Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Inventions to Order?

Through MEI and Barry Wills’ blog the question has been asked by a supplier – is there need and/or desire for a new type of crusher?  This supplier is trying to evaluate if it’s worth spending the time, energy and more importantly, money to develop a new type of crusher. The lack of feedback on the so far from the MEI blog might indicate that this is a difficult area to develop something!  However it does beg the question – Can you invent to order?
Looking at the minerals industry and its structure, it’s very difficult. Having said that our company MMS was founded on exactly that; an inventor (Dr Rainer Imhof) who could invent equipment and develop processes to solve particular problems. Rainer wasn’t the original developer of pneumatic flotation (Bahr, Simonis) but to getting it working to a commercial level he has had to come up with a number of new inventions to solve particular problems. These are unique enough to allow MMS to patent. It doesn’t happen very often but on a few occasions Dr Imhof has (half jokingly) been asked to invent things and then come up with a solution. “Rainer could you find a solution to this xxxx problem!” He has gone away thought about it and then, a few times, come up with an elegant idea. A couple of these recent ideas MMS are in the process of trying to develop at the moment.
There are many people involved in “R&D” in our industry  but very little invention seems comes out of it. Most is focused research but rarely achieves any usable beneficial outcomes. The MEI blog has recently highlighted the amount of poor technical papers being submitted to MEI on Hydrometallurgy where the same old things have been regurgitated over and over. We as a company see it time and time again and wonder why the work was ever done. This is not just limited to academia, we also see it across the board in mining and processing government research organisations.
Money doesn’t seem to help (although we’re sure it would help us as a company). A major multinational corporation has recently tried to move into new business areas in fields not unrelated to our market so of course, we are interested in what they do. They seem to have a bottomless pit of money (many $m), resources and support to throw at trying to get their product introduced. They have even go so far as paying operations to have their equipment to be installed. This has happened in the past with limited success (think of mining companies with technology divisions). Without a workable product that people want, even money “can’t buy you love”.
There is the “light bulb” moment when someone sees the light, generally in an area unrelated to their field of expertise (ask Dr Imhof about his idea for keeping tennis balls fresh!). You just have to hope there is a market for your idea and that someone will try and commercialise it. Generally, this rarely happens. Again, as a company, we are often presented with such ideas by inventors. Almost invariably it is a great idea but with little commercial potential. Most process equipment ideas we see fall down on scalability – the requirement for high unit throughput in the minerals industry to make equipment economic. 
Back to the crushing problem. Yes, there have been no step change inventions in crushing over many decades, only incremental improvements in reducing costs by increasing unit throughputs and availability, reducing maintenance and increasing wear life. It is an extremely mature and tightly kept market. The potential savings on a new type of crusher appear limited. As crushing is relatively low energy (compared with say milling or ultra fine grinding) potential energy savings of a new type of conventional crusher will not make too much difference in the big picture. So we would see the only way for a new entrant to get into the market (obviously not this supplier who asked the question) is to copy the best bits of the current state of the art, try and improve on these incrementally and manufacture in a low cost country.
On the other hand it’s not actually “crushing” that the industry wants but “rock breakage”. Now there are any number of research projects out there (being done by the same researchers lambasted above!) trying to find the answer to more efficient and cost effective breakage – heating, cooling, microwaves, ultrasonic and other type of wave spectrums, electrical pulses, explosions etc. Now if any of these could be commercial at required unit throughputs then that would be a paradigm shift in the industry.

1 comment:

  1. There was a paper at the SAG2011 in Vancouver on a new equipment design - CAHM, or "conjugate anvil-hammer mill". Not commercially available as yet - they are looking for the funder for the first installation. the paper was "Novel comminution machine may vastly improve crushing-grinding efficiency", by Lawrence Nordell & Alexander Popov