary constraints - capital cost and schedule.

This is understandable as most customers have a limited amount of capital and secondly they may have promised product to its customers by a certain date which drives schedule.

The customer may also be motivated by these two factors as these are easily measured and assessed indicators during the course of the project. However, these two key indicators should not be the only drivers for decision making. A more holistic approach is needed, one that takes into account all economic aspects of the asset from inception to closure.

When Engineers are engaged to be driven only on budget and schedule, decisions are made which may negatively impact on the total cost of ownership of the process plant.

The total cost of ownership’s aim is to describe all the costs incurred during the life of the asset.  This would be the true cost of the asset to the owner. After all, the owner will live with the asset long after the engineer has delivered the completed plant. The total cost of ownership includes operating cost, sustaining capital, production flexibility, system upgradability, production system redundancy design, ramp-up speed, ease of use and Industry 4.0 considerations.

Recurring Costs of a Process Plant

When driven to minimising the capital cost of a project, engineers often have to neglect the recurring costs an asset will incur over its lifetime. This includes the selected equipment’s impact on energy and reagent use. This has a direct effect on operating costs. 

Selecting the lowest cost bid for a piece of equipment may not yield the lowest cost of ownership if its efficiency is low. It is therefore critical to evaluate all aspects of a bid to ensure lower lifetime costs and be ready to justify the case with evidence to the client.  

A lower cost of operations provides the owner with a competitive advantage, especially when commodity prices are subject to market rise and fall.

Market Responsiveness

Another often neglected aspect of plant design is its responsiveness to the market. Commissioning and ramp-up to nameplate capacity are certainly in the sight of most engineers. After all, the faster you achieve full capacity, the quicker you can generate revenue.

Another aspect to consider when trying to meet market requirements is the level of redundancy in the production lines. A single production train may be the lowest cost option but may leave the client vulnerable to shutdowns (both planned and unplanned). During these periods, revenue generation stops. But if there are two smaller production trains, production can still occur and revenue can still be generated.

With careful consideration and knowledge of the unit process operation, a complete double up of all the equipment may not be necessary. Experienced engineers with production experience will allow for this smarter holistic approach.

Two production lines also offers the flexibility of producing products for different markets. This is incredibly important with the new battery metals, where users all have their own special requirements for the products. 

Smarter plant design will allow you to meet these ever changing market demands, putting you ahead of others. This also allows operators tooptimise the product mix of your production facility tomaximise margins.

Future Proofing your Process Plant

Industry 4.0 is the new current buzzword and the mining and metals industry has much to gain by leveraging the data it generates. 

Industry 4.0 relies on sensors, data acquisition systems and computing power to gather and analyse data to better understand the process andoptimise it. Integrating these instruments and systems into the design of new plants would prevent the need for future upgrades through bolt-on solutions. 

Having a process control, data acquisition and machine learning strategy during the design phase will help leverage the upcoming digital revolution in our industry, all leading to productivity gains.

Automation of manual tasks is not only a way to reduce costs, it also reduces exposure to safety hazards. Embracing new technologies may cost a little more upfront but will help you future proof your plant and reap the benefits of the coming revolution of Industry 4.0.

Capital cost isn’t the only benchmark in plant design. Total cost of ownership and the capability to adapt to both market and technological forces are critical factors that are mostly overlooked by plant designers. With the experienced professionals here at Engenium, you can rest assured your plant will be designed and built with a fully holistic approach and be ready for the next generation of plants.

We would like to thank Pete Forakis for writing our latest Engenium Insight knowledge piece. Until recently Pete was Principal Process Engineer / Study Manager at Engenium. He has now joined Rio Tinto as their Principal Advisor of Smelting. We wish him well in his new role.