Why Master Drilling lives up to its name

Why Master Drilling lives up to its name

The world’s largest raise bore drilling company, Master Drilling, operates out of a nondescript office in the nondescript town of Fochville, tucked into a corner of a string of large gold mines west of Johannesburg.

Why Master Drilling lives up to its name

Publication: Business Day
Source: www.bdlive.co.za
Journalist: Allan Seccombe

The world’s largest raise bore drilling company, Master Drilling, operates out of a nondescript office in the nondescript town of Fochville, tucked into a corner of a string of large gold mines west of Johannesburg.

The premises may be humble but the company is anything but that. Master Drilling, which offers investors on the JSE a unique opportunity, lays claim to the largest diameter raised bore hole in the world at 7.2m, pipping Murray & Roberts, a big engineering and construction services company.

Master Drilling claims to be the world’s largest raise-boring company, between two-thirds and double the size of its nearest rival.

“Our model of selling holes is the optimal way for us to sell our product. We don’t sell the drills we make,” said Koos Jordaan, an executive and technical director at Master Drilling, which has sent equipment to copper-rich Chile and Peru, silver-rich Mexico as well as Ireland, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Saudi Arabia.

It has 97 raise bore machines and about 60 other drills, which look spindly and antiquated next to the brute of a raise bore machine Master Drilling has working at Lonmin’s platinum mine.

Two-thirds of Master Drilling’s business is in raise bore drilling and the remaining third is split between exploration drilling and drilling during the mining cycle such as for determining grade ahead of mining areas or resource drilling, company chief financial officer Andre van Deventer says.

“The reason we’ve been successful over the past 26 years is that we are not limited to one commodity or country or service we offer,” he says, pointing out that Master Drilling has a $200m order book.

Raise boring is a relatively cheap and quick way to sink tunnels vertically for mining companies and these holes are used primarily for ventilation, but with the diameters Master Drilling is achieving there is the real prospect of mines equipping them for hoisting men and materials. Technology allows these holes to be sunk to a depth of about 1.3km. The trick with raise boring is having an open space at that depth where a big, disk-shaped reamer equipped with rows of fearsome teeth on the upper side can be attached to the tubes extending to the drill on the surface.

This rotating reamer is then pulled upward toward the surface, with debris falling back into the underground area, where it is removed and either hoisted along with the mine’s other waste rock or shovelled into worked-out areas.

Master Drilling has one of the world’s largest raise bore machines working at a Lonmin platinum mine within sight of the Marikana hill where 34 protesters were shot dead by police last August.

By using directional equipment from the US used to guide torpedoes and missiles, Master Drilling last year sank a 1.1km deep pilot hole at Lonmin’s suspended K4 shaft with a deflection of between 50mm and 80mm, an astonishing engineering feat. “Nobody else has drilled to that depth within that tolerance,” Mr Jordaan says, explaining that drill rods increasingly deflect the deeper the hole goes.

The 107-ton boring machine squats in the dust like a menacing war machine from an alien civilisation. It exudes brute strength, with hydraulic pipes and gleaming steel controlling massive forces. Each 3m rod put down the 998m-deep hole weighs 2 tons and costs R170,000. The drill holds a deadweight of 660 tons without the 20 tons of reamer. The only human activity on the remotely controlled drill is a single individual cleaning the thread of the rod and smearing a special glue to hold it in place.

The forces at play are such that uncoupling the rods generates a 130-decibel crack, similar to a gunshot. Lonmin asked for the machine to be shifted from the twin holes it was raising at its new K4 shaft, where it has suspended work after the Marikana massacre.

The new hole is to provide ventilation at existing works and Lonmin may equip it for hoisting, the challenge being the informal settlement of shiny tin shacks that has sprung up around the site.

Master Drilling refurbishes, maintains and builds new drills at its Fochville site, where it occupies a large chunk of real estate in the town. It is building a new raise bore drill larger than the one at work at Lonmin. The design was carried out locally and Master Drilling has commissioned Chinese companies to supply parts and will assemble it at Fochville.

Master Drilling is advancing technology to reduce the number of people operating its drills to an absolute minimum, CEO and founder Danie Pretorius says. Clients, like the world’s biggest copper miner, Codelco in Chile, have insisted Master Drilling find ways to reduce operators because of safety and cost issues, he says.

It is importing a drill used by Rio Tinto in Australia that is operated by just one person and has a facility on board to determine the mineralogy it is drilling almost instantly and store it on computer. Master Drilling says it may deploy three of these drills, which can be operated by a single person remotely, at its new Kolomela iron-ore mine contract.

One of the innovations Master Drilling is preparing to try on a Sibanye Gold mine is a micro horizontal tunnel borer that it has built locally to be used in underground development. It will cut a two-year development period down to seven months to put in a tunnel. It will be tested in the next three months.

“We are manufacturing this at our own expense and risk. We’ll trial it with Sibanye and whoever else shows interest. We’ve really come to the party to provide something like this for the industry to try,” Mr Pretorius says.

Master Drilling has landed a big contract at Kumba Iron Ore’s Kolomela mine, in the Northern Cape. It is also providing raise boring and other services to the Kibali mine owned by Randgold Resources and AngloGold Ashanti in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The revenue from this contract has not been included in the $200m order book but Mr Jordaan says the project will be a “substantial contributor” in the next five years.