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Powder/Bulk Solids

The Source for Dry Processing and Bulk Handling Technology

Economic Downturn: An Opportunity to Catch Up?

March 30, 2009

Mark Jones
Centre for Bulk Solids and Particulate Technologies

Mark Jones

Despite the world economic situation, it is quite clear that the emerging economies of India and China will continue to expand, albeit at a slower rate. This, of course, will mean a continuing need for basic commodities and resources for continued infrastructure development. The world’s raw material producers, such as Australia and South America, have certainly felt the effect of significant reductions in commodity prices, and this has been reflected in some swift re-adjustments by some of the major mining- and resource-based companies.

Literally six months ago, I would regularly receive calls from a variety of industries seeking our graduates, especially those with a mechanical engineering degree, and who had also taken the two courses in bulk solids handling. We could have ‘sold’ our graduates many times over. In September of last year, we ran a bulk solids short course in the area of storage and conveying in Perth, Western Australia, in which we had more than 70 delegates—numbers not seen since the 1980s and early 1990s.

The sudden and dramatic change in market conditions has, of course, changed this situation almost overnight. A recent discussion I had with a friend, who is a mine manager in Australia, led to his reflective comment that in his 40 years in the industry, the economic conditions had always oscillated between the boom and bust scenarios.

For the last four years or so, I have had many meetings with chambers of commerce, industry groups, the Business/Higher Education Round Table, and other groups, with all of them raising issues regarding the skills shortage worldwide and the need for more high-quality engineers and technicians. A significant problem in the education and training arena is that it takes many years to educate and train good quality engineers and technicians, and it is very difficult to turn the ‘tap’ on and off. A real lesson in all of this is that, although not desirable, the industry slowdown does provide the opportunity for education and training to catch up. However, a problem for the material handling industry is that there are very limited training provisions.

From my limited experiences in the United States, I believe the situation is not much different from the situation in Australia—although the range of resource and process industries is a little greater. Having taught continuing education programs at the Powder & Bulk Solids Conference/Exhibition for more than 20 years, it never ceases to amaze me how many engineers and technicians are trying to specify, operate, and troubleshoot bulk solids systems, often with little or no real knowledge of the fundamentals of the flow of bulk solids. Our industry regularly repeats the same mistakes and commonly tries to apply the principles of fluid mechanics when considering the flow of cohesive powders. This, of course, is largely not the fault of the engineers and technicians, but a lack of education and training in the fundamentals of bulk solids; fundamentals that have been known and applied in some industrial situations for over 40 years.

This particular issue of Powder/Bulk Solids has a focus on the mechanical conveying of solids. This is an area that is regularly considered a ‘black art’, however, this is not really so. Screw conveyors and feeders can be designed based on the flow properties of the bulk solid. The design procedure does allow for reasonably accurate calculation of screw geometry, power and torque requirements, and material throughput. Similarly, other mechanical conveying devices and, of course, belt conveying systems, can also be designed in this manner.

Hence, a critical issue for the bulk solids industry is that although there is much knowledge available—both of a theoretical and a practical nature—this knowledge is not effectively communicated. New people enter the industry and have difficulty accessing the information, along with suitable educational or training provisions. At a time when we have been involuntarily placed in an economic slowdown, we do have the possibility of using this as an opportunity to educate, train, and prepare for the inevitable upturn. We hope to prevent yet another cycle of skill shortage by providing adequate numbers of qualified personnel. In this way, at least a little good can come from an otherwise uncomfortable recession.

Mark Jones holds the chair in bulk solids handling at the University of Newcastle, NSW Australia. He is also the director of the Centre for Bulk Solids and Particulate Technologies, director of TUNRA Bulk Solids Handling Research Associates, and a member of Powder/Bulk Solids’ editorial advisory board.