Although not unaffected by the downturn, Murray & Roberts Cementation remains South Africa’s biggest underground mining contractor by a wide margin, with a workforce that is almost twice as big as that of its nearest rival. The company’s budget for the year to 30 June 2010 is only marginally down on the 2009 figure, which is minor when viewed against the backdrop of the financial tsunami that has left the world’s economy in tatters. To learn more about the current state of the company, Modern Mining recently spoke to Allan Widlake, its business development director.

Widlake, an electrical/mechanical engineer by profession and long-time veteran of the mining industry (he spent 29 years with Anglo American), joined Murray & Roberts Cementation in 2005 – the very year in which it was created via a merger of Murray & Roberts group company RUC, famed for its raise-boring expertise, and Cementation, probably best known as one of the world’s leading shaft-sinking companies. He was at the heart of the merger process which, he says, has created an organisation that is far more than the sum of its two parts.

“The merger is now well behind us now and our new identity as Murray & Roberts Cementation is well established, not only with our own employees but also all our clients. A new culture has developed based on the strengths of both companies and no one anymore sees themselves as being from one or other side of the organisation. I think the merger was very well handled, with everyone being put into a new environment – specifically a new headquarters building – where a new identity could take root,” he says.

An all-encompassing mining service

According to Widlake, Murray & Roberts Cementation – which is headed by MD Henry Laas – offers an all-encompassing service to its clients; “Some of our competitors will offer one area of expertise but not another but we do everything in the underground mining field – from design through shaft-sinking and mine development to toll (contract) mining,” he explains. “We operate through four business entities, these being front-end engineering, mine development, toll (contract) mining and mine services. We also operate a whole variety of background facilities and systems which are often invisible to our clients but which keep us competitive and at the forefront of the industry. To take just one example, we have a training facility at Bentley Park near Carletonville – with ISO, OHSAS and Mining Qualification Authority accreditation – which is quite unique in the industry. It can cater for up to 200 trainees at a time and, among other things, offers mock-ups, including shafts up to 15m deep, which simulate most activities which take place in mining. When clients appoint Murray & Roberts Cementation to handle a contract, they get the benefit of all these services and facilities even if they’re unaware of their existence.”

The front-end engineering business entity or unit services Murray & Roberts Cementation’s internal needs, providing a design service for the temporary works required in shaft-sinking and other mine development activities, but also consults externally for mining houses or consulting engineers. “We’ve also now developed a core of people within this unit to assist junior miners in optimising the mine designs in their bankable feasibility studies,” says Widlake. One result is that the designs can be theoretical in character. We can add the necessary practicality and take them to the next stage where they become operational plans. We’ve done this a number of times for juniors very successfully.”

Murray & Roberts Cementation’s three remaining business entities all operate in the field. The mine development unit handles shaft construction, either vertical or decline, horizontal development – in fact, all the underground infrastructure required to bring a mine on stream or to extend its life. Widlake points out that the mine development service is the one that handles the mega-projects such as major deep-level shafts. Shaft-sinking is the most high-profile part of the business and current contracts include the Paardekraal 2 (PK2) shaft for Anglo Platinum and Impala Platinum’s 20 shaft, both in the Rustenburg area. 20 Shaft is well advanced, with Murray & Roberts Cementation now finishing off the infrastructure. PK2, however, is in full swing with the shaft-sinking having returned to conventional methods after the use of a new electro-hydraulic rig. Says Widlake: “The main consideration for developing the rig was safety, as it drastically cuts the numbers of workers required at shaft bottom during drilling operations.”

Providing a total contrast to the front-end engineering and mine development services is Murray & Roberts Cementation’s toll (contract) mining business, which currently employs 4,500 of the workers in the company’s total complement of around 11,500 employees. Widlake says: “Toll mining or contract mining has suffered some disappointments as a result of the commodities crash, with many mining houses cutting production or putting operations on care and maintenance. But our flagship operation, Kroondal/Marikana, remains in place. Our client, as you know, is Aquarius Platinum and we now have a relationship with them extending over a number of years.” Widlake adds that the mechanised bord-and-pillar mining at Marikana/Kroondal represents the ideal for Murray & Roberts Cementation; “Our focus is mechanised and hybrid systems,” he says.

