Anglo American Platinum, Tumela, Platinum, South Africa, Limpopo

Platinum producer Anglo American Platinum’s (Amplats’) strategy of being a global leader in platinum group metals from resource to market is underpinned by technological development and the implementation of appropriate technologies as a means to modernise the way in which it operates, executive head of technical Dr GORDON SMITH tells CHANTELLE KOTZE.

He explains that the physical nature of an ore body determines a mine’s layout and design, which in turn is dictated by available technology. Therefore, if companies evolve their technology use, then the mine design could be changed. This will alter the economics of the operation, which will enable mines to be more flexible in different economic conditions.

“Moreover, by making a change to the technology, the way in which mining is undertaken is redefined. This affects the skills of the people required to execute the work,” Smith says.

Because work is still largely done by people, executed through processes, and enabled by technology, matching the skills to the technology is the key to success, he notes.

The minerals industry value chain from exploration through to downstream beneficiation is highly dependent on science, technology, engineering and mathematics skills, or STEM skills. As the world becomes increasingly dependent on ever-changing technology, STEM skills become crucial to the success of the minerals industry.

The ability to realise the value of the national mineral resource endowment that South Africa has as the industry moves through technology adoption and changing mining methods will depend on the availability of a quality workforce that is competent in the necessary STEM skills.

Technology readiness

“The natural attributes of the ore body and the processes required to unlock value from the ore body are what drive the pace and nature of technology development and selection,” says Smith.

There are several stages that technology needs to go through before it can be deployed and commercialised. As a result of this, Smith emphasises that technology readiness needs to be well managed along the way as it is a long process and requires different skills sets along the different stages of the journey from research and development to commercial readiness phase.

In determining what a modern mine should encompass to be sustainable in future, Smith highlights the importance of assessing and addressing the current challenges being faced at specific mining operations. “This will provide you with the basis of what needs to be addressed from a safety, mining, processing, and data management point of view,” he notes.

Speaking at the Mining for the Future 2016 conference, hosted by the Southern African Institute of Mining and Metallurgy (SAIMM), Smith unpacked some of the technological innovations that could change the way in which mining is undertaken.

Technological innovations, from a safety perspective, could include real-time excavation mapping, collision avoidance and automation innovations to help remove mine workers from unsafe areas and redefine how work is undertaken in the underground mining space.

In terms of underground mining, the focus going forward will be on improving productivity while ensuring the safety of workers, by limiting the number of workers at the face at any given time. Meanwhile, in the minerals processing space, process automation is expected to play a significant role in improving this part of the mining value chain.

All of this hinges on successful and meaningful data management, Smith notes, adding that the full analysis of all available data could prove useful in future.

The key to unlocking the value of many of these new technologies will be the availability of new technologies as well as the integration of technologies throughout the mining process to allow deployment of an integrated mining system.

“As an industry we will continue to be faced with viability challenges as economic conditions and market requirements change over time. However the challenge really lies in effectively integrating all the components that make up the mining system – which consists of people, skills, processes and technologies.

If we are going to innovate and have technological developments at mines it will require conscious leadership, adequate technology development, funding allocation and continuous commitment from management, because technology development is a continuous process with no quick fix.