The rapid developments around the concept of the mine of the future and the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) are evoking mixed reactions about jobs in what is a struggling sector.
However, stalling or adopting what is inevitable at a slow pace will impose penalties on the economy on an unimaginable scale, with the consequences disastrous for mining towns, peripheral sectors and South Africa’s economy.
Sitting on the doorstep of the local mining industry, 4IR is emerging in the midst of a commodity price downturn, challenging labour conditions, regulatory changes, upward cost pressures and unpredictable international politics.
There has been much trepidation over the potential job losses that could result from automation and redevelopment; however, proponents believe the scale of apprehension is an overhyped knee-jerk reaction and that 4IR will, for the most part, follow the successful paths of preceding eras.
“It is characterised by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital and biological spheres,” explains World Economic Forum founder and executive chairperson Klaus Schwab, pointing out that the speed of the current breakthroughs, for which there is no historical precedent, is rapidly disrupting almost every industry in every country.
“The breadth and depth of these changes herald the transformation of entire systems of production, management and governance,” he adds.
This is particularly relevant as operating costs, complex orebodies and deeper mines, with the related safety implications, are pressuring mines to think differently about how they should be operating, professional services group Deloitte says.
“Mines need to be able to quickly and accurately respond to the risks, strategic challenges and work unknowns of the future,” it says.
Certain jobs will become redundant as automation substitutes for labour across the entire economy, new skills will have to be learnt and retraining will be required. However, the economic benefits derived will more than offset the short-term pain felt, explains Deloitte chief digital and innovation officer Valter Adao.
The transition, therefore, is nothing to fear, as it is a normal progression of job evolution and maturity, he says, highlighting previous revolutions where new jobs were created to service new markets and segments.
“Fears surrounding innovation, which has already transformed living standards, are unfounded,” says World Bank Group president Jim Yong Kim, who notes that the technology is actually laying down a path to create jobs, increase productivity and deliver effective public services.
“The movement around 4IR has got massive upside for the economy in South Africa. We need to embrace it,” South African Airways CEO Vuyani Jarana agrees, adding that the penalty for not moving forward quickly enough is huge.
While 4IR will change the game for the industry and talks to ecosystems being built that will affect business models, it also presents an opportunity to build the ecosystem in such a way that people can be included in the value chain to create new jobs, upskill and create opportunities for youth.
In the South African context, there is a need for caution, warns Council for Scientific and Industrial Research research and development strategy manager Dr Daniel Visser.
“We are not looking at replacing jobs. We should be looking at augmenting jobs, making them safer and making them easier – when we look at automation or bringing technology in, it is for things [that] we as humans cannot do,” he says.
That said, the nature of work will increasingly come under scrutiny.
“We do not know what jobs children in primary school today will compete for, because many of those jobs do not exist yet. The great challenge is to equip them with the skills they will need, no matter what future jobs look like – skills such as problem-solving and critical thinking, as well as interpersonal skills, like empathy and collaboration,” Yong Kim says.
There is a need to review how education is delivered, how the country provides learning platforms and how citizens obtain access, adds Vurana.
Adao highlights that educational platforms will be enablers to develop a pipeline of future skills, including intangible skills such as emotional intelligence, curiosity, creativity, critical thinking, adaptability and resilience, and skills required to work with data and algorithms.
“The rise of the robot is not a death knell for the mining workforce but will inevitably lead to a demand for reskilling. Traditional operational positions – drilling, blasting and driving – will be downsized, but replaced by demand for remote operators and maintenance personnel to create the new version of the miner,” a BDO ‘Energy 2020 Vision’ report indicates.
BDO predicts that robots will replace more than 50% of miners by 2020, and while most employees will be retained, advances in technology and remote mining equipment will transform what that workforce will look like.
Emerging digital mining jobs – engineers, software developers and data processing and data analytics specialists – will mean that, by 2020, mining automation and data analytics will be key components of the curriculum for mining engineers.
