Pierre Labrecque,
Principal Consultant & Practice Leader,
SRK CONSULTING CANADA
"Hundreds of trade-offs and dozens of decisions at Oyu Tolgoi have been made due to the modelling work we have done."

Can you tell me about your background as a simulation specialist, and what led to the merger between Labrecque Technologies Inc. and SRK in 2018?

From the start of my career I got involved in a lot of underground mining research projects doing time and motion studies for mines in the Sudbury region, observing mining processes and the different innovation projects that were being tested. This led to my interest in industrial simulation, or digital twinning, to create discrete event simulation models that represent real applications. In 2008, I started Labrecque Technologies Inc. to focus 100% on mining simulation.

Prior to the merger, we had done 10 to 12 projects together between SRK’s Sudbury and UK offices, and the values of the two companies really clicked. It has been over two years now since the merger, and being part of SRK has definitely exceeded my expectations.

Can you provide an example of a standout project you have produced a simulation model for?

The most significant project is Oyu Tolgoi (OT) with Rio Tinto. We started doing simulation work with the project team in 2010, and have continued to work through the merger. This includes numerous iterations of the mine design, simulating the entire life of mine (LOM) of the block cave from the initial development until the last tonne of ore is extracted from the draw point. The model includes all the simulation and development activities on the undercut, extraction, haulage and ventilation levels, and all of the material handling components such as crushers, bins, conveyors and skips.

We have done a lot of work in the pre-production phase looking at ore-footprint and development activities leading to first production. Hundreds of trade-offs and dozens of decisions at OT have been made due to the modelling work we have done. SRK is also involved on the structural geology and geo-mechanics side of OT, and we have been collaborating with these teams integrating this into our simulation work.

What are some of the factors that must be taken into account by companies considering the block caving method as a way to develop new mines or extend the operation of open pits?

Large-scale block caving has experienced a rise and fall to some degree in the last decade. The focus in 2008 was on ‘super caves’ in the order of 100,000 + tonnes per day (mt/d), but not many of these have transpired. The amount of investment needed presents a massive risk and technical challenges on this scale. However, the block cave method has become more popular for smaller parties transitioning pits underground. The attraction of block caving is the lower operating costs: setting up a fixed extraction level with fixed drop points to give the lowest operation point, but you need the right deposit and right ground conditions.

Why do you think new mining technologies have gained traction in recent years?

A lot of mining projects are becoming more challenging, with existing mines going deeper and older mines moving further away from their existing infrastructure. This is compounded by rising costs and more pressure from shareholders for greater returns. In the past, around seven or eight out of the 10 initial digital twins we modelled for mining companies would confirm that a project would meet the desired production rate, but in the last five years this has dropped down to two or three out of 10. Therefore, to achieve the desired production rates, companies need to start looking at new technologies, and primarily automation of material movers like loaders, LHDs or trucks. The bottom line is, by taking advantage of this technology, you are able to get a higher usage rate and produce ore for more hours each day. Concurrently, we are seeing more operations implementing innovation and OEMs spending more R&D money on driving these technologies. Most of the new projects we are working on will only work if this is enabled. This is also in line with a greater emphasis placed on ESG as a strategic initiative, which is an area of focus for SRK that we expect to continue to gather pace into 2021.