For Want of a Nail

The story goes that it was late in August, 1485, as the summer heat was starting to soften, when one of the king’s grooms lead the monarch’s own favourite steed to the royal blacksmith.

“Shoe him quickly, for the king needs to ride him to battle this very day,” said the groom.

The smith went quickly to work. From a bar of iron he made four horseshoes. These he hammered and shaped and fitted to the horse’s hooves. But after fixing two of the shoes, he found that he didn’t have nails enough for the remaining pair.

“Three nails in each shoe will hold them on,” said the smith. “Yes, I think we may risk it.”

So he quickly finished the shoeing, and the groom hurried to lead the horse to the king.

The king, of course, was King Richard III.

According to James Baldwin’s version of the story, published in 1912, first one horseshoe, then a second, came off, causing Richard’s horse to stumble on the fields of Bosworth. As the distraught king watched his lame horse galloping away, he waved his sword in the air and shouted, “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse.”

The battle was lost. King Richard was lost. Henry Tudor, 2nd Earl of Richmond, became king of England.

And the story concludes with the first published version of the famous proverb:

“For the want of a nail the shoe was lost;

For the want of a shoe the horse was lost;

For the want of a horse the battle was lost;

For the failure of battle the kingdom was lost;

And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.”

So what does this have to do with mining?

Sometimes we are reminded of horseshoes when hearing industry scuttlebutt about mining studies that are also rushed into battle without having been nailed on properly.

If we want to improve the quality and timeliness of resource assessments and study management, it’s critical to know what information we need and when we are going to need it.

A significant lesson from the not-so-recent rush of mining studies is to observe that many hundreds of feasibility studies were undertaken but few delivered a result within the window of opportunity. The rush to get studies underway was often thwarted by the lack of preparation and planning.

Study teams tend to focus on the well-recognised study phases:

  1. The Scoping or Conceptual phase
  2. The Pre-feasibility phase
  3. The Feasibility phase
  4. Project Execution

This is sound, logical and provides for progressive decision making, usually controlled by tollgates (process and procedures that review the analysis, recommendation and plan for the next phase).

What is sometimes missed, however, to the detriment of the study’s quality and/or schedule, is that mine planners cannot weave their magic for any of these phases unless the resource assessment (geological, structural, metallurgical and product quality models) has reached a level of maturity that supports the standard of investigation and output required of the study phase.

Tragically, the fact that the resource assessment has not been consummated rarely prevents the study from going ahead. It does nonetheless impact the quality and/or schedule and therefore the cost and/or reliability of the project. The mine planners may progress, based on immature data and models, in the sound knowledge that if the data when acquired does not support their outcomes the evaluation may be reworked.

So while it is common to hear that there is rarely the time to do the study properly in the first place, the planners are assuming there will always be time to do it again – unless, of course, the decision makers are misled with the results of a study, for example that of a pre-feasibility based on a conceptual level of data (unheard of, I am sure).

It is fundamentally important that decision makers and mining study professionals understand the timeframes to acquire and the standards required for the data that is the bedrock of the resource assessment and stakeholder’s decision making.  When these timeframes and requirements are understood, then you will also understand why it takes so long to bring a project through to commitment and why so many companies fail to meet the windows of opportunity in a cyclical business.

More battles will be won if we hold off the attack until we are certain we have enough nails for our horseshoes.

 

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