What is Glencore's competitive advantage?
As one of the largest commodity traders and mining companies in the world, Swiss-based Glencore has maintained a rich lineage of innovative technology through its existence in the mining sector. The company has leveraged its experience and knowledge from its own operational sites to develop and market new solutions to meet the mining industry’s evolving demands.
Their competitive advantage for the last 30 years has been Glencore Technology. Spawned from the merger with Xstrata, Glencore Technology continues to be a dominant player in marketing technologies for the metals and mineral processing industries.
Glencore Technology specializes in developing and marketing supportive technologies for the mineral processing and metals smelting and refining industries.
The company has developed proven technologies such as ISASMELT and IsaKidd, which are patented processes widely used in the smelting, electrowinning and copper refining industry today.
Additional technologies include IsaMill, a fine and mainstream grinding technology, the Jameson Cell flotation technology and the Albion Process leaching technology.
“We’ve initially developed specific copper processing technology,” said Reinhardt Viljoen, Glencore Technology’s Chief Technology Officer. “However, we’re now also involved in the broader design of smelters and refineries and our technology is applicable to other base metals like zinc, lead, nickel, etc. Our technology has also delivered improved processing performance in the precious metal industry, with the gold and platinum industry specifically applying Glencore Technology’s IsaMill and Albion Process Technology.”
In terms of supporting technologies for clients, Glencore Technology has designed and developed the ZipaTank™. According to Viljoen, The ZipaTank is an innovative approach to slurry storage and leaching tanks that incorporates modular components and mechanical joins to provide all the benefits of a traditional welded tank, but with lower costs, reduced installation times and far greater flexibility.
“The tank is mechanically bolted. Anyone with a minimal amount of skill and supervision can bolt it together. Its scalability makes it very exciting for clients as it can accommodate most projects and even be reused for other projects.”
In addition, Glencore Technology has developed the HyperSparge™, a proven and cost effective system for delivering air, oxygen or other process gases into tanks or vessels for leaching or oxidation processes.
“A lot of these technologies started off from issues we experienced in our copper and zinc operations,” said Viljoen.
The key ingredient
For Glencore Technology, innovation starts with collaboration.
“Here in Australia, and all across the world, collaboration is a key ingredient to being innovative. We have a very supportive and collaborative group here at Glencore Technology and everyone brings something to the table,” said Viljoen.
Collaboration helps Glencore Technology continuously find new ways of identifying and developing technologies to improve processing in the mining industry as well maintaining a wide range of existing applications in the mining industry.
Along with working internally with Glencore operations, Glencore Technology partners with other companies to collaborate in building innovative technologies that improve processing. For example Netsch GmbH, Glencore Technology’s partner in the development of the IsaMill Technology.
“Once we identify a need, we run a very lean operation. We know what we’re good at and we stick with it. We excel at commercializing technology and identifying needs. We work with the universities as well carrying out our own research and design to take those ideas to the next level in a very functional and commercial way,” said Viljoen.
“We take great pride in developing processes that are operationally proven and that deliver value to our customers sustainably, such as our fine grinding processes that give mining operations the ability to liberate more of their valuable minerals.”
According to Viljoen, collaboration doesn’t always create innovation; it has to be driven by the needs of the industry and operations.
“We’re heavily driven by our internal Glencore operations to provide them with the expertise we have, and present potential opportunities commercially as we identify them. The mining industry is very conservative. Productivity is a key focus and you need to ensure you’re responding to the needs of the operational guys.
“With the introduction of automation technology, advanced process controls and simplicity of operations will become a big factor in coming years. Automation is complicated but new technologies will simplify the process,” said Viljoen.
“Equipment design needs to be very simple but robust. To maximize productivity, the need is to be innovative around designing equipment and running it with minimal attention.”
In addition, the company continuously strives to find new and more efficient ways of doing things, even if it takes them outside the realm of the mining sector.
