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Reducing costs and maximizing efficiency are winning strategies for profitability

January 12, 2021

The future (and fate) of the coal industry hinges on constant innovation and the adoption of smarter, more efficient ways of doing business. Industry Expert, Ron Bennett, talks about the most effective measures needed to adapt to coming changes.

Ron Bennett has spent most of his life around coal. After working in the magnetite industry for 25 years he joined Polydeck 17 years ago in a sales position. Today, he is a Senior Industry Expert with the company, where he puts his depth of knowledge and years of experience to use as the lead application advisor for their entire coal division.

In addition to overseeing fleet and safety responsibilities, Ron works closely with Polydeck’s customers in the energy and industrial industry to help develop groundbreaking solutions to their production challenges. His advice is critical in helping both Polydeck and its customers decide on the most effective courses of action to take in response to new trends and shifts in the industry.

Lately, he’s been keeping his eye on the plummeting price of coal and thinking about what it might mean for the future of energy production in the US—particularly the costs of doing business for coal processors.

“Demand is at a near all-time low,” Ron notes grimly, “The price has bounced back a bit from the record warm winter we saw last year, but there’s still lots of stockpile on the ground and parts of the country saw a mild winter again this year. The price is currently around $40 a ton for steam coal and $85 a ton for metallurgical coal—and that’s not good. We’ve already had two major coal companies go bankrupt as a result, so the domestic industry today faces a huge challenge.”

Despite the downward trends, Ron sees opportunity for processing plants to shift their cost burden in a positive direction by making operational changes that reduce their processing costs. These costs include a variety of production factors, such as planned or unplanned downtime, screen efficiency, proper sizing, magnetite recovery, and maintenance. Every point of improvement has some effect on an operator’s overall costs; collectively, however, they can have a tremendous impact on the bottom-line.

The energy and industrial team at Polydeck has over 150 years of industry experience and they understand the difficulties operators face in bringing production costs under control. As Ron puts it, “If someone has a coal issue, you can be sure we’ve dealt with it before.”

Polydeck relies on the team’s combined knowledge and their strong relationships with its customers to help the company design and manufacture innovative products that drive those costs down.

Reducing Costs on the Scalping Screen

Raw coal scalping can be a problem when there is a high presence of clay in the run, which makes the coal “sticky.” As the coal passes through the screen deck, the clay adheres to the screen and clogs up the apertures, slowing the production flow and creating inefficiency. Eventually, the run has to be paused while a crew clears the screen deck of clay—a costly work stoppage by any measure.

“I’ve seen an operator have to shut down three times in a single shift to clean their deck,” Ron recalls, “That makes the run really expensive to clean, process, and put in a car. These days, that just won’t cut it.”

To address these types of applications, Polydeck developed specialty rubber products. Because the rubber panels are extremely flexible, they shed the clay and maintain the screen’s efficiency. Not only does the pass-through volume stay consistent, but by not having to shut down the screen to clean off the clay, the operator also saves a lot of downtime and labor costs.

Polydeck’s polyurethane products for raw energy and industrial applications similarly reduce maintenance and downtime costs by providing superior wear life and fast, easy change out. These products are a direct result of Ron and his team working closely with customers to understand what they need their equipment to do.

Reducing Costs in Drain-and-Rinse Applications

Drain-and-rinse applications wash magnetite off coal and allow operators to recover the material, which is important because magnetite prices are at an all-time high. Just a few years ago, magnetite sold for around $90 per ton. Now, because magnetite is no longer domestically produced, the import and shipping costs—along with a lack of competition—have driven up the price to over $300 per ton.

This makes magnetite recovery a profitable task, but it also presents a completely different challenge for processors. In this case, particularly, getting the correct size distribution on the screens is critical to ensuring that the maximum amount of magnetite product is recovered.

To ensure proper sizing and drain rates, Ron advises clients to adopt a solution that incorporates Polydeck VR panels on the top deck with continuous slot panels or profile wire panels on the bottom decks: “The easy change out can dramatically lower an operator’s maintenance costs and decrease their downtime.”

Reducing Costs in Recovery Applications

Consistency is key in any business, but it’s of extreme importance in the fine coal circuit, where recovery can come down to a mere .02 mm difference in size. Ensuring consistency gives the operator the confidence that they’re putting 100 percent of their product on the ground and not throwing away valuable product due to inefficiency.

“Producing consistently sized panels is one of Polydeck’s core competencies, and it’s a strong selling point for our products” Ron explains, “All of our rubber and urethane panels are manufactured with an injection-molding process that produces a consistent aperture size from panel to panel. We even back it up with a product performance guarantee: If our panels are ever not to the customer’s spec, we’ll replace them at no cost.”

Reducing Costs in the Supply Chain

An often overlooked area in which an operator can reduce their operational costs is in the ordering and fulfillment phase of supply inventory. An operator who partners with a supplier that has sufficient warehousing and logistics can keep less stock on site and instead rely on rapid delivery of replacement stock to maintain profitable production levels.

Again, Ron points to Polydeck as a good example of the type of partner an operator can leverage to help reduce their costs: “[Polydeck’s] products are manufactured in Spartanburg, SC and stored in three distribution centers strategically-located in the eastern US coal fields—in Morgantown, WV; Chapmanville, WV; and Ridgeway, IL. Additionally, Polydeck has strategic partners in Eastern and Western Canada who store product for customers so that they are on hand when needed. This means that we can guarantee availability of product and fast delivery to the customer—usually by the next day. It also means the customer can save more money by reducing their stocked product levels.”

The Future of Cost-Savings

Ron regularly sees the benefits of greater efficiency when dealing with customers. “The maintenance savings alone with a modular deck is substantial,” he explains, “I was working with a processing operation to help them transition to a new modular Polydeck screen. While I was there, the supervisor and I watched his crew change out their old metal screen. It took four guys with torches and impact tools several hours to do the work.”

This kind of downtime and labor-intensive maintenance was killing the client, but with a new Polydeck screen, it would only take a single team member a few minutes to swap out a 1x1 panel. After installing the Polydeck screen, the customer saw a dramatic improvement in the entire plant.

“When I went back,” Ron says proudly, “the supervisor told me to walk the plant and report back what I found. The facility was the cleanest I had ever seen, and the entire production was running smoothly. When I told him so, he said, ‘That’s exactly what I wanted you to see; my guys have more time to take care of other things instead of constantly replacing screens.’”

This is the sort of opportunity for change and improvement that Ron sees taking place for operators across the country. “The industry is going through a sea of change as the world transitions from traditional fossil fuels to other forms of power generation. Just last year, coal dropped below 50% of all forms of power generation for the first time.”

He remains positive about the future, however. “Look, everyone needs to remember that coal still keeps the lights on. Despite all the changes around us, coal isn’t going anywhere for the time being.”

Coal processors know that they have to make changes to adapt to the new realities in order to remain profitable. The easiest way to do that is to examine their operation from top-to-bottom, find those areas where improvements can be made, and then partner with vendors who can help them implement those improvements.

Without the capacity to overcome production bottlenecks and inefficiencies, increase the productivity value of their work force, and maximize the quality and consistency of the product throughput, processing operations could be forced to shutter if the cost of coal continues to drop.

The good news for operators is that they aren’t alone. Companies like Polydeck, and experts like Ron Bennet and his team, work hard to come up with solutions to the production challenges facing coal processors. They know that the future (and fate) of the industry hinges on constant innovation and the adoption of smarter, more efficient ways of doing business.

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