Lars Boysen, FLSmidth Automation A/S, Regional sales manager Christian Rytter, Marketing Coordinator Automation, Sales & Marketing
With the demand for minerals constantly on the increase, companies are looking wherever they can for new sources - nowhere more so than the iron ore rich lands of Western Australia. Sample analysis facilities are being stretched to the limits of their capacity. Promising faster throughput and higher accuraсу, are robot-controlled labs the answer?
IN A LAB in Perth, Australia, a bank of machinery hides an area of intense activity. Four square, inter-connected robotic cells buzz - and inside each cell, a single-arm robot whizzes with quiet efficiency. At one end, a technician places an ore sample into one of the cells. And at the other, small beads of glass are analysed by X-ray to determine the all important mineral content. These are then removed and stored for future reference.
This is a commercial QCX (quality control and X-ray) sample analysis lab, run by the company, SGS, which services the Australian minerals market. Fully automated, it's a one-of-a-kind lab put together by sampling and testing experts Essa Australia Limited and FLSmidth Automation -a company with more than 20 years' experience of laboratory automation.
From the moment the sample enters the cells to the time the results come out, everything is automated. The current lab uses four cells to complete the analysis - with each cell representing a different stage in the process. The lab has been designed to suit SGS's capacity needs, running the procedure on several hundred samples a day. A second similar line is currently being installed.
The main advantage of the automated system is simple: efficiency. Once a sample enters the lab, the entire process is run automatically. Industrial robots move precise amounts of the sample through the various stages, and every step in the process is run with reduced no time and without human error. The result is simple: more samples run per day.
Mistake-free sample analysis
Numerous unique samples are taken from a potential site, and repeating the process is expensive - so it's essential that each sample is correctly analysed. Although skilled lab technicians rarely make mistakes, there's always the possibility of human error - but not with robots.
"The robots offer unprecedented precision," says Jens Ole Grejs Petersen, Project Manager at FLSmidth Automation. "They repeat the same action millions of times - and whether the automation system is weighing a sample or adjusting the heat in a furnace, it's always done to the same level of accuracy."
And to ensure quality, the software is fully integrated into SGS's laboratory Information Management and quality assurance systems. Jens Ole explains, "The entire lab is programmed to auto-test itself by splitting a sample and running it through the same equipment. If there's any discrepancy in results, the controller can see exactly which piece of equipment is the cause and it can be readjusted if needed. Also, whenever a sample touches a bowl, vial, crucible or cup, these are automatically cleaned to ensure there is no contamination between samples."
SGS gets the final results for each sample delivered as a XML file, but according to Jens Ole, other reporting systems are possible. "This is just the interface the customer wanted. What's important is what's in the report. SGS have all the data it needs, from mineral content to which machines the sample was run through, ensuring that SGS has not only the capacity but the right level of quality for certification purposes."
A safer working environment
Sample analysis furnaces are hot and the flux (used to turn samples into the glass beads that are then X-rayed) is unhealthy for humans. In manual labs, the samples and flux are moved and weighed by hand - and the safety precautions required can be both time-consuming and costly. An automated laboratory vastly reduces the amount of human interaction in the process, making the entire system safer and cheaper in the long run.
Another big advantage for many companies is staffing levels. Samples are usually taken from isolated areas - where mining could be a possibility in the future - and finding qualified lab technicians is not always easy. Using robots reduces the number of people needed - and the robots don't get tired. They run around the clock, stopping for a couple of hours of maintenance a day.
Bringing proven technology to minerals sampling
FLSmidth Automation has been designing control and analysis systems for more than 20 years, mainly in the highly complex world of cement plants. Bringing this expertise into play, the company has used its software to oversee the entire sampling and analysis process, including an in-built quality check system. Jens Ole explains, "Although this lab is completely new, we have lots of experience with software for similar processes - both in the cement and the minerals industry. Essa did a great job of designing the equipment, and then we configured the software and interfaces using proven processes."
The project, from installation to the start of production, took just five months and was operational in early 2008. Prior to installation, there was a period with joint design and development and a period of prototype testing. The result is now operating at the SGS site to full satisfaction of the demands put forward by SGS. "It was a very satisfying project to work on," says Jens Ole. "The finished line is running well. The costomer is happy - and that makes us happy". makes us happy."
With the project under their belts, Essa and FLSmidth Automation are able to create similar labs very quickly. Says Jens Ole, "Any new line will be adapted to the customer, but we now have the basics in place so project implementation will be smooth. This is good news for us and our customers, because two more companies have recently placed orders for similar lines." Since the SGS project, Essa and FLSmidth Automation has received orders for 10 robotic cells.
The FLSmidth Group has been active in the Russian market for more than 100 years and has recently strengthened its presence with the opening of a new office in Moscow.
The use of robot-controlled laboratories provides faster throughput, higher accuracy and a safer working environment than conventional manual laboratories. The Essa & FLSmidth Automation team has proven to be a unique partner in automating laboratories by leveraging their respective experiences to provide a combined solution. The complete automation team is now ready to supply laboratory automation solutions worldwide.