“We’re continuously looking for other applications in the mining industry or even if it applies outside the industry. We are always looking for new ideas in terms of solving issues that come up within those disciplines – grinding, flotation, smelting and refining,” said Viljoen.
One of the most underrated aspects of the mining industry is branding. For Glencore Technology it is especially important.
“You miss opportunities if you don’t. Being active in the market and letting people know what your capabilities are is extremely important, especially if you want to grow. During the mining boom you could get away with a passive approach. You can’t do that now. Branding yourself is very important and we actively strive to do just that,” said Viljoen.
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“With the change in the mining industry, and the mergers, there has been a lot of change in our structure. As a result, our presence in the market as Glencore Technology has been more of a gradual change. One of my key focuses as Chief Technology Officer is to get our branding well established.”
According to Viljoen, forming a presence in the market is an important step in growing as a company as well as delivering on your promise.
“We’re motivated by continuous improvements. We maintain long-term relationships with our all our customers to ensure we’re delivering on the promises we’ve made. For us, client feedback is extremely important and these relationships help us to leverage their opinion into making advancements. A key part of our business is making improvements around our customers.”
Axora: driving safety, sustainability and efficiency
“Axora was conceived to bring collaboration and industrial digital innovation to the next level,” pledges CEO Ritz Steytler. “We spoke with the heads of innovation and the operations leaders of oil & gas and metals & mining organisations. We understand the intense pressure they face to modernise their operations. We’re focused on offering solutions to support mining companies with the three biggest challenges they face: safety, sustainability and efficiency."
Safety, Sustainability & Efficiency
"We can help with everything from discovering the right solutions to solve specific problems, to evaluating physical innovation and then supporting the end to end process for actually getting that technology to deliver business value," continues Steytler. That’s realised through our support of the procurement cycle and helping companies with the deployment and maintenance of their chosen solutions to ensure they continue to deliver value where it’s needed most.”
Axora hosts over 150 innovative solutions from sector leaders to start-ups, universities, and consultancies. Examples include machine vision technology that identifies mineral ore contaminants three times faster than the human eye, and predictive modelling for oil rigs which uses built-in sensors and AI to maximise production. Axora's proven digital solutions help to reduce wasted investment, avoid duplication and accelerate business growth.
The World Economic Forum estimates digitalisation can create value to the tune of $400bn across the coming decade. However, the emergence of ‘digital mines’ isn’t just about the numbers. Digitalisation can transform mining into a far more sustainable enterprise by mitigating some of the big risks the industry faces. A digital mine can optimise operations, unleashing the power of data to understand and implement changes in the business.
With the right solutions it’s possible to effect radical changes in a process that is understood better. Solutions that have been road-tested across the oil and gas industry can deliver real benefits for mining companies, including early adopters like Glencore, explains Axora’s Mining Innovation Director Joe Carr: “Opex Group are using Machine Learning with an AI algorithm to pull in all the available sensor data to monitor a processing plant. Its solutions analyse output and look across all the pumps and motors to offer exact data on where to tweak them down. It’s cloud-based and can monitor, reduce and control operational emissions, optimise energy use and minimise environmental impact. It’s currently being used in the oil and gas industry and it's been shown to save up to 10% of power, but the driver of it was actually Co2.
“If you're running an oil platform, your power is essentially free because you're pumping it out of the ground. But in a mine the biggest power user, outside of the trucks and shovels, is the process plant. It uses around 21 kilowatt hours per tonne of processing power to run, right? Obviously, that's dependent on the plant, but it's a power-hungry situation. Diesel is not cheap, especially in remote locations. Being able to save five to 10% of your power usage for no issue in terms of production could be a big win for mining.”
Carr highlights there is also the real opportunity to significantly reduce Scope 1, Scope 2 and even into Scope 3 emissions where Opex Group’s solutions could be used in a smelter to go for the “low hanging fruit” and cut Co2 emissions. “It's a win-win all around, and yet it's a technology which the mining industry doesn't use today, but it exists in a parallel industry.”
