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Digital innovation drives the future of mining

I am passionate about the future of mining incorporating the challenges associated with it. Then, there’s the addition of digital innovation which includes immersive technology to make it even more exciting.

There are several companies that have taken up the challenges of digital technology.  I must give Kumba Iron Ore credit for its continued support of Virtual Reality (VR) initiatives after they were instrumental in establishing the Kumba VR Centre for Mine design in 2015 in our department. 

This article first appeared in Mining Elites in Africa 2019

We are currently busy with a digital platform project to establish a digital twin for mining – with specific reference to strategic planning – with the ultimate conversion of real time data into a 3D VR platform.

By Prof R.C.W. Webber-Youngman, PhD, Pr. EngBy Prof R.C.W. Webber-Youngman, PhD, Pr. Eng

Our department also has an AEL Intelligent Blasting Chair in innovative rock breaking technology that also incorporates the conversion 3D point cloud scanning data into real time 3D.

The chair holder, or expert, in innovative rock breaking technology is Prof William Spiteri, an explosive engineer with extensive experience in explosives engineering.

Innovation reduces costs

AEL Intelligent Blasting is not only examining new technology for breaking rock (such as laser cutting and micro wave techniques), but also how explosive rock breaking can be optimised in terms of costs as well as be environmentally friendly in minimising dust and the release of noxious gases. 

In addition, we also have the Harmony Gold Chair in Rock Engineering and Numerical modelling in their second three-year term. It is envisaged that the results from this research will also be visualised as we believe in “making vision visible”.

The current chair holder for the Harmony Gold chair in rock engineering and numerical modelling (investigating induced seismicity in shaft pillar mining incorporating rate of mining) is Prof Francois Malan – a world recognised rock engineering expert.

The concept of chairs in various fields is an in-advance investment made by a company with the University and the chair is normally named after the specific sponsor or company. 

The name of the chair relates to a field of research that mutually benefits the university as well as the sponsor.  The research topics are normally chosen as areas to be investigate that would not just primarily benefit the chair holder company, but the mining industry at large. 

An investment of this kind benefits the university by making the funding amount available upfront to ensure the appointment of academic researchers and admin support staff relating to the research activities. 

This is all done under the guidance of the chair holder to provide answers to the sponsor and industry at large of problems/challenges identified.

Roger Baxter, CEO of the Minerals Council South Africa, gave a very throughtful presentation titled: Restoring the dream – achieving the potential of South African Mining in May 2018 at the AGM of the Mining Alumni Society of the University of Pretoria. He is passionate about the topics discussed under #MiningMatters #MakingMiningMatter.

We, as the University of Pretoria, know we are playing a significant role in making mining matter. We are in Africa for Africa and making a difference.  

So why does mining matter?

In 2017 the mining industry:

  • Continued to be significant to transformation
  • Remained a key contributor to economic and social development
  • Contributed R312 billion (7%) to the GDP
  • Contributed R93 billion in fixed investment
  • Paid R16 billion in taxes and R5.8 billion in royalties
  • Employed 465 000 employees who supported 4.5 million dependents
  • Paid wages of R126 billion
  • Created 1.4 million indirect jobs
  • Spent R300 billion on goods and services

It is also encouraging to note that mining universities and others will also form part of the research intervention at the Mandela Mining Precinct in which significant funds have been secured for mining research over the next three years. 

Why next generation mining?

It unlocks the potential to:

  • Achieve zero harm and eliminate fatalities
  • Mine South Africa’s deep-level, complex ore bodies profitably
  • Without next generation mining 200 000 jobs could be lost by 2030 – affecting two million people

What does the mine of the future look like?

  • Improved employee safety
  • Increased productivity
  • Reduced energy consumption
  • Reduced environmental impact

Disruptive technology will play a significant role in these four points.

What future mining are we
talking about?

  • Earth-bound mining (as we know it, excluding sea) and its related challenges
  • Deep sea or marine mining
  • Asteroid mining

The relevance of deep marine and asteroid mining – rare earth metals, will steer the next technology drive.

Rare earths are a series of chemical elements found in the earth’s crust that are vital to modern technologies, including consumer electronics, computers and networks, communications, clean energy and many more and includes minerals such as Scandium, Yttrium, Lanthanum, Cerium to mention just a few.

