With technology advancing rapidly across industries, particularly those that are considered ‘behind the curve’, it is important that the mining industry ensures it chooses the correct digital solutions.
One company that is getting it right is global PGMs and gold miner Sibanye-Stillwater. GERARD PETER spoke to head of technology, ALEX FENN on the sidelines of the recent Wits DigiMine Seminar about how the company remains a digitisation front runner in the mining sector.
It can be argued that prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the mining industry was slow to adopt to new technologies. However, long before the sector had to learn to mine in the ‘new normal’, Sibanye-Stillwater embarked on a digital transformation journey to improve productivity and enhance safety at its operations.
The company adopted a ‘digital first’ approach – one that not only adopts innovation and digital technology but creates structures and processes that support digital transformation.
The company also recognises the importance of external expertise when choosing the right technologies for its operations.
It is for this reason that it has partnered with the Wits Mining Institute and developed the DigiMine Laboratory.
DigiMine is a one-of-its-kind laboratory complete with a mock mine that simulates actual underground mining conditions and enables researchers to develop and test digital systems in a simulated environment.
Fenn explains that the research that comes out of DigiMine gives the company a lens into the future of digitisation. “The bulk of the research will not be seen in a commercial form for another three to five years. Our partnership with Wits ensures that we understand what underpins these technologies and makes them appropriate for our business before we can consider implementing them. The research outcomes give us an understanding about what we can adopt now and what we need to adopt going forward,” he states.
Fenn points out that another element that has been extremely valuable is the multidisciplinary nature of the DigiMine programme. “It incorporates other faculties such as medical science, data science, mathematics and finance. This gives us access to skills sets that we may not have internally.”
Keeping it simple
While there will always be a need to review technology requirements in a mining operation, Fenn advises that it is also important to stick to the basics. A case in point is using data to improve safety at Sibanye-Stillwater’s gold mines. “Rather than continue to engineer out risks, leveraging data allows us to understand behavioural trends and implement highly effective behaviour-related interventions in order to improve safety.”
Another example of how sticking to the basics is the company’s solution to a problem encountered by employees during training. “Our training material is in English, a language that is extremely abstract if not your first language and where words and phrases can be misinterpreted. As a result, certain operating procedures can be misinterpreted.
“By using very basic tools to identify where there may be misinterpretation of procedures, we identified areas where our training may be ambiguous. Subsequently, we decided to change the wording and the net effect was that most employees were then properly interpret the procedures,” explains Fenn.
No doubt digitisation also requires new skill sets. And while some companies will look to fulfil these new roles on a permanent basis, Sibanye-Stillwater remains focused on its core business and therefore prefers to partner with companies and institutions who can provide these services.
“For example, it would make no sense for us to hire a specific skillset and that person takes an extended time to do the work that a specialist company or institution, with a larger and more capable skillset, can do in a much shorter time. We will also not necessarily need certain skillsets all the time so it’s an under-utilised asset from a resource perspective,” Fenn adds.
There is no silver bullet when it comes to the digital transformation journey. However, what is key is how a company adapts to this new way of mining. By investing in initiatives such as DigiMine, Sibanye-Stillwater is able to choose the right digital solutions that ensure that it will continue to remain as one of the world’s leading PGM producers.