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Here’s how we’re building the Vale of the future

November 11, 2020

Cornelia Holtzhausen, head of Technology & Innovation for Base Metals outlines how we’re building the Vale of the future. Photo: Vale Archive.

Welcome to our new Vale News series, Out of Harm’s Way, that promotes new technologies and innovative ways to work remotely, problem solve and collaborate across different teams, with an aim to improve safety across the operations. We begin with a conversation with Cornelia Holtzhausen, head of Technology & Innovation for Base Metals. 

“How do we go there without actually going there?” That’s the question Cornelia is focused on as her 51-person Planning & Engineering Team takes on the challenge the COVID-19 pandemic has placed before our company.

We’ve been using a number of virtual tools to get the job done.

The team, which is based at our company’s Base Metals Technical Excellence Centre in Sheridan Park, Mississauga, typically looks at ways to extract more ore from our company’s mining operations in Canada, as well as Indonesia, the U.K., New Caledonia and Brazil. 

That work continues, but with the pandemic, Cornelia and her team now have a more pressing priority: carrying out their work while putting as few people as possible on the ground.

A people-first approach

Cornelia brings a unique combination of entrepreneurial, mining and management expertise to the job. She holds an MBA and a mining engineering degree, both from the University of Pretoria, South Africa, and got her start as an engineer in metallurgy, mainly focusing on iron-ore concentrations at Anglo American’s Thabazimbi mine in South Africa. Anglo American is a British multinational mining company with headquarters in Johannesburg, South Africa and London, England. 

Eventually, Cornelia worked her way up to becoming the mine’s first woman general manager, a role she held for five years before joining our company in September 2019.  “That was one of the toughest jobs I’ve had, but it was also one of the most satisfying because it really challenged my thinking,” she said. 

Here, several members of the planning and engineering team meet (virtually) to take on some the latest challenges faced by our company. Photo: Vale Archive.

Pandemic flips the script

Cornelia put her experience to good use during another challenging time. As it has across our company, COVID-19 has reshaped the way her team works, namely from travelling to sites to address technical issues, to doing so remotely.

“The biggest challenge is we can’t go to the site and be advisors. If there’s a problem, we normally depend on the eyes and ears of people on the ground. During COVID-19, however, we’ve been using a number of virtual tools to get the job done.”

A good example occurred on February 7, 2020, when high-temperature alarms went off on flanker coolers in the tap hole 2 area of the electric furnace at our company’s Onça Puma Operations in Brazil. 

This area hadn’t been inspected before, so Cornelia and her team, in collaboration with experts at Onça Puma and other off-site teams in Brazil and South Africa, had to develop a plan to safely get the furnace functioning normally until its next planned maintenance period (PMP). Its PMP had been scheduled for April 2020 but because of COVID-19, it had been pushed back to July. 

Using Librestream, an on-site expert projected what they saw via video to the off-site teams and, together, they successfully completed the job. Librestream is a Winnipeg-based company that provides collaborative technologies such as unique hand-held mobile devices and accompanying software that extend traditional video conferencing and other collaborative services to hard-to-reach places such as underground mines. 

The next step: virtual plant walkthroughs

While technologies like these are critical now more than ever, they do have shortcomings, like the need to direct an on-site tech to take photos from certain angles so the team can see what’s going on with a particular piece of equipment. There are also technical limits; the team often works from plans of a facility’s original design, which don’t always include subsequent changes that may have been made. 

For these reasons, Cornelia would like to see our company’s plants modelled in 3D. This would let the team virtually walk through the facility and eliminate communication challenges between the team and an on-site expert. “3D imaging is the future,” she said.

A data-driven approach 

COVID-19 brought the need to reduce the number of people in riskier areas into sharp focus, but this is a shift that’s been underway for some time — the pandemic merely accelerated it. 

“In mining, we tend to work in hostile environments,” said Cornelia. “We work with high temperatures in our smelters. We work with carbonyl gas, which is toxic. In response, our team is developing instrumentation to monitor plant performance at a much more granular level than we do now.”

This technology also lets facility operators stay well ahead of potential breakdowns and safety hazards: “For example, our team is now developing instrumentation that lets us track carbonyl gas at various points in the flowline so we can quickly see if there’s been an unwanted release,” said Cornelia. 

This, at the end of the day, is what every manager wants: a proactive approach, greater efficiency and, most of all, the safest possible conditions for our employees.

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