How is South Africa faring in the move towards developing more digitally transformed mines? Has COVID-19 accelerated this process and what is needed to take the industry forward in delivering stakeholder value through the adoption of modern techniques?

LAURA CORNISH sat down with SIETSE VAN DER WOUDE, senior executive: modernisation and safety at the Minerals Council South Africa to find out.

This article first appeared in Mining Review Africa Issue 11, 2020
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The Minerals Council, together with PWC and the Mandela Mining Precinct will soon launch an in-depth modernisation report that showcases where the South African mining industry stands at present in terms of technology adoption and how this is predicted to increase in the coming years.

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“Like all industries in the world – the mining sector is in the midst of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR). Today – there is on average about 28% implementation of various 4IR technologies – artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, extended reality, etc., in South Africa. We also estimate, conservatively, that this figure will at least double in the next five years,” Van der Woude indicates.

Read more about COVID-19

COVID-19 has certainly pushed the fast forward button in bringing 4IR to the fore for most mining companies. But those that had started their digitisation and modernisation journeys before were certainly best positioned to cope with the challenges presented by the pandemic.

The senior executive highlights some standout examples:

As a result of the COVID-19 screening and pre-health checks required for its personnel at Kumba Iron Ore’s Sishen mine, it was taking around four hours to get into the mine.

Read more about the impact COVID-19 has had on the mining industry

By automating this process using an app, done largely at home, Kumba Iron Ore has been able to reduce this time to about 35 minutes and is looking to cut this down further to around 20 minutes – with site requiring only verification of the screening result before entrance to the mine is granted.

The pandemic also saw coal miner Seriti create an engagement app, enabling CEO Mike Teke to engage with every employee directly – who sends out a message every week providing motivation and encouragement to his workforce.

Having ensured every person has sufficient data to use the app, Seriti has seen upwards of 80% adoption and use of the app which now includes additional communication around employment opportunities, health topics, etc.

“This is a remarkable commitment by the company, enabling the CEO to connect with every employee with the push of a button. This technology will long outlive COVID-19,” Van der Woude enthuses.

The pandemic also saw Impala Platinum adopt a double drill shift to some of its shafts – the result of operating with 50% of its workforce. “When operations resumed at 100% capacity, this new drill shift model was retained – and showcases that objectives that have long been in the pipeline can become a reality.”

“Generally speaking, our response to adapting in the face of a global pandemic has certainly been encouraging – the industry has shown its resilience, ingenuity and courage.

“Mining has always been a pioneering industry throughout the decades – and this crisis has shown it more clearly. But any progress we make as an industry moving forward must be matched by safer and more sustainable operations that create more value for all of stakeholders,” Van der Woude highlights.

Where to from here?

South Africa needs to invest more in innovation Van der Woude emphasises. “Our productivity has decreased by 7.6% over the last decade while costs have been increasing by 2 to 3% per annum above inflation. This is not sustainable and is preventing us from being globally competitive as an industry.”

In context of South Africa’s challenges, particularly around high unemployment levels and inequality – the country’s innovation must be people centric and technology must remove barriers and improve the relationship between people, equipment, materials and now data as well. “Every individual and every community must benefit from modernisation practices and this is the ambition of the Minerals Council.”

According to Van der Woude, South Africa faces two primary challenges with regards to technology adoption – the need to innovate further and the need to ensure a socially just, inclusive and ecologically sustainable industry.

In this regard, he highlights five practical interventions that require action, as quickly as possible, namely:

  1. At a strategic level South Africa needs people-centric, 4IR-enabled solutions that make it more globally competitive;
  2. This links to innovation capacity – the country needs to dramatically accelerate and transform capacity building programmes to bring it back to global leadership position;
  3. The industry requires proactive engagement with public private partnerships like the Mandela Mining Precinct to help facilitate modernisation and bridge the gaps between all the stakeholders of mining;
  4. The industry needs innovation infrastructure where innovators can test their research and work to produce globally competitive products; and
  5. All these areas need multi-source investment with the delivery of financial benefits.