Mining contractors, with their vast practical experience, can help ensure that mining projects are designed with ease of construction in mind and that mining infrastructure that results is cost effective and fit for purpose. But for this to happen the contractor needs to be involved in the project at a very early stage. This is the view of Tim Wakefield, Technical Director of Murray & Roberts Cementation, who says the company is increasingly engaging with clients in the early stages of the project cycle.

Wakefield makes the point that the traditional model for undertaking mining projects, where consulting engineers and project managers sit on one side of the fence and mining contractors on the other, has its shortcomings. "The problem is that this arrangement limits the contribution that contractors can make to projects, based on years of experience in constructing mines, carrying out underground development work and mining orebodies on a contract basis," he says. "It’s a compartmentalised approach which filters a cross-flow of ideas between consultant, engineer and contractor and which doesn’t necessarily serve the interests of clients very well.

"Take the case of sinking a shaft, for example. It doesn’t makes sense to have a single seamless rather than a two-stage process whereby the consulting engineer first designs a shaft after which the client asks for tenders from contractors to sink it. The reason for this is that the way sinking is carried out can be modified and made much more cost effective if it is integrated with the final design. So early involvement of experienced contractor’s personnel is highly beneficial and this is the message that we would like to get out to clients."

Wakefield adds that Murray & Roberts Cementation currently has over 29 certificated engineers and 18 certificated mine managers amongst other specialist engineers on its staff. "This is an enormous reservoir of practical experience which can be made available at the planning, systems and engineering design stages of a project. Although this expertise is mostly deployed within the context of a conventional style contract, a very effective alternative approach is for the contractor to work on a design and build basis. Certainly Murray & Roberts Cementation is increasingly engaging in activities earlier in the value chain, which enables the Company to offer engineering and design services in addition to its traditional construction services."

He notes that both Murray & Roberts RUC and Cementation, prior to the merger that created Murray & Roberts Cementation, were moving in this direction. "Murray & Roberts RUC was starting to work closely with sister company Murray & Roberts Engineering Solutions which specialises in the engineering and delivery of projects, while Cementation was also offering design services, though primarily on smaller mining projects," he says. "Through the creation of Murray & Roberts Cementation, we’ve pulled these initiatives together and formalised them in our business plan."

According to Wakefield, in-house expertise within Murray & Roberts Cementation combined with the considerable capabilities offered by Murray & Roberts Engineering Solutions - whose credits include substantial involvement in the 2 991 m deep shaft system at South Deep - mean that the group is well equipped to take projects from pre-feasibility through to execution and commissioning, and in certain instances ongoing operations. He adds that the design/build model also redefines the contractor/consultant interface, which can be the source of wasted effort and resources on conventionally run projects. "Interfaces are where issues arise and they are often destroyers of value," he says.

Wakefield acknowledges that conventional style projects have their place and says that Murray & Roberts Cementation continues working on the basis of simply being a contractor, as it has done for decades. "Nevertheless, we believe the design/build model can provide a superior result in many instances. Where opportunities arise, we have the capability to provide the client with a full range of services encompassing planning, design, systems, project management and construction," he observes.

"Where we don’t have in-house skills we can procure these - we have strong relationships with many suppliers and consultants. Take the case of winders. We don’t profess to be designers of winders, but we know the right people and companies to call on, who we’ve dealt with for years. Similarly with rock mechanics or mine ventilation – these are not our fields of expertise, so we would call in specialist consultants to assist - SRK, perhaps, in the case of rock mechanics or Bluhm Burton for ventilation. Our expertise lies in pulling together and managing all the necessary skills that are required for and go into a project."

Wakefield says that from Murray & Roberts Cementation’s point of view, one advantage of the design/build approach is that it reduces the amount of work that it traditionally carries out without any prospect of a return. "Our business had traditionally been tendering at risk which can have very high costs associated with it - we can spend months preparing a tender and these expenses are difficult to recover," he comments. "By moving back in the value chain we have the opportunity to be paid for the studies we carry out."

Just how early in the value chain does Murray & Roberts Cementation want its involvement to start? Wakefield responds that the company can contribute even prior to the prefeasibility and feasibility stages and says that it is currently working on several studies for clients. "In one case, a client has asked us to take a look at an existing operation and outline ways in which it can be re-engineered and improved," he says.

Wakefield points to the Asis Far West project in Namibia - at the other end of the spectrum from conceptual studies - as an example of the range of the group’s expertise. "This is a project being carried out by Ongopolo Mining, Namibia’s only copper producer, close to its existing Kombat mine in the Grootfontein area. Basically, we’ve designed and built a new 799 m deep shaft and we’re also working on the client mining layouts. In South African mining terms it’s not a huge project but it is substantial for Namibia and it does represent virtually a new mine."

The range of Murray & Roberts Cementation’s skills are also demonstrated by its contribution to Aquarius Platinum’s Kroondal mine near Rustenburg, where it has carried out most of the day-to-day planning of mining activities since moving on to site in 1999. "We believe we’re highly competent to completely engineer, construct and operate an underground mine," concludes Wakefield.