The fourth focus area for Murray & Roberts Cementation, mine services, offers a comprehensive range of services including surface and exploration drilling, directional drilling, high-pressure underground water management, drop raising, raise-boring, and the design, construction and operation of grout and backfill plants. Among the current raise boring jobs are three 3.8m diameter, 800m deep vent shafts at Anglo Platinum’s Townlands shaft near Rustenburg (replacing, with several advantages to the project, what would have been a conventionally sunk 5.6m diameter shaft) and the boring and equipping of a 4.1m diameter shaft from 433m to 785m at BCL’s Selebi North Shaft at Selebi-Phikwe in Botswana. The Townlands contract is at an advanced stage while the BCL contract is more recent, having only started in May this year.

“Both these contracts make use of our rotary vertical drilling system (RVDS), which essentially allows us to keep vertical deviation to an absolute minimum – in fact, we are able to achieve accuracies of between 0.005% and 0.15%,” says Widlake. He notes that the Townlands contract is using a Wirth HG330 SP raise-borer. There are only five of these machines in the world and four are with Murray & Roberts Cementation. In all, the company operates 47 raise-borers, more than anyone else either locally or globally.

Mining safety

On safety, Widlake says that Murray & Roberts Cementation has traditionally been a leader in the industry, a position which it still holds. “Based on our analysis of annual reports, our record is certainly on a par and in some instances better than the mining houses,” he points out. “We believe, in fact, that the systems we have in place to manage safety on projects cannot be equalled. We actually have clients who adopt our entire model.”

Widlake stresses that Murray & Roberts Cementation cannot handle all aspects of the bigger projects. “If you look at megaproject shaft projects, there are areas where you do need the special skills that EPCM consultants typically bring. We do offer a design-build service on certain projects, an example being the Asis Far West Shaft at the Kombat copper mine in Namibia. On this project – completed in 2004 – we provided an all-in-one service encompassing the design, sinking and equipping of 750m deep prospect shaft.”

According to Widlake, there are huge advantages to clients and their EPCM consultants in bringing Murray & Roberts Cementation into contracts early. “We like to integrate with the rest of the team as early as possible, as we believe we can add a great deal of value when a project is still in the design phase. We can advise on the practicality of designs, we can suggest time or cost-saving alternatives and we can give the client a better handle on costs than he would normally receive,” he says. “We can also contribute to ensuring that temporary works are integrated into the project in the optimum fashion – frequently these works can become part of the permanent configuration.”

Murray & Roberts Cementation has worked on exactly this basis with Wesizwe Platinum and TWP on the Frischgewaagd-Ledig project in the Pilanesberg area of the western Bushveld, being appointed as the preferred contract at an early stage and also participating in the bankable feasibility study. The project will have two vertical shafts to a depth of 950m and incorporate five operating levels.

Geographically, Murray & Roberts Cementation primarily operates in Africa, with the bulk of its current work being in South Africa itself. However, it does work closely with its sister companies overseas – Cementation Canada in North Bay, Ontario, Terracem in Chile and RUC Cementation Mining Contractors in Kalgoorlie in Australia – and has the ability to tackle projects anywhere in the world. “There is a great deal of liaison between these group companies, who all report to our mining cluster in London. We also, of course, have the ability to draw expertise from each organisation. For example, there are a couple of projects I’m looking at right now which will require longhole stoping. Our Australian colleagues from RUC Cementation Mining Contractors are particularly skilled in this area, so I will be involving them. The bottom line is that Murray & Roberts Cementation is a global organisation with skills appropriate to every type of mining and every type of geography,” he concludes.

Report by Arthur Tassell, Modern Mining