The unrest that has plagued the local platinum-group metals (PGM) industry over the last two years, culminating in this year’s five-month-long strike, spearheaded by trade union the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, has forever changed the operating climate for local PGM miners, says midtier mining consultancy Ukwazi Group director Hugo Tukker.
Owing to the increased wage and safety demands made on PGM producers, the industry’s way of doing business has to be reviewed, Tukker tells Mining Weekly.
He points out that, like the gold mining industry in South Africa, PGM producers use conventional stoping methods, such as hand-held drilling, which has created thousands of jobs for rock drill operators.
However, Tukker adds that, owing to the recent wage agreements in the sector, the business model most of the conventional mines employ is not economically viable anymore, which means that most of the remaining Merensky and upper group two (UG2) resources are marginal and unfeasible to mine for the PGM operators using current mining methods.
Another consideration is that productivity on PGM mines has declined significantly over the last 20 years.
“There has been a major decline in stoping crews’ efficiency levels, owing to significant labour force productivity decreases. Ukwazi witnessed stoping crew efficiencies reducing from between 450 m2 and 500 m2 a month 20 years ago to between 280 m2 and 350 m2 a month on a 20 m to 30 m panel at present,” he laments.
Tukker notes that, owing to these types of industry challenges, PGM producers are now seeking to fully mechanise new mines and to partially mechanise older mines, where the infrastructure enables them to do so.
The rationale for this, he explains, is that a more productive and higher-skilled workforce can be paid more, thereby ensuring that the unions’ demands for mining companies to pay better living wages can be met.
However, Tukker points out that there are many other challenges that need to be overcome to effectively implement mechanised mining at operations.
“The main challenge is ensuring that management on all levels has sufficient willpower to complete the mechanisation implementation process as, in the past, there have been efforts by mining companies to mechanise their operations, most of which were not successfully implemented as the challenges associated with the mechanised mining implementation process were perceived to be too significant,” he states.
He adds that most companies rather opted for the existing conventional mining approach, or ‘safe options’ that were still performing “relatively well”, as management teams “lacked the will, drive and foresight to complete mine mechanisation projects”.
Further, Tukker stresses that mechanised mining cannot be undertaken “half-heartedly” using conventional mining approaches, such as the 23-day-month mining cycle system, the one-blast-a-day mining method, or the nightshift-cleaning system.
Additionally, he notes that it is also ill advised for mines to use semiskilled labourers in a mechanised environment.
“The entire strategy must be revisited to optimally use expensive capital equipment associated with mechanised strategies.
“Mechanised mining has been adopted successfully on reefs with thicknesses of more than 1.5 m, where platinum mining companies adopted the low-profile bord-and-pillar mining approach, with minimum mining heights of 1.8 m. Further, various extra-low-profile sections have also been introduced with some degree of success, but not yet on a large scale,” he says.
Tukker points out that research and development work, as well as some trial work, is currently under way at several local PGM mines to investigate the feasibility of introducing ultralow- profile machines that are 90 cm in height and width and can operate in a 1.1 m stoping environment.
“If successful, this will open up huge potential for mines to mine deeper sections of the UG2 and Merensky reefs in the Rustenburg area.”
In terms of mechanisation, Ukwazi has also seen the successful introduction of rail-bound drill rigs working with hack loaders on certain mines. Another advancement is the recent introduction of hydropower hanging-wall-mounted rigs at certain mines,” he states, adding that such rigs hold significant potential, particularly when mines are developing conventional raises.
However, Tukker notes that most of these forms of mechanisation require a certain degree of skill from artisanal miners, operators and supervisors, of which there is a significant shortage in South Africa.
“The introduction of any new mining method must, therefore, coincide with a large-scale training programme that educates operators [on] the new systems being implemented to sustainably provide mines with higher-skilled local employees,” he emphasises.
Tukker cautions that simply recruiting skilled workers from neighbouring mines will not be sustainable anymore as the skills pool is too small and skilled workers will simply chase the highest offered salary, resulting in a high skilled staff turnover.
“Therefore, South Africa-based mining companies must realign their training centres with industry needs and train up large amounts of skilled miners to operate these mechanised mines, otherwise the introduction of mechanisation will not be successful,” he explains.
Tukker maintains that all the major platinum miners are becoming serious about changing the way they are doing business, which should see the entire PGM sector transforming over the next 10 to 20 years.
“This is critically important to ensure that South Africa remains one of the top mining countries in the world,” he concludes.