Many of my past posts have been about my time at a mine in Tajikistan, and my attempts to keep it running smoothly by way of creative problem solving.

This time, I wanted to take a more high-level look at how supply, warehousing and stock control were handled at the mine – so that we can observe what areas have the most room for improvement, and why.

Procurement, supply and hand luggage

All spares for the mine were sourced from the UK, via a freight forwarding company. In its most basic form, the process worked something like the following:

  1. Call them directly, and ask for a quote on a component
  2. Receive the price from the forwarding company
  3. Write a requisition and get it signed off by a manager
  4. Provide the signed requisition to procurement, who then did all the ordering

If something was needed urgently, it could be hand-carried by someone. In this case, the component was packaged and added to the worker’s luggage, or it was air freighted. 

Naturally, hand-carry was the fastest means, but as the number of British expatriates diminished, fewer and fewer people traveled through London (where head office was located). Over time, the chances of hand-carry became almost nil – for context, I was the last British worker to leave the company before the mine was sold off.

Air freight was the next fastest means to get a component to site, but even this took around 6 weeks.

At the time there was no direct flight into Tajikistan (even for us travelling in), so the route went through Uzbekistan (Tashkent) where customs clearance took a little time, then a 6-hour drive across Uzbekistan to the Uzbek/Tajik border, where customs clearance took a little more time, then eventually the mine was reached after another hour or so drive.

To help with the customs clearance in Tashkent, the company had an office where a very helpful worker used to deal with any issues for us travelers; I imagine something similar happened with the air freight components. 

The last (and by far the slowest) method was by road train. The route crossed multiple international borders and took about 6 months.

This wasn’t without its risks – I recall an occasion when one of the road trains crashed somewhere along the journey and the contents of the truck spilled across the road, along with the supply of food for the camp. Another truck had to be organised, loaded and sent as soon as possible, which added weeks to the already long wait for restock.

Another incident that badly affected the mine was 9/11. As the American forces going into Afghanistan were mobilised, they assembled on the main road from Tashkent to Samarqand (the road we used to traverse Uzbekistan). Almost all supplies of diesel went to the Americans rather than to the mine, and the increased security checks slowed down the road trains even further.

Warehousing: organised chaos

The main warehouse was a decent sized building, which held the majority of our stock – behind this warehouse was a place where old Soviet components were stored.

These Soviet components were basically junk, but they had been given a tiny monetary value (1 cent) so they could be held as a stock item. We used these parts as little as possible, but regrettably we did need to use them from time to time.

There was a second warehouse located away from the mine. This was where larger or failed equipment was stored – for example, a failed attempt to replace the mine’s fleet of worn out ex-British Army Land Rovers led to several SsangYong SUVs being stored in there. 

Fixed plant maintenance had a satellite store at the entrance to the mill building. In the store were vee-belts, bearings, etc., with a small side room where nuts and bolts were kept. 

Our oil store was at the opposite end of the mill building, where the lube man kept an eye on his levels – this was important for us, since running a Western piece of equipment on Soviet lubrication has dire consequences for the Western equipment. 

Up near the maintenance office was another storeroom, where certain “specialised” parts were kept – for example, new and worn-out elution pump shafts were stored here. 

The final storage we had was in the maintenance office itself, where packs of Devcon, stainless steel ball valves, superglue and “things that may be of use for people’s homes” were kept.

Stock control

Due to the mine not having a computerised maintenance management system (CMMS), each week the warehouse manager would send out an Excel spreadsheet which contained the warehouse stock on hand. He also distributed a list of the items due to arrive on the next road train along with the ETA for each. 

My manager would spend a lot of time looking through the stock, checking levels and then re-ordering, hoping he caught the next road train. All stock items had a min/max level, but certain items (eg. elution pump shafts), were usually used up long before the road train arrived, prompting the need for hand-carry or air freight.

The expected lifespan was known for our pump liners. During my time there we never had an issue, except when a change in the process caused us to use up 6 months’ supply of liners in 6 weeks. 

Jaw crusher liners were bought from a Russian manufacturer, and invariably the liners (especially the swing jaw) wore out before their replacement liners arrived.

Booking out stock from the warehouse was simple; any item removed was updated on the Excel spreadsheet. Adding new stock items was also relatively simple, with a carbon copy book used and various signatures required before the item “officially” became stores stock.

Finding a cost-effective solution

When I joined the team, the mine had been running (in Western hands) for around 8 years. The systems had not been developed past the rudimentary ones for the warehouse. Due to the extreme financial constraints the mine was under, no huge expenditure was ever going to happen, but thanks to some creative (and cost-effective) problem solving, a few improvements were still possible.

critical spares list would have been of great assistance, as would an asset management plan, as we were frequently caught without certain components, or hit with multiple failures and no/ limited spares to repair the issues. Even a basic equipment inspection schedule would have allowed a small shift from the 100% reactive maintenance the mine ran on.

A Root Cause Analysis (RCA) procedure – particularly in the case of the elution pump, where shafts were swapped out on an almost weekly basis – would have eliminated the need to stock replacement components of “bad actors” by solving the issues rather than reacting to the symptoms. 

An audit of the way maintenance was carried out would have eliminated a few maintenance tasks, which despite using incredibly expensive materials, had become “the norm”.

Looking to improve your maintenance processes?

Any or all of these options would have returned a great deal of value to the mine’s operations, for a relatively small upfront cost. The insight gained from speaking to those on the shop-floor level can often highlight the right systems to target, and the right methods and tools to use – there is no template solution that can apply to every organisation.

For this reason we aim to engage those on the shop floor during our consulting assignments, in order to best understand where improvements may lie. If that approach sounds good to you, consider reading more about our capability to assist you and your organisation.

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