To further reduce emissions, Axora is offering solutions which are involved in the scheduling and optimisation of haul truck fleets. “If your fleet is idling for even 10 minutes a cycle, that is wasted fuel,” notes Carr. “It just goes into the atmosphere. And very rarely do the drivers turn the trucks off because they don't want to be stopping and starting those big engines. The mine may be in an extreme climate so even something as basic as saving idling can contribute towards a company’s net zero targets.” The Axora platform also features a system to manage shipping and logistics. “Are you moving your material in the most effective way in terms of routing for fuel usage and speed?” asks Carr.
“Being able to program those variables in terms of Co2 tonnage produced offers new capabilities. We’re able to help our customers understand what they want to achieve. Scope 1 emissions might be the easiest to impact with the haul fleet. Scope 2 focuses on the processing plant and the downstream movement. Understanding what a mining company’s customers are using its materials for makes Scope 3 more difficult to impact – for iron ore it would be a steel melt…”
To that end, Axora offers a predictive maintenance system for aluminum smelting which Carr notes can reduce downtime by up to 20%. “Aluminum smelting tends to come from hydro which can be very clean – it’s energy intensive,” he explains. “But the same system could easily be applied to steel or copper processes where you don't want to be turning them on and off. You don't want to be running your autoclave in a gold mine with a varying sulfide input because the heat goes up and down and it messes with your recovery and you're using a lot more power to heat and cool your autoclave.”
The Axora Platform
“Challenge us and we will find it for you,” asserts Steytler when explaining how he envisages the Axora platform developing. “We aim to match a technology provider to a particular business buyer, somebody that has a real problem that needs to get solved. They can then collaborate to deploy that technology successfully.” Steytler is positioning Axora beyond the sales and procurement process. “There’s no such thing as on time and on budget with a digital transformation effort, right? It’s a difficult thing to achieve, we’re not talking about shrink-wrapped software. That’s why partnerships are extremely important and we can help facilitate those to deliver the value required.”
Reacting to Trends
Against the backdrop of record years for many mining companies – with copper and gold production and prices on the rise – what trends are the team at Axora seeing across the industry that will necessitate a response from its multi-solution platform? “Despite the uncertainties of the global pandemic, mining companies have taken a practical approach,” notes Carr. “What we’ve seen during the pandemic is that miners have realised they need to embrace the digitisation journey. The past year has proved to be a gateway with younger guys coming through the system ready for change.”
Carr highlights that with Covid, engineers couldn’t simply fly to West Africa or Chile so the door to digitsation opened. Where has he seen the biggest push? “How do we get the data we want and then what do we do with it?” he counters. “Miners have so much data that it's in Excel sheets, and it's got macros, and it's historically stored on a server somewhere that nobody's looked at for five years since it was sent out. Our clients' demands today are more around how do we do something with that data? Because we know the benefits are there. The sensor data around predictive maintenance and all these things exist, but they're having such a struggle to deal with it and deliver meaningful insights.”
However, Carr concedes it's a cyclical business. “If it comes down to buying another truck or buying a data server, what's going to get more tonnes out of the ground? But with the right data we can see what will actually benefit operations in the long term… That push towards digital has seen what we thought would take the next five years actually happen in one year because remote capabilities and enhancement to operations centres have advanced to meet demand. At Axora, we’re seeing mining companies assess solutions to improve health and safety on their sites by reducing members of the workforce exposed to risk and in harm’s way and keen to discover how they can drive efficiencies to make more tonnes for less. Ultimately, it’s part of our job to make it simple in terms of a value calculation.”
“Axora is here to accelerate digital transformation in the mining industry,” asserts Steytler. “We can simplify that process. And with investment in that transformation expected to reach $6.8trn between 2020 and 2023 as the world economy digitizes, there’s never been a better time to realise the benefits.”