EDITOR: | July 24th, 2017

Search of Excellence – Part 3

| July 24, 2017 | No Comments

I reckon you have had time enough to absorb the message I am trying to portray on Excellence. That is, Excellence is as much about the process, as it is about the outcomes. Excellence is about constantly searching for opportunity to do things in a better way. And it’s never too early to start.

Continuing the “In Search of Excellence” introductions (Part 1) and (Part 2) I’ll remind you of my definition of culture: “The way things are done around here. It’s who we are, it’s what we believe, it’s what we stand for and at the end of the day, it’s the way we operate.

So, parts 1 and 2 showed examples of a culture of Excellence at the Explorer level and at the Feasibility Study Developer level, let’s look at a culture of Excellence at the Commissioning Manager level.

Situation Three: Commissioning Manager, new technology, new industry, inexperienced operating crews, nervous regulator. You guessed it! What would excellence look like? Guessed it again! Why? Because this impacts on your developing culture.

As a non-Chinese rare earth developer, you are in potentially dangerous waters here. The technology is new (or at least significantly advanced since last used in the West); the rare earths industry will be under the media microscope due to the over-reporting of the sometimes exaggerated, poor environmental performance of some Chinese operators; your operators maybe experienced in the more conventional operating steps (crushing, grinding, flotation, leaching etc) but solvent extraction is a very different beast; and never under-estimate the nervousness of the regulator. OK, what would a culture of Excellence look like?

Priority One opportunity is to get the Regulator on-side. He has never seen this industry or some of its components before – you have to educate him! You will have run many risk reduction exercises in finalising the detail of your process design. Hazard and Operability (HAZOP) studies, Control Hazard and Operability studies (CHAZOP), Major Hazards studies, Fire Protection studies, Occupational Health and Safety (OH&S) studies, Radiation Management studies, Environmental Impact studies, and the list goes on. Every one of these studies is an opportunity to involve the relevant regulator and perhaps other concerned stakeholders, and to gain their confidence, advice and ownership. And just for good measure, involve your media team so that the message of Excellence can get out into the public arena. I was once asked when was the best time to start the external communications process. My answer – it’s never too early, but you’re always criticised as being too late. The important point though is to be in control of the agenda.

What are you going to do about inexperienced solvent extraction (SX) operators? Believe me, this is where it can all go pear-shaped very quickly. A little bit of science here to highlight the point. SX can be thought of as a mixture of an organic solvent (think kerosene) and a water based solution (aqueous) with the valuables dissolved.

Fact 1: The transfer of dissolved valuables to the solvent is dependent on a number of controllable factors, principally the ratio of organic flow rate to the aqueous flow rate, but also the phase continuity of the mixture. This phase continuity is a little difficult to follow but let me try. If you have a beaker with 1 litre of solvent and 1 litre of aqueous and you start the mixer up (like a kitchen blender), one phase will form droplets and the other will be the continuous phase. Which will it be? Which will be continuous? Again, believe me that not only is the mass transfer impacted here, so is the loss of solvent and valuables by entrainment. Now that’s a lot of “believe me” but not only must you understand this, the operators must also. And they must be able to react when things go awry. When an organic continuous mixture changes (flips) to an aqueous continuous mixture (or vice versa), some pretty disastrous process problems can occur. I recall losing 75% of our entire solvent inventory in a matter of a couple hours due this issue. My point is that the SX operators (and obviously the SX engineers) must be trained and this will take at least three months of on-site operational oversight. Now I’m not sure if you have a relationship with Chinese SX plants that will allow this level of training, so if not, I am guessing that this will become an issue for Lynas when they are asked to help.

Commissioning Teams! These teams are potentially future Excellence teams so don’t under-estimate their value. Look at your shift rosters and work out the best way to get the grinding team together, to get the leaching team together, and very importantly the SX team together. An important piece of advice here. You will be working shift work soon and your shifts will be rotating, how will you ensure lessons learned are passed on? I have seen this advice in action and it is very effective. Fact – your Supervisors are not the best people to understand and pass on process related matters – your control room operators are! It is the control room operator who sees and works with the process interactions between process stages. So, what do you do? Make the control room operators report to the Technical team and stagger their roster to overlap the operating crews. Now, look into the future. These same control room operators can be the eyes and ears for the Technical team on back-shifts, on week-ends, or as the implementers of trial process adjustments. Very valuable.

Now I’m guessing that you have all heard the story about who is most important to the human body; the brain, the heart or the waste disposal part. Well, make sure you have a plan for commissioning the back end because the waste disposal part is in for some hard work. And Excellence can be identified here because you have assessed the issues and have plans in place. An example. I was once in charge of a processing plant, the technology of which was well known. From a waste management point of view, it had an acid producing front end and an alkali producing back end. Over the history of the technology development a balance was designed so that it, well, balanced. But during commissioning? You commission the acid front end first – you need an imbalance of alkali to keep your wastes in check. Similarly, when commissioning the alkali back end – watch out for the acid imbalance. Message – think about you wastes and how they can go severely out of balance and what are you going to do about that!

Morale. There is nothing better than the morale in a successful commissioning team. It’s like winning the grand final. But conversely…… Management of your Human Resources pre- and during commissioning presents a once-off opportunity to show your people how you manage this most important resource – them!

I am hoping that you are seeing that there are many opportunities to develop a culture of Excellence. It takes planning. It takes dedication. And it takes effort. How does the Board know that this culture of Excellence is being instilled throughout the new operation? That’s Situation Four below. See you again soon.

Situation Four: Chairman. How do you progress from Junior Explorer through Feasibility, through commissioning and operations, trying to ensure that a culture of excellence is being developed and maintained?

Steve Mackowski


Mr Mackowski is a qualified engineer in mineral processing with over 30 years technical and operational experience in rare earths, uranium, industrial minerals, nickel, kaolin ... <Read more about Steve Mackowski>

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