Business

Modernising the mines

Read time 8min 10sec
Justin Ludik, Axis Communications.
Justin Ludik, Axis Communications.

It’s hard to underplay the importance of the mining sector to South Africa. Historically, it’s been a key provider of exports, jobs and economic growth, but the country has struggled to come to terms with an industry that’s inevitably shrinking as reserves dry up. There’s an acceptance from government that the sector needs to modernise if it’s to survive and thrive – and an understanding that it has to be done in a way that’s sensitive to the communities that rely on mines for their livelihood.

Reconciling these two needs technologists to come on board too. So to understand how the IT industry is interacting with mining firms – and how they can do it better – Brainstormconvened a roundtable of experts.

“There’s been a big change in the industry,” says Rudi Dreyer, head of Mining and Management at 4Sight. “A couple of years ago, everyone was working within individual divisions on standalone projects, but now, there is total boardroom engagement. If a proposal doesn’t fit a firm’s overall strategy, it won’t fly.”

The change is being driven by global trends, says Jacques Wessels CEO of FlowCentric Technologies. “From Australia and the US, we see the creation of new roles, digitalisation officers who are driving strategies forward. It’s not just about software, it’s about devices, the Internet of Things (IoT), getting data and making a group more profitable. The push is towards real-time decision-making at the rockface that can be implemented before the next shift.”

Gerhard Olivier, First Technology National.
Gerhard Olivier, First Technology National.

There’s still a big gap between what’s theoretically possible, however, and what can be implemented today.

“There’s a big disconnect between what we as an industry are selling and what the mines are getting,” says Andries van den Berg, business manager at Decision Inc. “It’s to do with how mature the organisation is to embrace new information and systems. A lot of mining companies aren’t willing to do a study to understand where they are in the information maturity curve, to understand what innovation they’re able to consume today. When you do that, you implement technology to move up the curve. You have to be prepared to say, ‘You’re not ready for this system now, so let’s get you on Excel for starters’.”

Shaun Richard, Platform45.
Shaun Richard, Platform45.

“They know they have to digitise, but where do they start and how much will it cost? Where is the value going to come from?” asks Dreyer. “You have to have a methodology to grab the low-hanging fruit and show impact on the bottom line, so that the company has something they can use to find funds for the next initiative.”

“We almost got thrown out of a sales meeting where we pitched an idea to an HR team about using data to predict who may not turn up to work tomorrow,” says Karl Dinkelmann, director: Data Enablement, BI and Analytics, AccTech. “The answer was, ‘I can't even see who's at work today’. This was an insight into where the company actual was in terms of digital maturity.”

As a result, many companies have been burned by investing in inappropriate and un-integratable solutions.

Julie Tregurtha, OpenText.
Julie Tregurtha, OpenText.

This has been a challenge, says Jean-Jacques Verhaeghe, programme manager for Real-Time Information Management Systems at the Mandela Mining Precinct, and is one that his organisation has been specifically set up to address. The Mining Precinct, Verhaeghe explains, aims to help develop frameworks and standards for technology in mining.

“Traditionally, OEMs have seen mining as a cash cow,” Verhaeghe says. “There are lots of white elephants sitting in mining companies as a result. That’s why they’ve asked us to develop standards that suppliers of IoT or operational technology or software or data will have to comply with, de-risking the process of investment for them.”

As an example of how common standards can help keep technology appropriate, Verhaeghe points to the challenge of underground networks.

Jacques Wessels, FlowCentric Technologies.
Jacques Wessels, FlowCentric Technologies.

“One of the major issues right now is underground communications in South Africa’s deep mines. That hasn’t yet been fully cracked up to the stope (blasting) area,” he says. “So companies are sold all kinds of equipment and promises on the premise that this problem has been solved. In many cases, products aren’t intrinsically safe and the coding isn’t up to scratch. We want to challenge all of that – our problem is that we can’t do it quickly enough.”

4Sight’s Dreyer adds that even devices being sold aren’t always up to the task and designed for industrial environments.

Still, things are getting better.

“My perception around this is that if you look back five to 10 years, we've come a long way,” says Julie Tregutha, regional VP of sales for Africa at OpenText. “Not so long ago, we asked someone how they know what their production figures are today, or the number of safety incidents today. He answered that he looked out of his office window at the big board that was being manually updated. That was the extent of their business intelligence 10 years ago. Today, mining companies have advanced, and execs know that there are better ways of doing things.”

Rudi Dreyer, 4Sight.
Rudi Dreyer, 4Sight.

Learn the drill

What all the roundtable participants agree on is that in order to deliver innovation to mines, technology firms need to spend more time understanding working conditions.

“I remember doing a proof of concept for a company that was very excited about mobile and tablets, but when someone had to take the equipment underground, they couldn’t see the screen,” says Tregutha. “They just wanted a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ rather than lots of data. You have to work with users and learn and educate; you can’t just talk to senior people and pitch.”

You have to be prepared to say ‘you’re not ready for this system now, so let’s get you on Excel for starters’.

Andries van den Berg, Decision Inc.

“You need to be onsite and see it onsite,” says Decision Inc’s Van den Berg. “You don't know what's going on from the Joburg office.”

“One of our team did a day in the life of a foreman,” says AccTech’s Dinkelmann. “He got a real picture of what it's like to run a mine. That's what this calls for.”

Smart systems have to be simple systems, says Axis Communications’ business development manager Justin Ludik.

“What we've seen in physical access is that there are so many systems, it confuses the operators and the managers; you need to unify many different systems to make sense of the data.

Noel Wait, IoT.nxt.
Noel Wait, IoT.nxt.

“That's where automation takes place, with deep learning and so on. It needs to make sense of the data so that if there’s an incident with access control, for example, an operator knows what to do,” says Ludik.

“We can't take technology and think it's a magic solution,” agrees 4Sight’s Dreyer. “If I want to introduce tech in a processing plant, I need metallurgists and chemists to be part of the design process.”

“There’s this dream and strategic objective where every foreman is wandering around with a tablet to help make the right decisions in real-time for his role,” says Dinkelmann “With the top two or three foremen, that’s a simple discussion, but the further down the line you go, the more the level of education is a challenge.”

Education is a challenge, but it’s not a panacea, warns the Mandela Precinct’s Verhaeghe. Especially when it comes to the issue of the perception that technology will lead to job losses.

“Training people isn’t enough,” Verhaeghe says. “There are deep legacy and cultural issues and you have to help people understand what you’re doing. You have to address their fear of innovation.”

Andries van den Berg, Decision Inc.
Andries van den Berg, Decision Inc.

Technology, for example, also promises to make mines safer as well as more productive. Noel Wait, key account manager at IoT.nxt, points out that for mine owners, the single biggest threat they face is being closed down for 24 hours or more because of a safety incident. The costs, he says, can be R150 million a day.

Jean-Jacques Verhaeghe, Mandela Mining Precinct.
Jean-Jacques Verhaeghe, Mandela Mining Precinct.

“I don’t think we’ve had a single meeting where the first question is not, ‘How does this affect our safety?’” Wait says. He adds that better data can help workers in other ways too, enabling managers to focus on performance metrics for workers rather than straightforward costs.

Ultimately, says Platform45 CEO Shaun Richard, the opportunity for firms that engage South African mines is to become world leaders.

“Our mining industry has been world-class for years; it’s slipped recently, but our standards for steel and concrete are the best in the world,” he says. “If we can find a way to digitalise what we do in mining and offer that IP to other industries and sectors, we could lead again.”
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