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Digital revolution needs consideration

If you are not planning or currently implementing digital technology that can reduce your cost per ton and creating a safer environment, you will find yourself placing your mining operation on ice.

By Warwick Hughes, CEO, African Mining & Crushing

The need to embrace automation and digital technology is starting to take precedence in the African mining space – driven by the need to stay globally relevant and enhance operational efficiency and production performance.

This article first appeared in Mining Elites in Africa 2019

The industry however, needs to approach digital technology with thoughtfulness and learn how best to incorporate it when considering Africa’s rugged and labour-intensive environment.

African Mining & Crushing specialises in heavy-duty crushing, grinding and contract mining applications in Africa. The single biggest factor in the success and growth of our business has been the use of digital technology.

There is no doubt that technology can bring significant improvements to our industry – with regards to safety as well as production performance.

However, we must take cognisance of the parameters we operate within remote regions, with limited skills set and inflexible production requirements.

No perfect system

Africa still requires dirty hands and hard work and there are applications where technology cannot simply cannot replace that.

However, unfortunately no system works perfectly from the start. You actually need to work with it and use to get it to a point where it is functioning as you need and integrated properly.

This however also means that your operating costs will spike until the new system is integrated and robust enough – so as not to cause of downtime or false alarms.

As an example, the canary in the cage worked, but if you have an electronic system that is supposed to warn you and the system is faulty, it could lead to fatalities.

There seems to be a drive to automate and install new technology, without due consideration of the support that is available to keep the systems running at the required availabilities.

We need to implement new technologies that will actually make a difference to the quality of our life and reduce our operating costs.

A lot of the new technology might be modern and be the correct way to go in theory. But in practice, with our sun, dust in the Kalahari or mud from high rainfall areas in West Africa for example new technologies simply do not work from the day it is implemented.

We need to iron out all the problems and redundancy that needs to be built in.

Seamless integration

Our approach to the incorporation of technology is looking at how best to incorporate it into our operations with a well thought out and easy-to-implement approach.

A solution that enables information management and analysis data systems to be incorporated seamlessly into existing equipment and contract models is required. This can be a major challenge.

Software solutions that speak to our needs has been a hurdle for our business to date and requires more time and more investment to perfect. And our operations must continue performing to expectation, regardless of circumstance.

Aligning new equipment for new contracts, with our own technology and that of our OEM suppliers, also requires additional time to ensure full software integration functionality is working across all platforms.

In that case, how do we incorporate technology while appreciating the constraints we operate within?

Considering the size of the company, its core strengths and aligning these with digital improvements is the smart approach – the technology must work well and improve on current operating models within third-world countries.

Technology systems will work best when incorporated into a growth strategy, rather than building it into existing processes.

We also need to spend more time ensuring we develop technology that works for operators and their skills level. Developing information into simple formats that are easy to read, interpret and review makes good logical sense.

Then, and only then, will we truly feel the advantages of technology. Operators will not experience fatigue and their jobs won’t be at risk of being replaced by a machine or technology-driven application.

This will guarantee improved worker performance and secure production targets.

Incorporating new technologies

The mining industry has made such significant progression over the decades so let’s take the time to acknowledge our successes and in so doing be responsible about how we incorporate new technologies into our businesses that ultimately deliver on all objectives, for all stakeholders.

One of the greatest challenges we as contractors face, is getting mines to sign off on new methods of mining that involve new concepts and technology. We can only attribute this to the “perceived” risk associated with change.

Many times the sign-off needs to be done by an employee that is either restricted in the decisions they may make or are too afraid of failure and will rather stay with the tried and tested method even if it means using out dated in-efficient technology.

Consider the most important requirements for digital technology:

  • to increase efficiency (the efficiency of equipment utilisation and also the efficiency of staff utilising the technology);
  • to reduce risk (but if employees are not equipped to understand the intimate workings of new technology systems then this benefit will not be realised and could in fact increase time delays as redundancy methodologies will need to be incorporated into the system);
  • Machine operators – in Africa locally employed residents have none or very basic skills sets – and are not in the position to be upskilled to operate technologically advanced machinery or perhaps even to repair and/or maintain it
  • Retention of skills is equally as challenging and Africa-based mining operations do not have the luxury of suffering downtime because the high level skills sets required to operate the machinery are absent.

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