Belfast mine business unit manager LONDOLANI RAMPFUMEDZI, appointed to his role in May 2020, is a proponent of using technology to improve the way things are done. This attitude mirrors diversified mining company Exxaro’s approach in adding value and providing opportunities for growth through the use of technology – something that the company has successfully achieved at its Belfast coal mine in Mpumalanga, writes CHANTELLE KOTZE.

Exxaro’s decision to embark on a modernisation journey began in 2012. This aligns to the company’s 2026 strategy aimed at remaining relevant in the changing world in which it operates. It was this “mine of the future” concept that drove the development of the company’s digitalisation strategy. 

This article first appeared in Mining Review Africa Issue 1, 2021
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According to Rampfumedzi, the “mine of the future” concept became a reality after various studies were concluded and the R3.3 billion Belfast Implementation Project was approved for construction.

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Construction began in November 2017, the operations team was on-boarded and the digital and connected mine produced first coal six months ahead of schedule in September 2019, with nameplate capacity achieved in October 2019.

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At Belfast, Exxaro will mine the last substantial coal deposits remaining in the 100-year old Mpumalanga coalfields. With a 17 year life-of-mine, Belfast will produce about 2.2 Mtpa of A-grade, export quality coal grading at 6 000 kcal/kg and 500 000 tpa of secondary quality grading at 21.5 MJ/kg.

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“Belfast opened our eyes to what is possible and the boundaries that we can push as we continue to deliver value from the business,” says Rampfumedzi, noting that the mine has made massive strides in the areas of real-time decision making and productivity improvement through remote monitoring and tracking of all devices and performance data.

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“For us it is not only about introducing technology for the sake of digital transformation, but rather for the value we can unlock from the process,” he notes.

A truly digital mine

Belfast was the first of its kind in South Africa to have a “digital twin” – a complete digital replica of the mine that will enable the relevant people to connect to and manage it from anywhere in the world.

The digital twin was also used in the development of the entire mine and its scope, in order to proactively train, monitor, analyse, and simulate physical asset performance and pre-empt failure and disruption to the operation.

According to Rampfumedzi, while most of the benefit of having a digital twin has been realised in the processing plant environment, the information is not limited to this environment alone because the very same information can be used to inform other dependent value streams within the mining value chain.

Having since ensured that the digital infrastructure at Belfast is in place and that all the required equipment, assets and end points are deployed, Exxaro now has the ability to visualise all of the aspects of the Belfast mine value chain.

This diagnostic capability has enabled Exxaro to de-bottleneck and optimise the Belfast value chain in near real-time. The benefit of this has been better co-ordination between mining and processing as well as increased production throughput, says Rampfumedzi.

Moreover, Exxaro has been able to better manage and execute maintenance. Through identity access management and privileged access management platforms the engineering teams have instant access to all information relating to their work when in the field, including remote assistance.

The use of virtual reality training on the plant processes and its components has also significantly improved the competency of the company’s skilled workers. The virtual reality training has also led to improved training turnaround periods, says Rampfumedzi.

The Belfast management team is now focused on the enterprise-wide integration of the Belfast business unit. This is being done to digitalise all aspects within the mining value chain and link them throughout the wider Exxaro organisation.

The objective is to provide visibility of the mine’s operational and business performance to the right stakeholders, at the right time, through in-time integrated reporting and analysis to facilitate better and faster operational, tactical, and strategic decision making.

Rampfumedzi warns that despite the clear benefits of digital technologies, the adoption of these technologies and the change management required for the success of the digital transformation is a challenge that should not be overlooked.

Digital transformation journies can often be misconceived as being digital deployment projects, when in fact it is a transformation programme that impacts all areas of a business such as governance, culture, policies, processes, skills and capabilities.

As a result, all of these areas require significant effort, leadership and investment for it to be a success, Rampfumedzi emphasizes.

Taking its digital strategy forward

Having laid the foundation for digital transformation through the Belfast Implementation Project, Exxaro has implemented a group-wide business strategy for adoption and execution by the respective business units within Exxaro, with the digitalisation programme as a core enabler.

The digitalisation programme varies from operation to operation and is geared at addressing the unique bottlenecks faced at each respective operation in order to achieve the desired business outcome. To do this, each operation currently has a sound data management and analysis process in place to proactively and efficiently manage business performance.