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Whether it’s in the halls of mining exhibitions or at dedicated seminars about the future of mining, all the talk is about the imminent Fourth Industrial Resolution (4IR).

The reality is that the new digital age is not about to happen – it already is happening.

What does this mean for mining? GERARD PETER spoke to BOKANG KELEPA, MD of Baletsema Mining Services about how 4IR will change the face of mining as we know it.

Kelepa, a mining engineer, organised the inaugural 4IR in Mining seminar in South Africa earlier this year.

Featuring both local and international expects from all sectors of the industry, the event attracted more than 100 delegates and provided the platform for discussing the execution of 4IR initiatives in the entire mining value chain, including automation, upskilling and HR concerns.

This article first appeared in Mining Review Africa Issue 10, 2019
Read the full digimag here or subscribe to receive a print copy here

The need to host a seminar was borne after Kelepa used to guest lecture about 4IR to students at universities.

“Often they would ask me in-depth questions that I didn’t have the answers to. As such, I decided to bring all the experts into a single venue to discuss this crucial subject,” he explains.

“Also, the aim of the seminar is to take a human-led approach and not allow technology to happen to us, which leaves us a victims.”

Now, while there has been plenty of take about the new age of mining, Kelepa explains that mining industry players – be they owners, unions or suppliers – don’t quite fully understand what 4IR means.

“Unions, for instance have stated that 4IR will result in job losses while companies are unsure what skillsets are needed in this new era of mining, both of which are not entirely true.”

The same, only different

Kelepa posits that rather than focus on ‘negative’ perceptions around job losses and inadequate skills, the industry needs to focus on the considerable benefits that digital automation brings.

He cites South Africa’s gold mining sector as a case in point explaining:

“Not only is it expensive to dig deeper to find new ore bodies but it is also a lot more dangerous. By using new technology such as robotic drills or automated vehicles, there is an opportunity to tap into new gold potential,” he adds.

He further points out that automating processes underground can also reduce the mining industry’s carbon footprint.

This can be done by processing minerals underground and then transporting them to the surface, thereby having a less harmful impact on the environment.

Meanwhile, Kelepa allays the fear from the workforce that 4IR will result in thousands of jobs losses. Rather, he echoes the views of many tech experts who say digital mines still require manpower, just with a different skills set.

“For example, 4IR provides an opportunity for the skilling of machine operators, which makes them for employable, not just in the mining sector but in this ever-increasing world of technology.”

What’s more, he states, that while there may be a reduction in the demand of traditional skills, 4IRcan make the industry attractive to Information and Communication Technology (ICT) graduates.

Industry playing catch-up

Addressing the Investing in African Mining Indaba in February this year, South African President Cyril Ramaphosa stated:

“As government plays its role in creating an environment in which mining thrives for the benefit of all our people, we urge the industry to take advantage of the technological advances underpinning the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

"I am encouraged by some of our mining houses that are already making use of technology – no longer for purposes of replacing people with machines – but fundamentally to improve efficiency, guarantee safety, produce a skilled workforce and, most importantly, preserve jobs.”

However, while many other industries have been leading the transition to the age of connectivity, AI and big data, mining experts agree that this industry has some catching up to, particularly when it comes to upskilling.

However, Kelepa believes that Africa is well positioned and equipped to adopt the 4IR. For example, he lists Rwanda as a country where universities are now starting to teach the principles of 4IR in their syllabi.

In South Africa, meanwhile, Wits University's Mining Institute’s Digital Mining Laboratory, sponsored by Sibanye Stillwater, is also playing a key role in preparing for the modernisation of mining.

In addition to upskilling, the continent is also making progress in advancing digital automation.

“For example, the Council for Scientific Research (CSIR) in collaboration with the Nelson Mandela Mining Precinct in South Africa has already made a number of technological breakthroughs in the areas of automated vehicles and robotic drills for mining operations,” Kelepa adds.

Such examples include the Monster, a battery operated robotic devise used to detected potential falls of ground; and the Dassie, and automated, intelligent robotic system uses sensors that can be used for tailings re-treatment.

Summing up, Kelepa believes that in order for mining companies to be profitable, they have to embrace 4IR.

“However, we need to eliminate the element of surprise when new technology is introduced. It is for this reason that the industry, government, consultants, financial houses, labour unions and tertiary institutes collaborate to ensure a smooth transition to the age of the digital mine, he concludes.