Over the last five years, the United Mining Services (UMS) Group has evolved its operations to combine the capabilities of the UMS METS and UMS Shaft Sinkers businesses to facilitate a seamless project transition for clients from concept to prefeasibility, feasibility and into execution.

With over 60 years of history, the UMS Group is emerging from a challenging period and is on a solid incline towards success, showing impressive growth in revenue year-on-year. The company currently employs approximately 450 people, and is continuing to invest in skills for its major projects in southern Africa, South America and North America.

Murray Macnab, UMS Group Executive Technical Director, says the UMS METS business has also gone through a metamorphosis, from being a purely internally focused design back office for the company to becoming outward client facing, and through this, leveraging its estimating and scheduling capabilities to offer full project management, thereby adding value to clients in the front end of projects.

“When separate companies undertake the feasibility studies and the construction phase, it can typically lead to long delays resulting from this transition,” says Macnab.

“Because we have the full in-house capability to undertake all the concept, designengineeringconstruction and commissioning aspects of a project for our clients, we can save the client significant time on the front end of the execution of the project.

“Furthermore, the team that has been involved with the feasibility phases can involve the construction crews, so constructability is seriously considered and the schedule is refined for project approval,” adds Macnab.

“We ensure that there is a golden thread that runs through the project and the team, from concept right through to project execution. We select a dynamic team from both businesses that is multi-skilled, multi-experienced, and highly focused on delivering the shaft sinking project. UMS fully subscribes to project management principles and most team members are professional project managers in addition to their specific field of expertise.

“By combining our capabilities, our clients can get more certainty on the cost and delivery of the project, which is key for getting board approval for multi-million-dollar projects,” says Macnab.

He says that one of the biggest risks of not achieving project goals is schedule slippage. “Schedules slip at the front end of the project because time is required to do detailed design and identify what suppliers can supply. The construction crew usually has no front-end visibility and it takes time for them to get up to speed unless they were involved in the feasibility study.

“With UMS, the construction team can detail what they need upfront based on past experience. Having this knowledge significantly improves the probability of reaching the scheduling milestones,” affirms Macnab.

This evolution of the UMS Group has positioned it as a major player in mining projects, and clients are seeing the advantages and reaping the rewards on current projects, comments Robert Hull, Chief Operating Officer at UMS.

“While we have the standalone service of front end engineering capabilities, what sets us apart is having a team that can set up construction projects and deliver them well. We are closing the gap between the front end and the execution to ensure a seamless transition.”

Macnab cites the Karowe Underground Mine Expansion Project in Botswana as a prime example of a client benefitting from UMS’s front end capability, where UMS has been contracted to engineer and design the shaft sinking of the 750-metre-deep production and ventilation shafts.

The client approached UMS with a feasibility study to convert the open cast mine to underground in order to extend the mine life to at least 2040.

“We did the trade-offs first, followed by the detailed design, and while the client was raising funds for the project, we were going full steam ahead with procuring long-lead items. Even though this happened during the Covid pandemic, it didn’t delay the project and we are about to go into full sink on both shafts,” says Macnab.

He comments that their project in Brazil for a copper mine is going through a similar process. “The client approached us with a concept for transitioning the mine from open cast to underground that proved to be unsuitable. We came up with a solution within 10 weeks, developed that to the next phase, and were able to cut off about a year of the cycle of getting the project off the ground simply because we had in-house designs, costing and schedules that we could draw on from our UMS METS business, saving the client time and money in the feasibility phase.”

UMS has been appointed to undertake the engineering and procurement for a new 1 500-metre-deep shaft at the mine in Brazil.

“It’s the top-class teams managing the projects that is contributing to our success,” says Macnab. “Everyone is very proud of their roles and wants to constantly improve what they’re doing. This is evident across our operations, especially on site. We recently invited our client in Brazil to visit the Karowe site in Botswana to view the project progress. They were very impressed with what they saw and commented that ‘the site looks like it’s run like a Swiss clock’. It’s a super-organised site, very safe, incredibly neat with exceptional levels of planning.

“We are extremely proud of the entire Karowe team. Everyone, from the winder installation crews to the civil, erection and sinking crews has the same objective. Each member has been hand-picked, some of whom have been with UMS for a long time, and some who are new and are gaining invaluable on-site training. We’re providing opportunities for our engineers to come on site to learn project management skills for future projects, while also handing over the skills to the team who will stay behind and operate the site.

“As a company, we’re also working hard on bringing in younger people to train so that we can create our own next generation of engineers who have solid practical training so that we can meet the demand with the current commodity price boom,” says Macnab.

He says that with the rise in commodity prices, it makes sense for open cast mine owners with valuable underground orebodies to maximise their assets and go deeper via  ramps or vertical shafts, especially as it can take up to five years to get permitting for a new mine.

“It is cheaper and quicker to extend current open cast operations than to create a brand new mine, as the mine has already got plant, power and permits. Our front end capability can identify the most feasible, cost-effective way to take the existing infrastructure of an open cast mine, and deepen and extend the life of mine by 10 – 20 years,” says Macnab.

“UMS has been sinking shafts and taking mines underground for the last 60 years, while the rest of the world has only started in earnest in the last few decades. We have unmatched experience and knowledge in this field, and can significantly shorten the timeframes for clients to get underground,” concludes Hull.