Intelligent mining unlocks valuable opportunities & cost savings

Intelligent mining unlocks valuable opportunities & cost savings

by Ina King (Potgieter) September 30, 2021

In 2019, I wrote about smart mining, where Industry 4.0 technology is utilised to enhance productivity and efficiency (I elaborated on the trend towards mechanisation and software automation). South African mines are investing in these technologies with the understanding that these improve personnel safety while enhancing productivity and efficiency.

I believe that COVID-19 has accelerated the technology-adoption process. However, local mines still lag behind their global counterparts, particularly where data integration and analysis are concerned. They also face unique labour issues and skills shortages.

Data analysis and integration: A multi-billion-rand opportunity

Last year, Accenture published a report which found that local mines are missing out on almost R51-billion in value creation simply because they have not invested in advanced data analytics and platform integration. It’s not enough to have AI, drones, autonomous equipment or underground connectivity. Mines must invest in the integration of these technologies (among the technology platforms themselves but also among the mine ecosystems), to achieve seamless, real-time visibility and control of operations. This is echoed in Deloitte’s mining and metals sector report, Tracking The Trends 2021: “Technological advances make organisational integration possible. Many miners need to clean up their data and integrate it across the value chain. Processes and workplaces should be reconfigured and an appropriate leadership and team culture established”.

Beyond integration, mines should invest in data analytics. Modelling, AI and simulations will demonstrate not only where inefficiencies can be remedied to drive throughput, but also where there are opportunities for improved production or cost reductions. In fact, McKinsey has found that SA mines could reduce costs by 20% and boost throughput by 6%, if they apply advanced analytics.

This raises a significant consideration for local mines: A digitally-enabled workforce. A recent Gartner survey established that the most significant barrier to the adoption of emerging technologies, is the shortage of skills and talent.

The benefits of integration and data analytics include:

  • Real-time, accurate monitoring & reporting on mine operations (including the performance of equipment or personnel)
  • Smarter workflows (lean & efficient) & improved profitability
  • More equipment uptime & fewer incidents
  • Effective asset management
  • More accurate demand forecasting & supply chain management
  • Predictive insights that enable proactive response to faults, downtime, maintenance, etc.

Mines need to employ the services of data scientists and decision-support specialists, to really unlock the potential benefits of not only their technology, but also their data. It’s also pertinent to note that the adoption of digital technology doesn’t have to make mining jobs redundant.

Job losses don’t have to be the inevitable result of digitisation

Mines are in the ideal position to roll out skills development programmes, re-training their personnel and equipping them as specialists in mechanisation, robotics, AI, digital technology or perhaps data analysts. This will not only ease the shift to digital (by shifting the corporate culture in the mining organisation), it will also fill any skills gap. Consider one of the findings of Accenture’s report, that “successful digitalised mining companies have aligned their workforce skills to their technologies of choice and have wisely chosen the right channels to close the skill gap in their organisation”.

But beware: Cybercrime

There’s another gap that mines will need to close, particularly as they invest in digitisation and connectivity: cyber security.

“Mines must understand the risks, which include hacking, corporate espionage, data theft and manipulation, as well as ‘hacktivism’ (a form of social or political activism that involves computer hacking). Mine management must adopt a proactive approach to these threats and must support an investment in cyber security. Especially as it’s estimated that cybersecurity initiatives in mines will help reduce costs of R3-billion.

The future of mining is bright, but it will demand organisational transformation, investment in new skills, technology and security.

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