Microsoft South Africa is working with its partner ecosystem and customers to showcase the power of technology, particularly AI (artificial intelligence) and cloud technologies, in helping the mining industry accelerate digital transformation and uncover solutions through the adoption of new technologies, writes LAURA CORNISH.

This follows the launch of Microsoft’s Mining Core – AI Centre of Excellence for Mining facility in Johannesburg, South Africa in early September.

This article first appeared in Mining Review Africa Issue 11, 2020
Read the full digimag here or subscribe to receive a print copy here

The Mining Core, which is the first of its kind in the country, makes use of Microsoft’s extensive partner ecosystem, and in so doing allows customers to immerse themselves in emerging technologies to build and create solutions that not only overcome specific business challenges but also broadly enable the sector to reimagine new and better ways of working, drive sustainable recovery and transform mining communities.

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“Considering the industry’s increasing acceptance to embrace digital transformation, our engagement with the sector has subsequently evolved,” says Lerato Mathabatha, lead for mining, energy & resources at Microsoft South Africa.

“The industry recognises our ability to improve productivity through our cloud-based solutions, but we in fact are working to showcase to the industry that our strength extends far beyond that – helping customers in the sector deliver mines of the future today – by driving innovation, not  in the IT space, but at a business operational level.”

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Combined with the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become clear that the sector needs solutions that can help it regain its competitiveness and become a key contributor and driver of economic recovery in the wake of the pandemic.

“Technology holds the key to achieving those goals. Accelerated digital transformation and the introduction of solutions through emerging technologies such as AI, the Internet of Things and data analytics, have the power to help the industry adapt, reinvent and transform in a sustainable and responsible way,” echoes Amr Kamel, enterprise director at Microsoft South Africa.

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Microsoft South Africa’s Mining Core – housed within the company’s head office – is about working ‘outside of the box’, together with its partner ecosystem and customers to imagine what their mines could do and become, without any restrictions, and how we can use and/or develop technology solutions to realise this vision, Mathabatha highlights.

“Through our facility we have created an environment and ecosystem where we can develop those solutions and enable the industry to interact with the technologies in different scenarios in order to unpack the benefits they can deliver,” she continues.

While the impacts of COVID-19 have prevented the company from physically engaging with the facility, customers have already had the opportunity to interact with some of the technologies through virtual demonstrations, already a step in the right direction as well as a stepping stone in truly connecting with the technologies.

Discussing the company’s Mining Core ecosystem partners, Mathabatha notes this network is rich with a variety of skills sets across the mining value chain.

The founding partners include Accenture, PwC, Bentley Systems, Schneider Electric and ABB. “These companies alone already demonstrate the depth and extent of knowledge we are bringing to our AI offering.”

“Through our Mining Core we are walking the mining industry through the adoption of technologies available today and looking at how we can deliver complementary solution technologies that transform their needs and improve their performance in the future. This facility will become the key stepping stone to building a future transformation roadmap,” Mathabatha highlights.

Beyond production

Together with its partner ecosystem, Microsoft South Africa is looking to help its customers navigate three phases – response, recovery, and reimagine – in order to maintain continuity, remain open, drive operational performance and create new business models even in the most difficult of circumstances,” says Kamel.

Solutions, which are conceptualised and built collaboratively, are anchored in four main areas: Community services and social impact; health and safety; sustainability; and responsible digital transformation.

Community involvement and engagement is vital for mining companies, and these organisations can use technology to play an important part in empowering surrounding communities.

This includes building critical digital literacy skills that will help the employability of community members, as well as introducing solutions in areas like healthcare, education, agriculture and community support services.

Emerging technologies can also help with health and safety, which is always a priority but particularly so in the face of a pandemic. Introducing solutions using technologies like autonomous systems such as drones, drills and vehicles, cognitive services and video analytics for safety management, such as detecting if a worker is wearing a hard hat or protective clothing, can make an impact.

These kinds of technologies can also be used to support and manage health and safety protocols related to the pandemic, including social distancing and hygiene measures.

Mining companies are also increasingly using digital solutions to enable sustainable recovery and decrease their environmental footprint, using them to reduce water consumption, waste and work towards being carbon neutral or even carbon negative.

Above all, solutions that are introduced need to have responsible digital transformation and AI at their heart.

“Responsible AI needs good guiding principles to ensure that systems are fair, reliable and safe, private and secure, inclusive, transparent and accountable, and we use our rich partner ecosystem to help with this.

“Digital is the future of mining, and the question now is how quickly companies in the sector can transform to drive growth,” concludes Kamel.