Digitization may hold the key to unlocking greater value from mining operations but brings with it challenges for third-world countries in particular that could prohibit its effective utilisation.

LAURA CORNISH sat down with BARRY ELLIOTT, Rockwell Automation’s global industry director for metals, mining and cement at the Rockwell Automation Fair in Philadelphia, United States late last year to discuss what important technologies offers the mining sector in Africa and how to approach concerns around its impact on employment and deployment without the necessary skills sets.

Africa’s need to create employment does somewhat conflict with the mining industry’s need to become relevant within the global economy Elliott starts.

This article first appeared in Mining Review Africa Issue 1, 2019

Unions and governments are deeply concerned that the industry will not only limit new job creation but in fact reduce their employment figures owing to their perception that technology and automation replaces people with machines.

“This is a major challenge for the sector, which accounts for about 55% of Rockwell Automation’s total business in Africa, and one we must contend with – now.”

The reality is that in certain applications, i.e. anything that is repeatable in its form and is able to create a predictable outcome on a consistent basis, will deliver better results than a human being and can enhance operational performance. This has become essential for any mining company to stay competitive on a global scale.

It is also important to emphasise that digital technologies don’t replace people but simply require a different skills set to operate equipment and optimise industrial processes.

“This doesn’t only require training but a mind-set change from government which introduces and builds learning around digital technologies from an early age – into school curriculums.

Skilled people moving into the workplace would be “re-purposed” to do a different job or handle a job with greater responsibility (operating five drills remotely as opposed to one on site) and become a more valued member of the working world, participate actively towards the economy and even earn a higher salary.

“But the private sector cannot do this alone – we need collaboration and alignment with government to achieve this.”

Elliott highlights the Youth Employment Service (YES) programme as a starting point in recognising the need to upskill and employ South Africa’s youth – “but if their education foundation is poor then even an initiative such as YES will be difficult to utilise effectively.”

“We are dealing with a major challenge but one that can be addressed if all stakeholders work together to address it together.

Using technology is becoming hardwired into our DNA and most children, even those who are under-privileged, quickly learn how to use a cell phone or a tablet – and this can be transferred into employment opportunities such as learning how to operate or maintain a machine using the latest technology,” Elliott elaborates.

Unions should also not ignore the safety benefits technology has to offer or how technology can be used to train people in using technology.

“Through our partners we offer software that can showcase step by step – visually using augmented reality – how to fix a piece of equipment or perform a routine maintenance procedure – without prior knowledge. Under these circumstances, a person requires minimal training to be considered a valuable asset to an organisation.”

“In fact, companies can now can train their employees using digital twin models of an operation located anywhere in the world, from an office environment on a completely different continent. That is a step change that can revolutionise the mining sector.”

Ultimately, human intervention will always be required to fully operate a mine – so technology is not making people redundant.

“And consider that if a mine is more profitable through technology, its lifespan will likely extend and its optionality to expand improve – which will equate to the necessity for more people, even if they serve a different purpose within the operation,” Elliott concludes.

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