Olympic Dam: ready for production

BHP’s enfant terrible, Olympic Dam, is nearly ready to begin production from the Southern Mining Area according to general manager, Troy Wilson. Speaking at the Copper to the World Conference in Adelaide, Australia, earlier this week, Wilson explained the current status of the project and debunked a few myths about its rocky past.
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Carly Leonida

“When I joined Olympic Dam back in 2014, I’d heard all about this incredible orebody, so naturally thought I was coming to a world-class operation,” he said. “I mean, how could it be anything else – as a tier one resource of its size and part of the highly valued BHP portfolio?

“So you can imagine my surprise when not long after I arrived, I realised there was a perception held by many around Olympic Dam that we were arrogant, old in our ways, incredibly resistant to change and unlikely to listen to ideas from the outside. And initially, I found it difficult to disagree with any of these perceptions!”

Wilson attributed this attitude to Olympic Dam’s turbulent past; expansion of the open pit was deferred in 2012 due to the economic climate and various other factors. “What was patently clear is that this was not consistent with what you’d expect from a truly world-class operation and that things needed to change fast,” he said.

While many assumed that work at Olympic Dam had ground to a complete halt once the expansion was deferred, BHP has actually been working quietly behind the scenes, preparing the underground side of the mine for fruition. Better late than never right?

“You might imagine that in a period shortly after the deferral of a major expansion, teams were downcast and unmotivated,” Wilson told the audience. “Rather what I was confronted with were teams who were keen to know what they could do to help and a willingness to work together to try and change. So our job as leaders became about harnessing this energy and working with our teams to bring Olympic Dam forward two decades in just three short years.”

That meant taking some quick and decisive actions. The company invested significant resources to review and re-design the structure of the operation, and also spent time tackling the more intangible concepts of leadership and culture with some very deliberate actions.

Wilson explained: “In the past two years in particular, we’ve done a lot of work to change our definition of leadership, and this has been critical to our progress. While many would be familiar with the concept that a leader’s key role is to pull the levers and drive results, we have taken a different approach – focusing instead on leaders working to create the right culture, as it is this culture that will ultimately drive performance.”

And this approach is driving results; Wilson gave truck productivity as one example:  “When I joined back in 2014, I was shocked to learn that Olympic Dam had some of the worst performing truck productivity that I’d seen in any operation,” he said.

“However, in less than three years, our teams have done an incredible job to improve this by over 50%. In a confined space such as an underground mine, this is first and foremost a great result for safety, as it means we have less trucks driving around in the same geographic footprint, so exposes fewer of our people to unnecessary risk. But is also good news for our productivity and costs.”

Wilson shared that in the past four years, BHP has invested AU$250 million on underground development of the Southern Mine Area (the location of the originally proposed open pit) and associated surface infrastructure.

The orebody at the mine is shaped rather like a guitar and, despite having mined the northern area of Olympic Dam since 1988 (the neck of the guitar), over 70% of the resource footprint- the southern area which represents the body of the guitar- remains untouched.

“That’s where our work has been focused – unlocking that value. But we’re doing it vastly differently to earlier proposals,” Wilson stated. “We’re being very selective in how we mine, which allows us to better target higher copper-grade areas. This means we will increase the tonnes we mine over the coming years, while importantly increasing the percentage copper in every tonne of dirt we move.”

BHP began work on the underground expansion into the Southern Mine Area, or SMA, in the 2015 financial year and accelerated development 12 months ago with a dedicated team of around 180 people.

“While we tend to see the expansion into the SMA as an extension of our existing operations, in reality the scale of development and investment in infrastructure and essential services like power, ventilation, telecommunications and facilities for each new mining block is equivalent to five new stand-alone underground mines,” explained Wilson.

After nearly 12 months of development preparation, the mine is looking forward to the imminent production of ore from the SMA. “This is a class-leading result in terms of material moved and time to market - and we are incredibly proud of the team – some of whom are here today,” Wilson added proudly.

He explained that Olympic Dam is also doing its bit towards achieving BHP’s ambitious 2025 gender balance programme. The Olympic Dam team is one of the first ‘gender-balanced’ leadership groups in BHP, and Wilson has helped establish the mine's own Inclusion and Diversity Committee to continue this work on site.

“While we have set some targets to increase female participation in operational and support roles across Olympic Dam, including a 70% female intake for trainees and apprenticeships; 50% female intake for our graduate programme; and 50% female across external hires, this isn’t simply about filling quotas or making preferential hiring decisions,” he said.

“Fundamentally, it is about making inroads to attracting, developing and retaining the most talented women to BHP – and preferably, to Olympic Dam. That’s why we’re taking a multi-pronged approach.”

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