The growing use of digitisation and automation technologies has great power to improve efficiencies and productivity; but the real challenges are ensuring these technologies help address the key risks that threaten sustainability, and that stakeholders understand that success will extend mine lives and associated economic activity.
A social licence to operate retains its top spot in management consultancy EY’s 10 most important risks and opportunities for the mining and metals industry.
The economic lockdown necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic, in which millions of jobs are estimated to have been lost, will only mean greater poverty – including in the communities around mines.
A holistic and integrated approach to mines’ range of challenges and risks is now more important than ever.
Efficiency for longevity
At a high level, digitisation and automation technologies promiseto make a crucial difference where it really matters for South Africa:in keeping the sector’s current job opportunities alive.
In a mature sector like ours, and in a difficult economic environment, we are currently not creating many new minerals projects that might replace our old mines.
Rather, we are experiencing a steady ageing of operations as they approach inevitable closure.
This is in the nature of mining; the mineral deposit is always finite and can be exploited for only as long as its revenue exceeds its costs.
An immediate priority, then, is to raise efficiencies and lower costs while improving safety levels – allowing mining operations to continue into either deeper or lower-grade resources.
Safe and remote
Technology is certainly helping us to achieve this, even if the pace of implementation is sometimes uneven.
Remotely operated equipment allows drilling, loading and hauling to be carried out which reduces the manual labour required and therefore reduces the safety and health risk.
Equipment and employees can be tracked throughout an operation, and can communicate more easily – enhancing safety and productivity.
On surface, a South African mine is trialling the use of hydrogen to power haul trucks, reducing carbon footprint and cost.
Digital technology enhances planning and monitoring, making for safer and more efficient operations.
Global collaboration between mines, consultants and academia has leveraged seismic wave research into valuable apps that enhance site safety – for instance by distinguishing vibrations caused by blasting from those indicating movement of pit structures.
Similar work is also contributing to improvements in earthquake site response modelling approaches for mines.
The use of sensors with digital capability in almost every aspect of mining and processing today allows gathering of ‘big data’ for processing and analysis.
As we improve our ability to extract valuable information from this data, so all operations can be streamlined. Advances in geo-metallurgical modelling, for instance, can provide detailed geological data to improve plant performance on a daily basis.
By optimising variables like energy consumption and reagent volumes based on this data, mines could reduce power consumption and reagent use – lowering the cost per ton.
It is clear that technological innovation is not so much a threat to mining jobs as a vital lifeline, helping to retain those jobs for longer.
This impact is essentially indirect, however, and often invisible to observers. There are other opportunities with digital technology – mainly related to communication – that could be more directly applied to the question of social licence.
A local mining company initiative to encourage stakeholder engagement included the provision of a mobile app and free internet access to surrounding communities.
This provided two-way communication between community members and the mine, helping to establish an accurate, reliable and responsive source of information about the operation.
The inclusion of a digital platform encouraged skills development and education, and opened a ‘digital doorway’ for employment opportunities in the area, educational links, bursary applications and other opportunities.
Digital communication technology is also being harnessed to improve formal stakeholder engagement processes, often required by law as part of environmental and social permitting processes.
Innovations like this could be extended to facilitate local procurement – now an important element of compliance for mines and a frequent source of the community discontent that raises social licence risks.
By helping facilitate links between mines, local small businesses, community groups and other stakeholders like municipalities, digital tools can foster engagement and collaboration.
The end-goal is not the technology, but rather digital inclusion and the raising of the economic resilience and capacity of local economies.
This allows the potential benefits derived from mining to be more readily shared locally – through commercial transactions rather than charity handouts.
In South Africa’s underperforming economy – further ravaged by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic – the challenges facing communities close to mines will increasingly spill over into the mines themselves.
In an increasingly interconnected world, digital technologies can make a difference in bridging the many complex and potentially destructive divisions.
Courtesy: SRK Consulting