Construction and Contractors
Adjusting to the new working environment
The resilience of the Chilean mining industry throughout the pandemic depended on remote work and enforced social distancing measures. The outbreak came at a time when the mining construction sector in the country was experiencing relatively high growth as mines were investing significantly in development and expansion to increase productivity levels. Engineering and construction companies have to deal with one of the most challenging logistics aspects in the mining industry, therefore, they could not rely on traditional social distancing measures to meet tight deadlines.
Rodrigo Prado, general manager of Tecno Fast, a modular constructions solutions provider, explained that the company set up strict protocols to limit the virus's spread. "Among the techniques we have used were dividing teams into smaller groups, expanding remote work where possible and controlling outbreaks with weekly testing. The pandemic has been a period of high business activity because operators were expanding eateries, housing capacity and office spaces."
The industry’s prospects are generally conceived as favourable. Tomás Fischer Ballerini, general manager of Edyce, one of the leading Chilean engineering, construction and steel fabrication companies, commented: “The economic outlook for the rest of 2021 and 2022 looks promising due to the surprising increase in the value of copper and the government's actions to reboot the economy. It seems very likely that all the investment projects that have been planned will continue.”
Chile is home to a competitive EPC and consulting mix, consisting of leading nationals JRI Ingeniería, Echeverría Izquierdo, Sigdo Koppers Ingeniería y Construcción (SKIC), in addition to international companies, such as Wood Group, Ausenco, Worley, Stantetc and SRK.
Underground mine design and construction
Chile faces challenges in maintaining and increasing its total factor productivity, which has been decreasing as a result of declining ore grades in the last years. Chilean mines operating for over a century, such as Chuquicamata and El Teniente, have shifted towards large-scale underground operations on the hunt for higher ore grades. Nonetheless, open-pit mining still yields 90% of Chile's copper production.
The shift presents opportunities and challenges to EPC companies and new frontiers for competition. JRI Ingeniería specializes in underground mine design. Iván Rayo, the general manager, explained: "The depth of underground mines creates a risk of geotechnical failure. Other challenges include electromobility and ventilation. Mines in Chile are getting deeper which is exacerbating the need for sophisticated engineering solutions."
"The depth of underground mines creates a risk of geotechnical failure. Other challenges include electromobility and ventilation. Mines in Chile are getting deeper which is exacerbating the need for sophisticated engineering solutions."
Iván Rayo, General Manager, JRI Ingeniería
Chile’s miners and their service providers are familiar with the benefits of technology. Patricio Concha, project manager at Plainhill, explained how Building Information Modelling (BIM), an intelligent 3D based process, became a requirement in 2020 for governmental projects. Today, it is being used by 69% of construction, engineering and architectural firms in Chile, compared to 39% in 2013, according to a study by the University of Chile's architecture and design faculty.
"The BIM system is used to integrate information from all different project functions into one single master database. The system is composed of digital 3D models where all relevant information of the project is generated, integrated, administered, controlled and exchanged among the project participants in the course of the whole project life. Further information can be linked such as schedule constraints," elaborated Concha.
Ivan Rayo, general manager of JRI Ingeniería, explained that the company incorporated BIM into its operations in 2019 to improve its offer to clients. "This technology was groundbreaking for mining, an industry that until recently had not been able to apply such processes due to the complexity of its engineering."
"We are currently using drone technology for land, subsoil and progress surveys allowing us to check our pipeline routes and give us a better understanding of the geological conditions affecting construction in a faster, more accurate and effective way."
Jorge Donoso, General Manager, Techint
The trend towards increasing use of BIM allows for the application of artificial intelligence (AI), which will be used to better assess risk, manpower and planning errors. SKIC, a subsidiary of Sigdo Koppers (SK) Group, is working with Godelius, a more tech-focused company of the SK Group, to introduce other innovations beyond BIM to enhance safety and productivity. "Our Toronto and Sudbury offices have alliances with several universities to innovate in remote operations, artificial intelligence and robotics," explained SKIC's CEO, Sandro Tavonatti, who is actively working to reduce the technological gap of the construction industry.
Edyce, who provides steel fabrication solutions for industrial use, is also using robotics in welding. “There have been significant advances in robotic welding and we hope to incorporate a new automatic welding line in 2022. New innovations implemented are planned to increase efficiency, productivity, quality, as well as better health and safety conditions for our workers,” commented Fischer.
On the other hand, Techint, a local EPC firm, is using drone technology for rock prospection. "We are currently using drone technology for land, subsoil and progress surveys allowing us to check our pipeline routes and give us a better understanding of the geological conditions affecting construction in a faster, more accurate and effective way," commented Jorge Donoso, general manager.
The incorporation of technology is poised to have a transformative impact on Chile's competitive construction industry, especially when AI and data analytics are used which present a compelling economic logic for clients. As a result, partnerships and acquisitions are emerging between construction and tech companies to maintain competitiveness. Investment in the development of construction technology more than doubled over the past decade, McKinsey reports.
“The mine of the future would rely on sophisticated technology using artificial intelligence, robotics and automation in mining processes to facilitate a fully automated plant and operation,” said Dave Lawson, president of the mining and minerals division in Wood, the British multinational engineering and consulting, currently working on the detail underground design for Codelco's Chuquicamata. “Covid-19 has pushed the industry further towards the digitalization of processes overall. Mines are now looking to operate from control rooms in remote locations.”
Image courtesy of Antofagasta Minerals