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Digitalisation key to unlocking mineral wealth

By some estimates, South Africa has as much as R35 trillion worth of untapped mineral wealth. Despite that, the country has in recent years not attracted sufficient investment to allow for new mines to be opened or for substantial exploration campaigns to be carried out.

One way to fuel new growth in the sector is for it to embrace digital transformation. Despite the unique challenges associated with South Africa’s mining conditions, embracing new technologies and digitally driven processes could result in mass benefits to the local mining sector.

That was the consensus at a recent mining roundtable hosted by Huawei and the Southern African Institute of Mining and Metallurgy (SAIMM), which featured experts from across the industry sharing some of the latest digital transformation trends in mining as well as their thoughts on how they could apply to South Africa.

According to Ulrich Graf, senior Engineer: Industry 4.0 and IIoT, at Huawei, the sector is rapidly moving towards a point where mine environments are “all connected, all sensing, and all intelligent.”

Leading these changes, he said, are global wireless connectivity standards like Wifi 6 and 5G which allow for much faster connections, improved reliability and latencies of less than 1 millisecond.

That allows for things like autonomous and remote-controlled trucks, excavators, and other vehicles. Importantly, it also allows for mines to embrace the “digital twin” concept. That is a virtual representation that serves as the real-time digital counterpart of a physical object or process. 

Embracing artificial intelligence, meanwhile, means that mines will be more productive and safer, thanks to things like real-time resource scheduling, allocation, optimisation and risk level estimation, making evacuation easier.

Foundational skills still a requirement

According to Jean-Jacques Verhaeghe, programme manager at Mandela Mining Precinct, digitalisation, technology research, development and innovation require a “unified and holistic approach”.

Meanwhile, Professor Barry Dwolatzky, director of Innovation Strategy at the University of the Witwatersrand, points out that developing skills for the future is partly about ensuring that educate people are still educated with foundational skills in areas like telecommunications, coding, modelling and data science. To this, newer areas such as AI and IoT should be added.

“When it comes to building those skills, there’s nothing particularly special about mining in terms of peak level skills. For most workers the technology must fit the skills of the users and it’s probably going to be possible to just pick up technologies and use them,” he added. 

While all the speakers acknowledge that the depth and design of most South African mines will make it difficult for them to be fully automated, they were all unequivocal about the potential impact that digital transformation could have on the country’s mining industry.

“By developing technological solutions that increase the safety and productivity, reduce the costs and ultimately extend the life of mines will work for the betterment of local communities associated with mining and for the country as a whole,” stated Verhaege.          

Huawei and MMP recently signed an MOU that allows the Minerals Council South Africa to install and test Wifi 6 kits in underground mines, in pursuit of a digitalised mining industry.