However, this will enable South Africa to reshape its economy, says Siemens Southern and Eastern Africa CEO Sabine Dall’Omo.
Technology will enable industries to be more competitive in the global market and allow different ways of production and beneficiation in the country to create new jobs.
Delivered outcomes for a mine in the digital era include safety, efficiencies and enhanced productivity, economic growth, integrated operations, longer mine operating lives, education, new industries, new jobs, improved health, improved dollar-per-ton throughput, mine availability, incident reduction, equipment uptime and health and reduced maintenance and inventory costs, besides others.
In the mining sector, some mineral seams can create great wealth, Visser says, referring to the too narrow or too deep seams that humans cannot reach safely, but where technology will be useful.
Adao agrees, noting that the imple- mentation of technology could lengthen a mine’s life and enable mining companies to mine in previously unminable sections, such as stopes and ceilings.
In addition to enhanced output, BDO’s ‘Energy 2020 Vision’ report reveals that driverless technology, for instance, increases mining output by 15% to 20%, while decreasing fuel and maintenance costs by up to 15% and 8% respectively.
“By 2020, we predict global mining companies’ per-ton digging costs will decrease by more than 30% because of automation,” it says, highlighting the savings factor in reduced labour costs, increased output, a decrease in the number of safety incidents and companies’ ability to enhance decision-making capabilities leveraging the vast amount of data collected by smart mines.
Digital technology means not only the automation of operations but also the potential to use it in the construct of the democratisation of data.
“There is a lot of data inside the mines that we are unaware of, that we do not gain access to or are not using in a quick enough way to unlock value,” Adao points out.
There are efficiencies to be found by leveraging the Internet of Things (IoT) to surface data that already exists in the operations to enable better, informed decisions or decision-making based on a series of events or conditions triggering certain actions, such as mechanical failures and the subsequent halting or diversions of certain operations to ensure safety and save resources, water, electricity, time and money.
However, satellite telecommunications company Inmarsat data shows that mining organisations are still struggling to exploit mission-critical data created by industrial IoT applications.
Inmarsat director of mining Joe Carr explains that 94% of mining organisations are facing significant challenges in extracting valuable insights from data to improve the productivity, efficiency and safety of their operations.
Despite this, Inmarsat’s latest research found that mining companies expect to increase their revenues by an average of $154-million, or 9%, by 2023 through the use of IoT, and that they expect to be spending 8% of their information technology budget on IoT within three years.
Technology is steadily making its way into the industrial space, with good applications of machine learning, virtual reality, cloud platform, remote diagnostics and digital twin mining, integrated systems, energy storage and software defined machines being seen in the industrial space integrated operations, says technology giant ABB Southern Africa ABB Ability digital lead Stuart Michie.
Over the past five years, there has been a steady shift from isolated operations, where machines and mines are operated in isolation in terms of power, on-site automation, connectivity and software, and services and execution systems to more connected, integrated operations, incorporating on-call services, connectivity, on-board sensors and servers and connected machinery.
This will be particularly relevant for remote operations, with autonomous mining making unviable mines that were too expensive to run viable again, as applications evolve from prescriptive maintenance and analytics, intelligent devices and the ‘electric mine’ to autonomous operations by 2030, with automated services, remote supervision, automated control and fuel cells and alternative energy sources, he adds.
“It is no longer enough to focus merely on extraction grades. Operational managers have to adopt a systems theory approach and look at the effect of single process efficiencies on the entire mining value chain to drive productivity,” explains IoT.nxt CEO Nico Steyn.
Steyn says there is a need to examine the entire ecosystem as an end-to-end solution bringing together all the different technologies to extract value.
“We have the opportunity to press the big reset button on our economy, where we can redefine ourselves and do some amazing things that could change the economic prosperity of many people. If those mines fail, I dread the hundreds of thousands of jobs that will be lost in mining, in manufacturing and in retail, [besides others],” Adao concludes.