Monday, 1 June 2015

Bridging the gap between science and engineering

Of all the changes that have taken place in mineral processing during the last 20 years or so, ranking very highly must be the development of powerful and sophisticated models for simulation, control and optimisation of operations. It has been apparent, however, that many operators have been wary of many of these developments, viewing them as clever academic exercises with no real practical value beyond the experienced operators' hands-on approach to optimisation and control. This has inhibited the development, validation and implementation of some potentially very useful techniques.
Bridging the gap between academic science and practical engineering is a problem which needs to be addressed, by bringing together academics and operators, the conference circuits being the obvious forums. We try to do this at MEI Conferences, but still we get the criticism that operators are not there in force, and the perception often is that academics are talking to academics.
There is a lot to be gained by operators attending major conferences. After attending Comminution '14 Clifford Mutevhe, of Anglo Platinum, Zimbabwe commented "[Comminution '14] not only enhanced my knowledge but also helped me identify solutions to the milling circuit I manage. Some of the discussions we had, we have carried them forward as part of the business process improvements. I also managed to identify with a huge pool of knowledgeable people from across the world. I could not imagine communicating daily and interacting with people from SA, USA, France, Iran, China, Australia and various other countries."
But we realise that we need to do more to bring scientists and engineers together, and hence bridge that gap, and we would like to see operators presenting case studies on their operations, particularly relating their experiences in utilising modern sophisticated models and techniques. At next year's Comminution '16 we are hoping to attract interest in a potential session devoted to short presentations from operators, describing how innovative techniques have benefited their circuits.
At Flotation '15 in November Prof. Jan Cilliers, of Imperial College, UK will ask in his keynote lecture "what have models and measurements ever done for us?" and will show how advances in theory and experiment take some time to move from the laboratory to the literature and on to the plant.  Immediately prior to the conference, Dr. Stephen Gay will be running a 3-day Simulation Course covering all aspects from basic data accumulation and analysis to advanced software development. Stephen will show how simulation can be used for plant optimisation, plant trouble shooting, feasibility studies and plant design. Importantly the course will give plant managers an approach by which they can obtain guidance on how to improve plant performance via reduced energy costs, and better recovery.
Immediately prior to Comminution '16, two half-day workshops will attempt to bridge the science-engineering gap. In the first of these the Coalition for Eco-Efficient Comminution (CEEC) has invited one of the conference keynote speakers, and a Director of CEEC, Joe Pease, to review the practices available to improve processing efficiency, from mining operations through to mineral processing and smelting.  Attendees will become familiar with the CEEC energy curve and how to assess their own performance.  Procedures to compare energy productivity against other operations and to track the impact of improvements using the CEEC energy curve will be discussed. Examples of practices to improve efficiency will be discussed, along with techniques to find the improvement potential at your site.  Joe will elaborate on this in his conference keynote lecture, showing how the search to improve comminution efficiency will undoubtedly include some novel new technologies.  Significant benefits are also likely from evolving existing technologies, new ways of operating, and combining the old with the new.   He will ask whether advances in drilling, blasting, crushing, HPGRs and stirred milling could relegate the SAG mill to a curiosity during our careers?
Rob McIvor, of Metcom Technologies, USA will present a keynote at the conference aimed squarely at operating metallurgists and company management. He will show how the successful development of new comminution science into real business practice is well exemplified by inventions such as high-pressure grinding. But beyond new plants and capital expansions, how is the science helping industry make the best use of the equipment at their immediate disposal? Plant operations present numerous rewards and challenges to the people who run them. Among their many tasks, metallurgical staff are responsible for the processing performance of the grinding circuits, both daily production and continuous improvement. Means to identify viable process improvement opportunities, and to engage management when needed to achieve implementation, are needed. These include the use of meaningful technical terminology, appropriate metrics, clear economic analysis, and means for follow-up validation that improvements were achieved. Rob will present practical tools for plant staff and company management to bridge the gap between grinding science and daily plant practice, demonstrated by numerous case studies.
Rob will also present the second of the pre-conference workshops, on the Sunday afternoon prior to the conference welcoming reception. The “Functional Performance Equation for Ball Milling” was first introduced in 1988, and now has been applied in scores of mineral processing plants to improve ball milling circuit performance. This powerful, yet simple, tool provides a new level of understanding of closed circuit grinding, whereby plant metallurgical staff and equipment/material suppliers can manage and improve the processing performance of ball milling circuits with clarity and confidence. This workshop is certified by The Engineering Institute of Canada, which provides each participant with a certificate of course completion and registration of 0.3 CEU’s into their training database. It is intended for plant metallurgical staff and management, grinding circuit equipment and material suppliers, and others interested in industrial circuit design and optimisation including circuit designers and researchers. 
A 3rd conference keynote will be given by Prof. Malcolm Powell, of Australia's JKMRC, one of the world's leading experts on comminition modelling. He specialises in mill liner design, charge motion and DEM modelling, SAG mill modelling, and classification, with a strong link into applying the research knowledge in extensive site work and consulting to industry, aiming to link fundamental research into applied outputs through the development of practical and robust process models. He will discuss comminution modelling in the context of integrated process prediction.
So this is what we are trying to do, but what are your views- what more can we do to bridge the gap between science and engineering?


