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How digital is augmenting mining

Read time 5min 40sec
Hilton Eachus
Hilton Eachus

Sibanye-Stillwater, the world's largest primary producer of platinum, second largest primary producer of palladium and third largest producer of gold, launched its technology and innovation function in 2014. Alex Fenn, head of technology and innovation at the multinational mining group, says the idea was for this initiative to execute technology and innovation projects on behalf of business. But uptake at that stage was slow and it wasn’t realising the returns expected.

Four years later, the group reviewed its digital innovation strategy with the aim to create an enabling environment with empowered people and fit-for-purpose systems designed to support the adoption of technologies, both operationally and organisationally. And so what was created was a continuous innovation business function that solicits new ideas from across the operations and challenges the broader organisation to come up with creative solutions to the problems currently being experienced.

In 2021, this means focusing much of the research and development spend on digital transformation. Advances in machine learning, artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things can all be leveraged to improve decision-making and shorten the gap between identifying faults and coming up with solutions, he says. “We’ve been looking across other industries, leveraging their knowledge and learning from their experiences with digital innovations to solve problems that are specific to mining.”

I’d say it’s only 10% about the technology. What you’re using is actually irrelevant. It’s more about how you use it and who is using it.

For example, the mineral exploration process entails searching for evidence of minerals by drilling deep holes into the earth’s crust. The data gained via this drilling is then used to develop a more comprehensive geological picture of what deposits can be found under the ground. With technology such as machine learning, it’s possible to enhance your data sets without having to incur the cost of drilling additional holes. While Fenn acknowledges the potential of this smart tech, he stresses that the mining industry differs greatly from an industry like manufacturing because it has to deal with so much variability.

“We’ve done a number of investigative projects around applications for technologies like AI. What we know is that AI is contingent on retrospective analysis and a manageable amount of variability, otherwise the algorithm can’t recognise what’s going on. This means that you can only apply it at a very granular level.”

But this isn’t to say that these algorithms won’t add value to the business in the future, he adds. “We’re hoping to see concepts like AI and predictive maintenance pick up a lot more in the coming years.”

Strategic impact

As a business with a workforce of about 80 000 people, running a diverse set of operations spanning a wide range of commodities, any changes to existing processes can have a dramatic impact on the working lives, and livelihoods, of a lot of people.

Meet TARA

In November 2020, the Mandela Mining Precinct (MMP) and the Mining Equipment Manufacturers of South Africa (MEMSA) launched the Technology Availability and Readiness Atlas (TARA). TARA is an online portal (miningtara.co.za) that aims to make information about South African mining equipment and technology directly available, via a central portal, to the South African and international mining communities. The idea behind TARA is to promote locally produced mining technology across the industry. TARA also allows Original Equipment Manufacturers to showcase what they are currently developing. While these innovations may not be commercially available yet, TARA serves as a platform to explore further development partnerships and collaboration opportunities. 

A trained mechanical engineer, Fenn has been working in engineering and innovation at Sibanye-Stillwater for close to a decade. “I’m an engineer by trade so I’m really comfortable with the maths and science side of things, but now I’ve had to become more of a people person,” he says with a laugh, confessing that the shift in focus has been a major learning curve for him, one that he quite enjoys. “It’s nice to build something as an engineer because there’s a final, concrete product. When you do the kind of work I do now, your impact is more strategic and cultural, so it’s not really something that you can see or touch. But that doesn’t mean that it’s any less rewarding or less valuable.”

In line with this, Fenn says employees are the group’s greatest assets, and ensuring the safety of these people is a major focus for the mining brand. It recently ran what Fenn describes as a very ‘digitally archaic’ safety initiative to better understand workforce behaviour. The aim of the project was to test employee understanding of safety protocols to improve the wording of the safety procedures and policies. “When you’re working with people across 11 different languages, it’s not uncommon for there to be some ambiguity and misunderstanding around certain standards.”

Instead of relying mainly on the written word, it was decided to use different digital methodologies to identify and rectify ambiguity or misunderstanding, and to get the desired message across, like creating training videos to share safety information and ensuring that these were worded in a way that everyone can easily understand.

“When investing in safety, there aren’t any direct financial benefits, but the indirect financial benefits of having safe and healthy employees are enormous. We’re always pushing to develop new digital strategies to improve employee safety.”

A question of adoption

Do tech deployments put jobs at risk?
Many expect tech use across the mining industry to be ushered in alongside massive job losses, but Sibanye-Stillwater’s AlexFenn notes that the situation is more complex than that. Yes, there are segments of the workforce that will be out of a job with the rise of mechanised mining or digital optimisation. But one needs to consider the amount of people that will be required to support these systems, he says. And if the industry is able to use technology to boost overall efficiency, new operations can be opened and thus employment will ultimately go up. Around 75% of Sibanye’s workforce have roles in conventional mining operations, with no plans to mechanise these operations any time soon. As such, the approach to digital is more about understanding how smart tools and technologies can help optimise existing operations and improve how employees currently work.

Making the most of digital in mining demands understanding what’s possible and then deploying solutions accordingly. “I’d say it’s only 10% about the technology. What you’re using is actually irrelevant. It’s more about how you use it and who is using it.”

With the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we know that changes are happening at a rapid pace and it’s very hard to understand the impact of these changes until they’re on your doorstep, he says. “Someone who has spent 40 years doing metallurgy, and who is extremely proficient in his or her role, is likely to find it hard to understand how an algorithm developed by a young team fresh out of university can tell you more about your plant than previously understood through empirical methods.”

In mining, digital is about enhancing your understanding of what’s going on and then speeding up the rate at which you can execute and pivot based on these insights, Fenn says. Sibanye-Stillwater experienced this in so many ways with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. “One of the unexpected benefits of Covid is that it’s forced us to adopt more digital ways of working and opened the door to what’s possible using digital means,” he says. “Now, everyone is excited about digital and they all want to identify new technologies that will take what we used to do and enhance it.”

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