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The mining industry, modernised

The MMP seeks to revitalise mining research, development and innovation. Here’s what it’s doing to ensure the sustainability of the mining industry.
Read time 7min 10sec

Currently, the country’s very deep mines (like gold and platinum) are getting deeper and deeper. This increases costs, complexity (more infrastructure needed in very deep mining conditions) and safety risks. In addition, the orebodies (a connected mass of ore in a mine) being mined are quite narrow, which means that conventional mining equipment is not as effective as it could be. According to Beeuwen Gerryts, chief director for technology localisation, beneficiation and advanced manufacturing at the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), couple these challenges and complexity with the fact that commodity prices haven’t increased in recent years, and you have a highly unsustainable industry.

Unless something changes. Innovation, modern mining equipment, mechanisation and digital technologies can create entirely new mining techniques, which, in turn, open opportunities to ensure the future of the sector.

The Mandela Mining Precinct (MMP) is a public-private partnership between the DSI and the Minerals Council, jointly hosted by the Minerals Council and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). The initiative was launched in 2018 to revitalise mining research, development and innovation in order to ensure the sustainability of the industry.

Strategic advisor to the MMP, Dick Kruger, says the local mining industry can’t be viewed as a single homogenous blob. “Every mine is very different, with different minerals, different types of people and different types of technologies. Our underground coal mines, for example, are some of the most advanced in the world. They’re totally mechanised and have been for many years. On the other end of the scale, the deep-level gold and platinum mines, which is where the MMP concentrates its efforts, are still drilling blast holes by hand,” he says.

When we talk about modernisation, red flags go up around labour.

Beeuwen Gerryts, Department of Science and Innovation

Understanding the differences that exist from one mine to another means that modernisation can take many shapes and forms. For example, on some iron ore mines, the drill operators don’t even go underground, but operate their drills from an office miles away, he explains. On other mines, the latest computer programmes have been deployed to determine mining sequences and support mining patterns to prevent rock bursts (when rocks are suddenly ejected from the rock face due to increased stress on the surrounding rocks).

Connectivity

We’ve also seen drones being used as part of a mine’s collision prevention efforts, adds Johan le Roux, director of the MMP. “When large trucks and other bulky equipment moves through the mine, it isn’t easy for the driver to see what’s around and they can easily miss another vehicle heading towards them. Drones add another layer of visibility, preventing accidents from happening underground.”

According to Kruger, one of the cornerstones of these modernisation efforts is connectivity. “In the near future, we envisage that everyone from a first-line supervisor to a manager will have something like an iPad with all the information they need available to them at the press of a button or with the swipe of a touchscreen. But when you’re underground, you can’t have equipment with a bunch of wires running everywhere. And it’s no use to give someone a digital tool and they have to run around to find connectivity.” As such, the MMP has carried out extensive testing of WiFi systems in partnership with local telcos with the aim to dramatically improve the connectivity available to people working underground, he adds.

The MMP’s key objectives

According to the Department of Science and Innovation’s Beeuwen Gerryts, the research, development and innovation programmes undertaken by the MMP include:- Ensuring the longevity of current mining - Boosting use of mechanised mining systems, where possible - Advancing orebody knowledge - Implementing real-time information management systems - Successfully applying technologies centred around people. 

Beyond the advancements happening underground, the industry is also looking to leverage technologies to improve the mining industry’s supply chain. The Technology Availability and Readiness Atlas (TARA) has been dubbed the AutoTrader magazine of South African mining equipment, developed by the Mandela Mining Precinct in partnership with the Mining Equipment Manufacturers of South Africa. The online platform links local original equipment manufacturers in the mining industry to mining houses, and, as such, TARA affirms government and industry commitment to localisation.

Before TARA, many of the local manufacturers of mining-related equipment struggled to find customers because nobody knew they existed, says Kruger. “Today, a mining facility can open TARA and search for a drill, for example, and instantly be connected with a wide range of local mining equipment manufacturers that have the tools they need.”

The MMP is also tasked with identifying what the industry needs to prepare mines of today for the future.

Where there was nothing just a few years ago, today we have a strong partnership that’s making a real impact.

Johan le Roux, MMP

One identified need is enabling different industry stakeholders to access what Le Roux describes as a ‘test mine’.

“This underground testing facility will be a place where industry, universities, private entities and councils like the CSIR can run tests in real mining conditions as part of their innovation and R&D processes. “Currently, there’s no way that a major operational mine will stop their production for someone to come and test something because it’s too expensive so this will greatly help to the industry’s innovation efforts.”

Mechanisation done right

For Gerryts, the MMP's contribution to the industry is evident in various areas, but is most prevalent in efforts made to understand the value of technologies that are enablers of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, technologies like AI, cloud, IoT, close man-machine interfaces and 3D printing, among others. If mining environments and systems are monitored and modelled in real-time with smart sensors tracking multiple data sets, this information can be plugged into machine learning algorithms to predict where the optimal mining deposits might be or where the best mining conditions exist.

“In 2020, the MMP partnered with PwC to conduct a survey around the mining industry’s readiness to adopt 4IR technologies. The results reveal that the industry is not only ready for it, but is not resistant to the changes we know 4IR will bring,” says Kruger. “Obviously, making this happen is not as simple as flipping a switch, but there is interest in these new and different ways of working.”

Without technology, the global mining industry is dead in the water.

Dick Kruger

While technological solutions are vital, what’s equally crucial is the need for all people in the mining industry to upskill the existing workforce in order to operate more advanced equipment, to deal with digitised operational systems and to be able to leverage machine learning insights to increase production and safety, notes Gerryts. “When we talk about modernisation, red flags go up around labour. But it’s important that we take people with us through this modernisation so that everyone understands the thinking and reasoning behind it, as well as the value and benefits of this strategy in the long term.”

Gerryts, Kruger and Le Roux all agree that this sort of initiative wouldn’t be possible without support from different stakeholders working across the sector. “Public-private partnerships are very important,” notes Le Roux. “The private sector knows what’s needed and often has the foresight around what’s coming over the mountain. They know what the industry must prepare for, be it technical or infrastructure requirements, and where the opportunities lie. Public sector partners, on the other hand, have the reach to bring the right parties to the table so that they can promote initiatives that will hopefully have a positive impact on other national objectives.”

For Le Roux, the MMP is a great example of this. “Where there was nothing just a few years ago, today we have a strong partnership that’s making a real impact.” And technology plays a major role in these partnerships. “Without technology, the global mining industry is dead in the water,” says Kruger.

Le Roux agrees. “I always say – no innovation, no future. Innovation is the key to the mining industry’s competitiveness, market readiness and future growth.”

* This feature was first published in the April edition of ITWeb's Brainstorm magazine.

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