  1. Barry
    An interesting question, possibly aimed at the sceptics of using simulation tools to emulate a process and then predict performance based on varying inputs and or operating parameters. As an avid supporter and user of simulation tools, from my early days at Kenwalt Systems in JHB, to the designs that we do now I am certainly a proponent of using such tools. However the single and most disturbing issue that I see is that of a lack of validation of, and transparency in the input data, and then the subsequent testing of models outside of the expected range of conditions. Blind faith that a fifth order equation is going to behave as you expect without validation or at least confirming that the predicted model output data does in fact tie back well to raw data is what is going to lead us into troubled waters. In that I will always be a sceptic and on the side of operations personnel.

  2. One "crazy" idea about bridging the gap between science and engineering: industry can hire more PhD's and Postdocs. Having a science-inclined employee is the quickest way to tapping innovative ideas. On the other hand, expectations should be low on the practical skills they bring in.

  3. Rafael, no need to spend time at a univeristy to become science minded!


  4. I like what you have been trying to do. Understanding some of the root causes of this growing (?) divide between engineering and science is important. Some key questions to this end:
    * Is this gap growing in the world of mineral processing?
    * Is the gap growing because engineers at operations are paying less attention or because the pace of theoretical knowledge has accelerated?

    Another discussion on LinkedIn is about, "What should be in the mineral processing curriculum?"

    In that discussion we are speaking to the nature of learning required to start the base development of mineral processing engineers. The observed lack of knowledge of the fundamentals is likely one of the root causes of this divide between advances in the state of the science, i.e., our understanding of the theory underlying the processes comprising mineral processing, and the uptake / pull for work from the science community. After all if people are unaware of even the basics, how much will they be looking for at the cutting edge of understanding?

    I can recall many AMIRA meetings where questions and discussions from at least some of the attendees were much more around the basics of understanding just enough of thickener or flotation practice to stably operate them in an existing unstable plant environment.
    Robert Seitz, Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc., USA

  5. In my opinion and experience, there is no divide between Engineering and Science. As a Professional, I keep up to date with the 'science' side of processes much of which is surface chemistry, and covers 99% of what happens in Mineral Processing. The works of old Masters like GAUDIN are still relevant and applicable to Mineral Processing. In some ways, the application of Science to Mineral Processing has somewhat gone stagnant, with the exception of 'Measuring' & 'Analytical devices like the Laser Particle Seizer, new Portable XRF Analyzers, Flow Sensors, etc. . Hence, Engineering today relies mostly on the proven methodologies and applications of those Sciences, be it Surface Chemistry or Rheology, etc. in the field of Mineral Processing

    There is more Science applied to other areas like Health Sciences where tools, like the use of DNA and Radioembolisation. Bioengineering now comes into play as humans find ways of overcoming/combating Cancer and other diseases. Future developments of Science-based theory and applications will grow into new Engineering fields, like Ion Propulsion motors for future Space Ships taking Humans to other planets and back. The Engineering of Battery manufacturing is being based on new Science using new materials for Electric Automobiles. This new Technology is being considered for Mining equipment and the application of Robotics in Mining. Perhaps one day we will see an atonomous Robotic Flotation Operator or Plant Supervisor replacing humans, similar to the Robotic applications in Mining .
    In conclusion, Science has opened the doors to other Engineering fields and the development of tools - there is no gap between Science and Engineering, just an on-going development of new applications and the Engineering of same.

    Louis Bernard, Bernard Mining & Metallurgy, Canada

  6. As I see, people, most of the teaching/R&D/industry has been in two directions in Mineral Processing;
    a) teach it (apart from describing the machines) as a science to explain the science behind various processes; develop theoretical models etc.
    b) Plant people running the operations (even if they had the knowledge of (a) above, as a mechanical process and leave it to process control systems, if installed in the plant. They are not able to realise the interdependence of each operation on the one preceding and the consequent effect on the one that follows.
    In addition, there is no proper documentation of plant performances with changes in ore-characteristics/mining methods/ etc.
    As such, the gap between science and practise is widening. We have to have group discussions and industry should come forward to bridge the gap. If I am permitted to add, the academicians should interact more with industry with hunger to know practises (with humility).
    Barry, keep at your keenness to take Mineral Processing to its rightful place in mineral industry and we appreciate your attempts.

