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Freeport McMoRan Looks to the Future with Artificial Intelligence

Miners have steadily pursued technological advancements to increase efficiencies, address technical difficulties and limit carbon emissions. Ore erosion has also led miners to continually search for new techniques to better extract the red metal. At Freeport, this challenge has led to a technological breakthrough that will generate new levels of output.

Work Begins

In 2018 metallurgists, engineers and equipment operators at Bagdad mine, in Arizona, collaborated with McKinsey data scientists to develop a model to analyze three years of data from thousands of sensors at the concentrating mill.

The program investigated whether extraction at the mill was at full capacity—as Freeport analysts had projected—or could be improved.

The model led to major changes in the ways Bagdad personnel analyze and extract copper. It integrates data from sensors around each project to examine new tactics that enhance the performance of processing mills, crushers and the mine itself.

Previously, Bagdad staff estimated all the ore entering the mill was the same type. Yet the sensors identified seven distinct types of ore and demonstrated the mill’s standard for controls did not match the properties of all the ore types.

Showing these fundamental distinctions paved the way for the adoption of new techniques to increase ore recovery. The team found adjusting the mill’s controls to accommodate each of the seven ore types could help enhance copper production by at least 10 percent or more.

Moreover, the team found that changes to its vast flotation tanks could extract more copper by changing the potential hydrogen (pH) level. Bagdad is now boosting its production by 9,000 metric tonnes.

We are really encouraged by what’s happening … across the board we’re going to be using these big data analytics to help make our business better, reduce costs and improve productivity.”

 – Richard Adkerson, CEO Freeport McMoRan

Thinking about ore clusters in terms of data from the mill’s instruments, rather than classifications from traditional geology, was a major mindset shift—and it opened many new possibilities for improving performance.”

 – Sean Buckley, McKinsey Partner and Analytics Leader

An Evolution Ensues

Freeport has since expanded the artificial intelligence (AI) program across the Bagdad project and to its Morenci complex, also in Arizona. The operations for the processor and concentration include the same AI to maximize ore recovery. These solutions enable performance optimization, enhance consistency and reduce bottlenecks.

The data has allowed Freeport to adopt mining techniques with greater efficiency, establish better visibility and use equipment more effectively. These changes allow for the best performance for every shift.

Freeport will deploy this technology system in Peru at its Cerro Verde mine—which is five times the size of the Bagdad operation—before scaling it up at other projects.

The application of these AI systems at mines across North and South America is forecast to increase production by 5 percent or 90,000 tonnes.

We have set an aspirational goal of adding 200 million pounds (or 90,000 tonnes) of copper from these initiatives with very little capital investment. It’s been a remarkable success.”

 – Richard Adkerson, CEO Freeport McMoRan

Achieving such an increase in production typically would require major capital investments of $1.5 billion to $2 billion to fund purchases such as crushing equipment, new haul trucks and large shovels. Realizing comparable gains through analytics alone is a significant breakthrough for the miner.

Strategies for Growth

These achievements come alongside Freeport’s other important strategies for growth. The company successfully completed a transition from its open pit project at Grasberg, to mining underground, which is forecast to yield 28,000 tonnes per day (t/pd) this year before full production of 80,000 t/pd begins in 2022. Freeport will bring its Lone Star copper mine in Arizona to full production by the end of 2020, which is expected to produce 90,000 tonnes (200 million pounds) of copper per year.

After losses from last year’s fall in global copper demand and the company’s sale of a large portion of its Grasberg mine in Indonesia, the AI program and other initiatives offer a critical, new trajectory

Freeport’s Future of AI

In the coming decades, AI is well-poised to foster a sea change in the global mining sector. Widespread applications will emerge and Freeport, with its massive projects and staff expertise will, without a doubt, continue to rank among the industry’s greatest pioneers in enriching ore grades worldwide.

About Freeport-McMoRan Inc.  
Based in Phoenix, Arizona, Freeport-McMoRan operates large, long-term, geographically diverse assets of copper, gold and molybdenum and is the world’s largest publicly traded copper producer. Its mines include the Grasberg district in Indonesia, one of the world’s largest copper-gold deposits, and major operations in North and South America, encompassing the large-scale Bagdad and Morenci minerals districts in Arizona, the Cerro Verde operation in Peru and El Abra in Chile.

About McKinsey & Company
Founded in 1926 and with a presence in 65 countries, McKinsey is one of the world’s top management consulting firms. With services which include incorporating analytics, digital and design into processes and mindsets, McKinsey’s 30,000 employees include leading data scientists, engineers and analysts who help clients in the public, private and social sectors.

About the International Copper Association
The International Copper Association’s brings together the global copper industry to develop and defend markets for copper and make a positive contribution to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., ICA has offices in three primary regions: Asia, Europe and North America. ICA and its Copper Alliance® partners are active in more than 60 countries worldwide. For additional information, please visit www.copperalliance.org.