Digital technology allows Sibanye-Stillwater to focus the right human and financial resources, on the right task, at the right time

Precious metals miner Sibanye-Stillwater may be operating some of the oldest gold mines in South Africa, but it believes in the deployment of digital technology.

When implemented effectively, technology will improve operational efficiencies (and hence lowers costs) which in turn could enable the company to extend the life of some operations by converting more of its resources to economically extractable reserves which could ensure the realisation of greater value from its assets.

ALEX FENN, Sibanye-Stillwater’s head of technology and innovation speaks to LAURA CORNISH to tell her more.

“We believe that appropriate technology is an enabler of transformational change but the organisational ability to rapidly adopt disruptive technology will be the differentiator between success and failure,” Fenn starts.

This article first appeared in Mining Review Africa Issue 10, 2019
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“At Sibanye-Stillwater we also believe that the true value of these technologies lies in the ability to leverage the collective intelligence of the organisation.”

Consequently, the company’s primary goals in delivering effective digital technologies is creating an enabled environment with empowered people and fit-for-purpose systems that accelerate the adoption of technologies.

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“Digital technologies allow us to focus the right human and financial resources, on the right task, at the right time. In every respect, it allows us to yield maximum value from deployed resources in a safe and sustainable manner,” explains Fenn.

With those parameters in place, the incorporation of digital technology must deliver measurable operational value-add results. For Sibanye-Stillwater, initiatives are evaluated using metrics such as safety improvements, quality and volume increases and cost reductions.

Broadening horizons delivers quick results

What makes digital technology so exciting is that unlike conventional mining technology, mining companies are now able to look beyond their own industries for solutions that have already been successfully incorporated in other business and industrial sectors.

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Generally speaking, the mining sector has been slow to adopt new technologies. Nonetheless, the benefit of this is that those technologies are now considered tried and tested and this increases implementation confidence.

“Due to this inter-industrial application of digital technologies, the rate of development is orders of magnitude higher, meaning we are able to bring value to book within months instead of the years we are used to. This makes the remaining life of an operation less of a concern when considering investment in value-enhancing technologies,” Fenn outlines.

“In addition, the aggregated investments are relatively negligible, returns materialise in the short-term and, generally, in orders of magnitude more than invested. The combination of all these factors means that there are still significant value enhancements to be made to our mines, despite the phase of an operation.”

Fit-for-purpose digital technologies

With a mine-to-market strategy, Sibanye-Stillwater’s primary value chain is “uniquely complex” and supported by a considerable set of ancillary services. Different parts of the business are at differing levels of digital maturity and require a tailored approach to digital initiatives.

“Our metallurgical facilities, for example, generate a considerable volume of high integrity quantitative and qualitative data which supports the use of artificial intelligence (AI) to improve the quality and output by extrapolating optimised procedures from past positive anomalies and then prioritising set point changes to yield maximum value.

“We see significant financial returns through the use of AI in this space and, as the improvements are at the tail end of our value chain, almost all of it reflects in our bottom line. Beyond that we use the models to focus on automation activities on key process units,” Fenn outlines.

Because certain other areas of the business lack the quantitative substance that the metallurgical facilities provide, Sibanye-Stillwater is focusing on appropriate Internet of Things (IoT) technologies that will fill the gap.

Until we have these technologies in place, we still find proxy information and leverage basic analytics to yield improvements – such as a 60% reduction in injuries associated with rail-bound equipment in our gold operations.

“We have also used the findings to tailor an IoT solution that extracts specific operational and behavioural information from operating locomotives to enhance the data set and improve the analysis. This was achieved by visualising basic historical safety statistics in a way that helped to pin point and eliminate key risks,” says Fenn.

Essentially, digital maturity of the process or operation depends on specific areas – only then we can elect suitable technologies that fit individual applications.