There can be little doubt that the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has been an accelerant for the adoption of technology in mining.

However, while the benefits are clear to see, TIM WALWYN, head of Siemens Minerals Solutions South Africa advises that companies need to take a long-term approach when implementing new technologies. GERARD PETER reports.

This article first appeared in Mining Review Africa Issue 1, 2021
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Walwyn starts by saying that the last few months of 2020 have really forced companies to take steps towards implementing digital solutions that they may have been thinking about for a while.

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“COVID-19 has forced companies into a situation where they have had to adapt. “Some of the technologies companies may have been a wary about in the past have in a short space of time with a little more consideration, shown that they really do add value to their operations.”

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According to Walwyn, there is no looking back for the mining industry as it permanently adjusts to operating in the ‘new normal’, however, at the same it will require a different approach when it comes to adopting technology.

“Many of the technological changes that organisations have made over the past few months have been purely in response to an unprecedented emergency situation.

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“I think companies are going to have to look at technology solutions that will enable them to work just as efficiently as they did previously by relying heavily on having expert personnel present on site.

So, this is an opportunity for the mining industry to realise some significant synergies and cost savings,” he explains.

One example of technology being adopted in a beneficial way is remote working. According to Walwyn, this was very prevalent in the early stages of lockdown as companies could not mobilise teams to get to site, particularly in remote areas.

As such, the sector saw a much wider adoption of remote service capabilities and remote connectivity into their technical systems on mine sites.

In a further effort to deal with the lack of personnel on site, technologies that enable virtual operations have been brought to the fore. This was particularly important when expert skills were required for service and maintenance tasks.

“For example, in the early stages of lockdown, if you had to mobilise a maintenance team from a different country to deal with a breakdown, it would have been extremely difficult to get them quickly to site because in many countries they would have been subjected to a two week quarantine. 

“As such, those companies that invested in preventive predictive maintenance technologies prior to the lockdown were at a real advantage because they were able to plan and mobilise their resources in time to manage problems before they occurred,” explains Walwyn.

No silver bullet

While there are a number of advanced solutions that makes use of technology such as artificial intelligence (AI) and virtual reality (VR), Walwyn cautions that companies should not get caught up in the ‘buzzwords’ of the day.

“Because of the hype around such technologies, everybody thinks they should be doing something with AI, for example. This sort of enthusiasm is rightly placed but can ‘jump the gun’ on really analysing what the right tool is for a particular application.

“For example, we have been using machine learning and AI in the field of predictive maintenance. However, this is not a silver bullet and it’s not the right solution to every problem experienced on a mine.”

Another common challenge that mines face is the amount of effort that has to go into collecting data and then processing, categorising and formatting it in a way that can actually be used to gain insight.

“These big data approaches don’t always work and a lot of companies think they can simply plug a box into their machines and analyse things for a couple of days and figure out exactly what’s wrong and in so doing solve a problem, but that’s just not going to work. They need to focus on having the right technical solution for the right problem, rather than chasing that buzzword.”

Furthermore, Walwyn points out that a lot of companies have been approaching technology solutions in a fairly unstructured way, investing in ‘small islands of technology’ that are only a solution to current problems.

“Companies need to take a step back and look at the bigger picture and determine what the end goal is and implement a step-by-step solution in a structured way towards that end goal,” he concludes.