Way before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic, mining consulting firm VBKOM was already looking at ways to improve its service offering.
As a result, the company has adopted a number of new technologies, as well as restructured itself into more focussed, discreet business units . GERARD PETER finds out more from director EDUAN PIETERSE.
As part of ensuring that it can service its clients efficiently the company has placed a strong emphasis on business continuity using the latest technology.
“We have always been very adamant with our consultants that all data is backed up. Prior to COVID-19, we switched over to a cloud-based solution which allows for greater collaboration within the team.
“This has helped tremendously during the pandemic as we would have struggled if we were using the traditional way of accessing a server while working remotely,” Pieterse adds.
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The company is also ensuring business continuity for its clients. A case in point is when VBKOM developed a COVID-19 business continuity programme (BCP) for a tier one company’s exploration division.
Developed in partnership with the client, the BCP outlines procedures to prevent damage, maintain productivity and ensure that personnel and assets are protected whilst allowing for the continuation of operations. It focused on three core areas, namely risk management, incidence response and recovery.
The risk management plan is centred on preventing COVID-19 infection and addresses travel, screening and de-densification arrangements.
The incident response plan focuses on preventing further infection and transmissions and includes quarantine/isolation measures as well as scenario planning for essential and non-essential personnel.
Finally, the recovery plan describes actions and timelines to achieve operational readiness after shutdown.
One size doesn’t fit all
From a technical perspective, the challenges that mining companies face are similar. However, Pieterse explains that you cannot take the cookie cutter approach. Each project and client is unique and their governance requirements are different.
“We work with a range of clients, from junior mining companies right up to blue chip listed companies who put a strong focus on governance. From our side, we try to streamline our processes to make it cost-effective and ensure that we can deliver as fast as possible.”
“Certain mines and ore bodies can be very tricky and you can’t approach these projects in the traditional way. You need to spend time navigating the various complexities with the client and guide them,” he adds.
It is for this reason that Pieterse avers that technology is playing an ever increasing role in mining operations.
“We have been fortunate enough to land a string of projects in the automation space, specifically autonomous mining and hauling. All our clients are faced with a number of challenges such as input costs continuously rising and needing more predictability in their operations, so automation is the way to go.”
He further adds that COVID-19 has highlighted that technology can actually ride out some of the storms that affect human beings. “You still need people to manage the technology but we are definitely on a track towards automation.”
Strengthening the case for automation
Pieterse concurs that the African mining sector does have challenges when it comes to implementing technology such as automation but he believes that it is easier to implement technology than to start a mining operation in the traditional way.
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“Previously, you had to create an entire town, building houses and putting in infrastructure so that the workers can operate the mine. Now, while you cannot completely eliminate the human element when it comes to mining, you can significantly reduce the human capital component by implementing technology.
“What’s more, if you look at labour cost and labour uncertainty as a result of strikes, this has hampered the mining sector in the past. We are not doing ourselves a favour by being difficult labourers and this has strengthened the case for automation.
“Already, the company is dealing with an expansion of a mine in the Northern Cape where the new expansion will be fully automated. This was a strict prerequisite where the client stated that the project can only go ahead if it is autonomous and it was approved on that basis.
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“Also, mining fleets have to be replaced so if you want to replace a haul truck that costs millions of rands and use the same infrastructure for the next five years, then you need to give careful consideration if you want that truck to be manned, automated or a combination of the two,” Pieterse adds.
“We believe that more companies will start looking at a hybrid solution starting with a small autonomous fleet and then slowly progressing towards having a larger automated fleet.
“We see it already happening and the success of the early adopters of technology will see the rest catching up,” he concludes.