    Prof.(Dr.)T.C.Rao, Hyderabad, India

  7. Good comments.
    Perhaps the word "gap" can be changed by using "delay"?
    The delay, I think, is only not having enough of the new operational equipment to create a broader data base? HPGR is certainly getting there...
    Barry the direction you are taking makes good sense, but much of the science is dependent on green field development more so than dealing with existing circuits that have already made the commitment of equipment type (including SAG). The "tomorrows" and "todays" are two groups - it would be difficult for an operations team to get excited about HPGR when they have just commissioned a flock of 40' SAG mills. It is at the feasibility stage where the question sits regarding what equipment should we use.
    If you do accept this then spread the time equally between what existing equipment can benefit from but do not lose track of what tomorrow can bring.
    Mark Addison, Sino Grinding (Americas) Inc, USA

  8. I think we should not consider it a gap.. it is just Engineers focus on the application of what is scientifically developed and expressed. These are two phases that I can see.. Engineers does not bother to go deeper on the scientific logic and explanation on things that are set to them for application. I remember what one of the famous inventor said.. that most of his inventions are ideas of others that failed to get develop to reality and put to application. The scientist got into these idea and engineers puts it to application. Just have to complement .

    Teresito (Terry) Malicse, NCR - National Capital Region, Philippines

  9. I also noticed the word 'gap' and tended to think the word is correct.

    I would strongly disagree with those who think there isn't a gap; and unless you have been both an engineer and a scientist it is unlikely you will be aware of this.

    However I also think the word 'science' is a bit broad. For the sake of this discussion I think science can be broken into 3:
    an understanding of scientific processes - such as chemistry and physics
    computer technology.

    Engineering is largely a professional training; science is largely a knowledge training. (i.e. someone who studies mineral processing engineering will generally become a mineral processing engineer/ someone who studies maths can end up in any of a diverse set of careers).

    Engineers generally get exposure to the sciences; this leads to an engineer either: believing they are diverse scientists, or appreciating the need for scientists.

    I would tend to argue that in most instances engineers consider themselves to be diverse scientists; and this is a fundamental cause of the science/engineering gap.

    I was at a University Open Day (University of Queensland) and attended a seminar by the Dean of Engineering. The lecture was blatantly patronising. He put the view that scientists asked 'why?' and engineers asked 'how (can knowledge be used)?'

    I later said to my boys (who were considering engineering at UQ) that the view that scientists are not capable of understanding how to use technology is so patronising that they would be far better off going to another University. They did.

    However I had to recognise, that this nonsense doctrine is believed by most engineers.

    Even in previous comments in this discussion there is the implied doctrine that engineers are 'inventors'; not the scientists.

    In another LinkedIn Group an Engineer proudly boasted of 5 'Great Engineers'. My comments were that of the 5 'Great Engineers' only 1 actually studied engineering; two were scientists; whilst two were inventors. After my comments the author did not retract their comments. I am fairly sure that they thought my argument was irrelevant.

    Whilst engineers continue to over-emphasise the value of their profession (to the expense of other professions) it is natural consequence that the gap between science and engineering will exist.

    And btw, on the subject of operators thinking that at least some of the simulation software and mathematical models is nonsense - in many instances they are correct.

    I do give a course in simulation, and I explain many of the deficiencies in mathematical approaches (generally developed by engineers). In the end I just don't teach this as the list of nonsense models becomes too long - and hence confusing.

    Instead I just focus on the best approach, which does indeed use advanced mathematics (and not taught to engineering students at University).

    Stephen Gay, Principal MIDAS Tech International, Australia

  10. Discussion is also taking place on LinkedIn

  11. I think our community is bit polarized on this topic and I often hear counterproductive arguments from the extreme on both sides. For example, to extend Stuart’s example, not every modeler extrapolates 5th order empirical equations, and the fact that some do doesn’t mean that all models are useless. On the other hand, I’ve seen some “experience-based” designs that are wrong because the engineers tried to extend what was a successful design for one ore to a completely different ore type and operating situation; but this is hardly an argument that all experience-based designs will fail. To move past these anecdotal testimonies we need organizations like Minerals Engineering to help promote model awareness, and help our engineers understand that in all models there are still small gaps that need to be filled in with an assumption or a simplification, and the key to successful simulation-based metallurgy is understand these gaps and how they may influence the precision, bias, or applicability of a given modeling tool. There are big challenges ahead and I’m convinced that the most successful companies of the future are going to be those that embrace modeling and simulations methods as an integral part of their design and optimization methods.
    Agree with Luis and Stephen—a good engineer is usually a good scientist too.
    Rafael’s comment is a bit cynical but also very astute—it is very hard these days to find people with strong skills in all areas of our field (operations, laboratories, modeling & simulation, engineering). There is real barrier to “well-roundedness” in our field. Companies don’t like to move people who are good at, say, operations, into, say, projects or laboratory testing because it costs too much money. After 5 years in modeling/consulting I accepted a pay cut and step backwards when I joined Phelps Dodge just to get operations experience (it was worth it!), and I’m sure there are many young engineers in the same position who aren’t willing to do that. But to successfully convert science into engineering you often need to understand the limitations and advantages of different research/lab technique, plus be practical enough to convert into a solution for the mining industry. For this you need to be well-rounded!


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