Multinational consulting engineers SRK Consulting director Andrew van Zyl stresses that technology, through the efficiencies it enables, is an important tool for retaining jobs in mining. The sector has been in a long period of decline, and technology is an opportunity to arrest that decline by improving the viability of operations and keeping people employed.
Consequently, this will allow for an increase in mine life or an expansion in operations because lower-cost production can facilitate the potential exploitation of lower-grade ore.
“Applying new technologies could contribute to these efforts. We are seeing breakthroughs in the use of remote machinery and technologies, which can improve safety and productivity. The trialling of hydrogen-driven mine trucks locally is another development that shows potential for efficiency gains.”
Van Zyl adds that the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, and the measures implemented in terms of the lockdown regulations, may have made conducting on-site consulting work not only more challenging but further emphasised the importance of using new technologies to improve efficiencies and save costs.
He emphasises that SRK has adapted well to working remotely for mining projects, noting that the tools and technologies that were previously available, but not extensively used, have become more familiar and widespread, benefiting SRK staff and clients.
“We have worked hard to maintain momentum on various local initiatives. The technologies we employ to service our clients range from digital communication for meetings to using drones fitted with cameras to remotely gather visual data for technical studies. These innovations ensure that we can continue to deliver value cost effectively, even if site access is constrained.”
Van Zyl adds that, while site visits will still be necessary in some cases, players in the local mining industry are becoming more selective about the number of site visits conducted, as well as the number of experts required for a visit.
If these aspects can be managed efficiently, the productivity of consulting mining engineers and scientists can be improved, offering efficiencies for the miner, notes Van Zyl.
SRK principal mining engineer Marcin Wertz explains that, while Level 4 and Level 5 of the lockdown made site-based work challenging, much of SRK’s review work could be done remotely.
“We quickly harnessed the digital tools that enable us to gather data remotely and we recently conducted a resource and reserve process audit remotely, as site visits were not feasible. While there are requirements for physical site visits in a competent persons’ report, there is much we can achieve through the innovative use of available communication technologies. Our clients are also becoming more accustomed to working this way.”
Wertz also cites advances in remote technology, such as using drones for underground cavity monitoring and face mapping, explaining that this can help to measure dimensions and vital aspects such as overbreak, which is the caving in of material near the edge of an excavation.
“We expect to see increased use of these innovations in our work. Our water and tailings experts are also able to gather much larger volumes of data much quicker using digitally equipped devices and communication technology,” Wertz explains.
Van Zyl states that, while advanced remote capability in imaging and positioning has been prevalent in opencast environments, these technologies are becoming more prominent in underground applications.
“This is an ongoing digital process that we see delivering a continuous improvement in what we can offer the mining sector. We are also better able to collaborate across our many global offices and are experiencing better knowledge sharing, mentoring and engagement on innovation.”
Van Zyl highlights SRK’s in-country expertise and emphasises the advantages this has provided, particularly in instances when cross-border travel was restricted.
“The lockdown has also accelerated the need for mines to consider local avenues for procurement. Our services in supporting local procurement efforts on mines is likely to grow in the near future.”
SRK Exploration Services was established locally in 2018 is well placed to provide exploration expertise for projects throughout Africa and interact with the company’s experienced geologists on early-stage projects, he adds.