How can South Africa’s mines embrace digital transformation?

Issue 5 2021 Mining (Industry)

By some estimates, South Africa has as much as R35-trillion worth of untapped mineral wealth. Despite that, the country has in recent years not attracted sufficient investment to allow for new mines to be opened or for substantial exploration campaigns to be carried out.

One way to fuel new growth in the sector is for it to embrace digital transformation. Despite the unique challenges associated with South Africa’s mining conditions, embracing new technologies and digitally-driven processes could result in mass benefits to the local mining sector.

That was the messaging from a mining round table hosted by Huawei and The Southern African Institute of Mining and Metallurgy (SAIMM), which featured experts from across the industry sharing some of the latest digital transformation trends in mining as well as their thoughts on how they could apply to South Africa.

Professor Barry Dwolatzky.

According to Ulrich Graf, senior engineer: Industry4.0 and Industrial IoT, at Huawei, we are rapidly moving towards a point where mine environments are “all connected, all sensing, and all intelligent”.

Leading these changes, he says, are global wireless connectivity standards like Wi-Fi 6 and 5G which allow for much faster connections, improved reliability and latencies of less than 1 millisecond.

That allows for things like autonomous and remote-controlled trucks, excavators and other vehicles. Importantly, it also allows for mines to embrace the ‘digital twin’ concept. That is a virtual representation that serves as the real-time digital counterpart of a physical object or process.

Embracing artificial intelligence, meanwhile, means that mines will be more productive and safer, thanks to things like real-time resource scheduling, allocation, optimisation and risk level estimation, making evacuation easier.

Ulrich Graf.

According to Jean-Jacques Verhaeghe, programme manager at Mandela Mining Precinct, digitalisation, technology research, development and innovation require a ‘unified and holistic approach’.

The industry, he says, needs to “contribute towards the national skills development imperative and look for solutions that leverage hyper-connectivity”.

Professor Barry Dwolatzky, director of innovation strategy at the University of the Witwatersrand, points out that developing skills for the future is partly about ensuring that we continue to educate people with foundational skills in areas like telecommunications, coding, modelling and data science. To this we should add newer areas of specialisation such as AI and IoT.

When it comes to building those skills, he believes that there’s “nothing particularly special about mining in terms of peak level skills”.

Additionally, he says, the industry needs to address fears that the adoption of technology will result in job losses. “People immediately fear they’re going to be replaced by robots,” he says. “As smart as robotics is, there are still things people do better.”

Instead, he says, it should be viewed as something that allows machines to take on dangerous tasks.

While all the speakers acknowledge that the depth and design of most South African mines will make it difficult for them to be fully automated, they were all unequivocal about the potential impact that digital transformation could have on the country’s mining industry.

“By developing technological solutions that increase the safety and productivity, reduce the costs and ultimately extend the life of mines, will work for the betterment of local communities associated with mining and for the country as a whole,” says Verhaege.

Huawei and the Mandela Mining Precinct recently signed an MOU that allows the Minerals Council South Africa, through the MMP and Huawei, to install and test Wi-Fi 6 kits in underground mines in pursuit of a digitalised mining industry. Planning is also underway that will enable research teams to define and test various scenarios at a suitable mine in South Africa.

The Mandela Mining Precinct is a public-private collaboration between the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) and the Minerals Council of South Africa. It is an initiative aimed at revitalising mining research, development and innovation in South Africa to ensure the sustainability of the industry.

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