Looking at ultra-deep marine or deep sea mining as well as asteroid mining will give us a real sense of what is possible and potential applications in mining “on earth”.  If innovation in deep sea mining and in space is possible why not earth? 

I truly believe that it will be possible to use ideas explored in other mining spaces and apply it accordingly where applicable.

What does the mine of the future look like?

  • Remote control of most mine activities
  • Reduced man-machine interface risk through use of advanced robotics and autonomous or near autonomous driverless vehicles
  • VR and AR applications
  • Real time mine production monitoring and analysis through scanning and related time response to the information obtained
  • Real time mine planning and design optimisation – the digital twin concept
  • Mine design holography
  • 3D printing of mine designs
  • Influence of disruptive technology

The 4th Industrial Revolution

When compared with previous industrial revolutions, the fourth revolution is evolving at an exponential rather than a linear pace.

It is disrupting almost every industry in every country and transforming entire systems of production, management, and governance and the role of disruptive technology will be significant in future.

From an academic point of view, we as Universities, need to align ourselves to accommodate the new set of skills required to be successful and the Department of Mining Engineering embraces that challenge.

Examples of new interventions in the mine of the future:

  • Ventilation on demand
  • Real time ground monitoring
  • Smart illumination
  • Real time dust monitoring
  • Robotic rescue
  • Effective missing person locator systems
  • Proximity detection as standard (which are already being implemented)
  • Vastly improved health and safety applications

Managing and leading in the Mining 4.0 era will require a different set of skills and needs to be identified and developed accordingly.

The innovative approaches to business and operation will also lead to increased shareholder confidence, boosting share values further through positive public opinion.

The rapid growth in technology and its application confirms the need for a different approach in employing updated technology constantly. Mining companies that do not adapt and keep up will soon become obsolete.

One of the major challenges that we are faced with on mines is in many cases the inability to adapt to change and incorporate new technology and or ideas more quickly and effectively. 

Some of the equipment that we use on the mines is as old as the history of mining and needs to be addressed. 

It is refreshing to note that the Mandela Mining Precinct has launched their Isidingo rock drill challenge. The aim is to develop a rock-drill that weighs less 16 kg, compared to the traditional 28 kg, that does not use compressed air as an energy source, and enables the parallel drilling of holes and that can be set up and dismantled within 15 minutes.

When I speak about introducing new technology, I see it as an integrated approach, an all-inclusive package. One needs to look at all moving parts within the system and apply new and innovative technologies to all of them. In many ways, if new technology is not introduced in an integrated approach, it could lead to unintended (negative) consequences. 

If one attempts to follow a modular, in-isolation approach to implementing new technology, failure or rejection thereof is bound to happen. In most cases, new-age technology does not blend with outdated technology.

We are therefore compelled to apply the integrated approach when introducing new technology in the mining industry to avoid the creation of a technological gap in the moving parts of the system.

Limitations of technology – at least for now?

  • Problem solving
  • Adaptability
  • Leadership
  • Creativity and innovation
  • Emotional intelligence

One might be tempted to think that Immersive VR technology is a bit superficial, or simply a “cool” way of displaying information. But this is not the case.

VR can, through either 3D stereo-schopic and/or immersive applications, provide first hand experiences of mining scenarios without any of the associated negative consequences. 

So instead of communicating in words, pictures, or video clips, virtual reality allows us to communicate in a new-age language. 

The use of holograms and 3D printing (inverted immersion) and 3D point cloud scanning opens a complete new Immersive Technology world to be explored.

Through VR, you can experience a fall of ground incident without getting hurt. You can design, implement and set off a blast 3 km underground without ever setting foot on a mine. You can design a new mine and walk around in it, interact with it, and simulate different scenarios. All before the mine even exists. 

It is however important to note the difference between VR and Augmented Reality (AR).  The difference between VR and AR is simple – VR creates a new immersed environment and shuts out the real world.

AR, on the other hand, blends holographic projections with reality. This creates an augmented perception of reality, and objects that appear to be there are not there.

Teaching and learning in the education space will never be the same again. In our department we instructionally designed all our technical difficult mining modules and incorporated AR in this approach.

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About the author: Prof R.C.W. Webber-Youngman is HOD, Department of Mining Engineering, University of Pretoria