Construction & Contractors
Innovation is necessary to improve productivity amid workforce shortages
A January 2022 report from SENCE Labor Observatory’s Employment Exchange Analysis System (SABE) showed that as of November 2021, job vacancies in Chile had risen 39% in the 12 months previous, with total job applications decreasing by 31% in the same period. This mirrors a global trend in the mining sector, which has struggled to attract the next generation of talent.
“One of the biggest challenges has been overcoming the lack of qualified workforce, which is still an issue today (May 2022),” reflected Sandro Tavonatti, CEO of Sigdo Koppers Ingeniería y Construcción (SKIC), the Chilean construction and EPC firm that employs over 14,000 people. In addition to working on the standout open-pit mining developments in Chile including QB2 and Salares Norte, Tavonatti highlighted the challenges of working in underground mines such as Codelco’s Andina and Chuquicamata operations, particularly in an era of social distancing in a finite space. “It means you have to think outside the box, developing projects with less people and more technology,” he commented.
On that note, SKIC has been working on the development of robotics and AI with the support of companies such as Godelius, which is part of the Sigdo Koppers group, with the aim of expediting diagnostics and analysis and reducing the exposure of people to risks. Tavonatti gave the example of the alliance made with Boston Dynamics to incorporated their Spot dog robots at SKIC’s operations.
“An important part of our costs are what is called UF (Unidad de Fomento), which rise with inflation, with another major part being imports. We are thus affected by the dollar and by inflation, and with the magnitude in which these two variables increased over the past 12 months, it was impossible to transfer the cost increase to our clients.”
Tomas Fischer Ballerini, General Manager, Edyce
Mario Theurl, managing director of Züblin Strabag Chile, the multinational construction company, also spoke of the challenges of working underground, including the risk of rocks bursting. He explained how the company is dealing with seismic conditions at El Teniente: “We have engaged in a tele-commanded machinery program in El Teniente – a mine which is particularly seismic – so we can operate machinery from outside of the tunnel, keeping our personnel safe.”
When asked about the impact of digitalization on the underground mining industry, Theurl observed that the sheer amount of products on the market presents a challenge. “Technologies are moving sometimes too fast for people to properly digitize their operations. Without being able to effectively adopt and learn, we could be prone to errors that may cost money and result in delays,” he noted, emphasizing the importance of focusing on adopting the right developments for each operation. He summarized: “No project should add digital tools just because they are digital – technology must fit the organization and our clients’ priorities with the aim to advance our industry.”
Darrell White, executive general manager – Americas for Thiess, pointed out that statistically, operations with the safest workplaces are the most productive, and technology plays an important role in improving both of these factors. He mentioned that autonomy is assisting safety, giving the example of the autonomous and semi-autonomous dozer and drill fleets that Thiess operates in Australia, and revealing that the company will deploy its first autonomous truck fleet in Chile later this year. He added: “We are seeking out the right opportunities with the right clients in Chile to deploy similar technologies here, which will help reduce the number of people on site, particularly in high altitude areas.”
While acknowledging the importance of technological advancements, White stressed the continued relevance of the human element, something that should not be forgotten in the digital era: “Technology supports the decision-making process of workers, and at the end of the day, it’s still people who operate equipment and make decisions on site. Our approach is to combine technology with training to aid transformation in mining, which is increasingly important as we see ore grades decline.”
“The mining sector has a huge opportunity to save in costs and improve from the standpoint of its contracting models. Currently, most mining producers choose to subcontract scaffolding supplies from contractors whose core business is not subleasing scaffolding. Therefore, clients spend too much on these transactions because the supplying company charges for the risk they assume.”
Christian Abt, Area Sales Manager – Americas, MJ Gerüst
Safety in mining construction
The construction industry has had to withstand multiple challenges in the last two years. In 2020 and 2021, Covid-related work-from-home measures meant many projects had to scale down, and when they restarted, severe supply chain delays and rising logistics costs meant that profit margins and completion dates were compromised.
Despite dealing with such complexities, Darío Barros Izquierdo, general manager of Echeverría Izquierdo Montajes Industriales, mentioned that the company never stopped operating in 2021 with a crew of up to 9,000 workers. He cited the company’s work on the primary crusher, two overland conveyors, a stockpile, the reclaim tunnels and a lime plant at Teck’s QB2 project as a particular success, suggesting Echeverría Izquierdo’s years of experience at Collahuasi’s operations meant workers had previous experience in challenging climates.
For the past six years, Echeverría Izquierdo has been recognized by the Chilean Chamber of Construction for workplace health and safety standards, and Barros spoke of the factors which contributed to this recognition: “We outsource very limited activities, and we work with our own cranes and major lifting equipment. We therefore know their story and maintenance as well as the operator and rigger. We have a centralized Rigging department that has an exhaustive review process to ensure the safe performance of hoisting and rigging activities.”
Another company to have worked at QB2 is ULMA Construction, specialists in concrete formwork and scaffolding solutions. Antonio Carlos Machado, ULMA’s commercial director in Chile, highlighted the importance of product diversity: “For many mining operations a single type of product, technologically speaking, would not be able to address the entirety of a project. The combination of the different systems ULMA has makes the entire construction process more productive and safer. The safety aspect is the most important point to highlight, as it is fundamental for mining.”
Machado added that ULMA’s multi-directional scaffolding system, MK, contains a variety of metal profiles that form a kind of large-scale Meccano, well-suited to large-scale mining projects with large load capacities where the project engineering needs a system with resistance characteristics superior to what is traditionally offered.
MJ Gerüst, the multinational German scaffolding manufacturer, also offers multidirectional solutions. Christian Abt, MJ Gerüst’s area sales manager for the Americas, gave an example of how such products are applied to mining settings: “Acid, water and petroleum ponds which mining companies use for storage could be easily solved by our frame and multidirectional solution, which is the Uni-Connect and Combi system, fulfilling the highest safety requirements. Ball Mills, crushers, truck shops and conveyor maintenance are suited to our MJ Combi and MJ Optima solutions.”
Abt went on to say that if the industry is truly seeking to innovate, reduce cost and human exposure, then MJ Gerüst’s Optima system, a hybrid solution that is lighter and can be erected faster, is the type of technology that will significantly improve mining operations.
Felipe Fossatti, commercial manager of Multiservice Grúas, the Chilean company known for its self-propelled jib cranes, spoke of the importance of planning when it comes to safety, and he also highlighted the human aspect: “It is not enough to have a new crane or the latest technology, but the operator needs to have the proper training (...) We have to understand that our activity requires a total synergy, and our operators understand that they are dedicated to professional labor.”
Image courtesy of Echeverria Izquierdo