The Journey Into Mining Transformation

Chilean mining company Codelco has spent years implementing advanced process control and operator training systems to continually improve variables throughout its pyrometallurgy processes. The journey continues.

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Through digital technologies, mining organizations today are working on shifting the mindset from increasing throughput to increasing productivity. Beyond that, there is plenty of opportunity to not only further optimization, but help operators make decisions that go straight to the bottom line.

“Once you have stable operations running close to the maximum sustainable throughput, there’s room for some further optimization through advanced applications,” noted Doug Warren, vice president of software, industry solutions, for Schneider Electric. “And how to bring the workforce on that journey through operator training and simulation.”

A key word there is “journey.” Codelco, a Chilean state-owned copper mining company, has spent more than a decade implementing advanced process control (APC) and operator training systems (OTSs) in its pyrometallurgy processes. Realizing significant benefits along the way, Codelco is far from done. At Schneider Electric’s Innovation Summit: Software Conference 2017 this week in San Antonio, Texas, Codelco detailed where it’s been, where it’s going, and various highlights along the way.

“It’s not a project, it’s a journey,” said Ramón Hernández, software business development manager for mining, metals and minerals in Latin America for Schneider Electric. “What are we going to do from here to five years or 10 years? We build that roadmap together with Codelco.”

It’s been a 13-year journey so far for Codelco, which first implemented APC at its El Teniente division in 2004. “In 2008, after successful implementations of APC projects at three divisions, we started to discuss about how to support the digital transformation of Codelco with advanced solutions,” Hernández said.

Now Schneider Electric is looking to get a fifth advanced solutions development agreement signed with Codelco—to continue a journey that has included advanced control, dynamic simulation and business control on smelter processes; mobile solutions to help maintenance keep track of assets and records; 10 APC implementations to date; and one of the first operator training system (OTS) implementations in mining using dynamic simulation technology.

Mallén Gajardo, an automation engineer responsible for project development and implementation at Codelco, described the need for advanced optimization in the smelting of copper concentrates. “The furnace is a very complex control problem,” he said, describing input variables such as copper concentrate, cold load, oxygen, air and silica; and output variables including copper in white metal, slag temperature, and magnetite in slag.

What Codelco faced was high variability for slag temperature, copper in white metal and magnetite in slag, Gajardo said. The copper concentrate composition was also very variable; there was no online analysis of hot liquids; the process was highly internal and interactive; and it involved very complex dynamics.

With APC, those variables were improved across the board:

  • Slag temperature variability was reduced by 31 percent.
  • Magnetite in slag variability was reduced by 20 percent.
  • Copper in white metal variability was reduced by 28 percent.

But the acid plant was the bigger APC application, Gajardo said, with 42 manipulated variables, 37 controlled variables and nine feedforward variables.

“In the last 10 years, we’ve implemented several APC solutions and OTS in our pyrometallurgy processes,” Gajardo said. But there were certain points along the way that he put particular emphasis on, such as the corporate standard for advanced applications, a formulized document created in 2013 that defined the standard for APC in Codelco’s pyrometallurgy processes.

Gajardo also emphasized the importance of support service, started this year with Schneider Electric. “It is very, very necessary to have the support for applications,” he said. “That is my recommendation.”

This year, Schneider Electric was awarded a contract to assess and implement a real-time accounting (RTA) system in Codelco Ventanas, which will be able to show key performance indicators (KPIs) from a dollar perspective, Hernández noted. “The whole operation will be optimized from a financial perspective,” he said.

As the journey continues on Codelco’s digital transformation, there are several plans in store:

  • Develop an OTC based on dynamic simulation for the acid plant at Codelco Ministro Hales.
  • After the RTA study in Codelco Ventanas, implement a business center to make decisions based on financial KPIs.
  • Develop a remote operations center in Codelco Ventanas to operate based on business objectives.
  • Support current APC and OTS implementations, including upgrades as necessary.
  • Deploy mobile solutions in other divisions.
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