Qotho, the provider of Proficiency Testing Schemes to mining companies in South Africa, the region and further afield, views the high expectations in the delivery of laboratory services from mining companies as a valuable opportunity for service providers to prove themselves.
A major change by the commodities downturn in the mining sector has led to sharp focus being placed on process optimisation and quality. Noticeably, this has not spared the provision of laboratory services. For operations to improve their recoveries, laboratories are under pressure to provide swift and accurate results.
Participation in proficiency testing is therefore critical for laboratories, as they need to provide evidence – internally, both to their customers and to the accreditation body (if ISO 17025 accredited) – that they are competent to do the analysis, and that their results are accurate.
Hannelie de Beer, the company’s managing director, has been observing the trajectory of trends in laboratory services in the aftermath of the commodities downturn. In addition to the Proficiency Testing schemes, Qotho manufactures and supplies Certified Reference Materials to the mining industry. The company regularly prepares matrix-matched material for clients, which can be used throughout the lifespan of the projects.
de Beer says Qotho is of the view that the situation calls for service providers to go-all-out in coping with evolving client demands. Commenting on the scale of the task on service providers’ hands, she says: “The implication for service providers, like us, is to ensure that our product-offering is fit for purpose and cost effective while still adhering to all the requirements of ISO 17043.”
Admittedly, to be able to cope, service providers need relevant capabilities in the development of proficiency testing schemes for different minerals and commodities, as well as verifying the proficiency testing benchmark employed. Given the complexity of mining requirements, service providers have their work cut out.
“Wrong analytical data can have serious implications on a mining project. Hence, regular participation in structured PT schemes is a minimum requirement for large mining projects. This is particularly relevant in laboratories that are involved in the analysis of samples for long-term exploration programs,” says de Beer.
For its part, Qotho strives to offer the exact requirements of each customer in the contemporary laboratory environment, particularly in the design of the PT scheme and integrity and addressing industry requirements.
- Design of Proficiency Testing schemes
Over and above the Proficiency Testing Schemes from an accredited service provider, the laboratories need certified reference materials, of similar matrix to the samples being analysed, to confirm their adherence to their internal procedures and QA/QC, on a daily basis.
Therefore, Qotho works closely with industry to ensure that the design of each PT Scheme sufficiently addresses the industry need. The greatest challenge for Qotho, as an international service provider, is to have a diversified range of commodity matrixes, and not simply use material sources from within South Africa. To handle this, the company requests sponsorship of material from all its clients, globally.
- Accreditation of service
As bare minimum, it is requisite for mining companies to use an accredited body. Qotho is accredited by SANAS (South African National Standard System) for ISO 17043, a standard that regulates how proficiency testing schemes should be operated. “Our accreditation has been in place since 2017 and our compliance to the standard, is assessed on an annual basis. Confidentiality, impartiality and integrity of the service, are key components of the standard,” explains de Beer. Moreover, Qotho has recently been assessed by SANAS, for compliance to ISO 17034 (Requirements for Reference material producers) and has been recommended for accreditation to the standard.
As far as possible, Qotho adheres to the requirement that, in proficiency testing, target values should be as close as possible to the true concentration value of the various elements. Qotho Proficiency testing schemes evaluate the performance of each laboratory against the assigned concentrations of the elements, which is based on the consensus value from the results obtained from all the labs and which is calculated using robust statistics, as recommended by ISO 13528.
“All laboratories partaking in a scheme are either mining operations within that specific commodity or are commercial or governmental laboratories servicing or regulating the industry. Their participation enables them to benchmark their performance and internal QA/QC parameters, against their peers within laboratory services.
“Should a laboratory consistently perform poorly or show a bias (either always reporting higher or lower than the assigned concentrations), internal investigations should be undertaken, to ascertain the root cause of the phenomenon,” says de Beer.
Qotho considers the disparity of results registered when different analytical methodologies are employed to be a normal phenomenon. As a general rule of thumb, the Qotho schemes do not distinguish between methodologies used. The company is of the opinion that laboratories should ensure, through appropriate calibration of their equipment, that – when doing analysis – the true concentration of a commodity is reported. “Matrix variation and adjustment of preparation procedures should be part of the method validation processes undertaken within the laboratories,” de Beer says.
However, on an on-going basis, Qotho monitors the data in its expansive database for potential trends between analytical methodologies used. Where trends are noticed, these are investigated and special periodic reports are produced and circulated, to communicate such long-term trends to the particular industry. Most of the Qotho PT schemes have been in operation since 2013/14, and as such, have a magnitude of data at its disposal, in most commodities that it covers.
- Speed and accuracy
Yet another test for service providers is accuracy and speed in the delivery of results for different laboratories. To manage this, Qotho prepares an annual proficiency testing schedule, which is made available to laboratories well in advance, in order to assist them with their annual planning.
This is published on its website. “We operate a strict program, both internally and with the laboratories, to keep to the published schedules. In order to optimise the processing of the analytical data, the evaluation of the laboratory performance and preparation of the PT reports, Qotho uses a statistical package developed in Germany, which is specifically designed for proficiency testing and laboratory data evaluations.
This package is validated by the supplier, on an annual basis. Not having to use spreadsheet-type applications such as excel, presents a huge benefit maintaining data integrity, and minimising potential errors in data processing,” states de Beer.
- Opportunities in challenges
Qotho views the demand that the commodities downturn has brought as an opportunity for service providers of proficiency testing schemes to prove themselves, and with Qotho’s resources, it is eager to play a pivotal role within this environment.