The Covid-19 pandemic has created an opportunity for the global mining industry to use available digital technologies to leapfrog productivity gaps, says Bosch mining solutions head Jonas Corali.
Speaking during a panel discussion on February 18, which was focused on how digitalisation is transforming the mining sector, Corali said there had been an increase in demand for digital technologies and solutions, especially those which allowed remote monitoring of operations, since the start of the pandemic.
An example of which is Bosch’s smart conveyor, which allows the user to monitor the conveyor and generate reports online.
However, the mining industry did not survive the pandemic scot-free, as it is now experiencing a reduction in mineral output. Corali says, however, that mining operations will chase this output recovery through digitalisation.
Deloitte Africa energy, resources and industrials leader Andrew Lane, meanwhile, felt encouraged by the industry’s progress since the start of the pandemic, noting that “most of the major mining companies are within 10% of their volume targets”.
This is evidenced through some financial result releases recently, though he added that commodity pricing had played an advantageous role, allowing the industry to improve its underlying operating performance.
However, he highlighted safety as a “big issue in the mining industry”, albeit one that has steadily seen improvement over the last few years.
“I think that the real power that technology brings in the safety world is the ability to predict,” he commented. “If you have a big enough database, enough history and a broad enough source of data sources, you can start to predict unsafe situations”, and naturally, start preparing for or even prevent them.
In this regard, Gold Fields executive VP Martin Preece noted that the NYSE- and JSE-listed gold miner was building “safer, cleaner and smarter mines”.
Interventions from the miner around safety include removing people from the coalface through deploying new and modern technology that can operate either semi-autonomously or autonomously, and which removes people from dangerous areas.
Gold Fields is also monitoring environmental conditions through rolling out live monitoring in terms of dust and heat “so that we can get people out of areas that are potentially risky”.
Additionally, Preece noted that the gold miner was also rolling out collision avoidance Level 9, which requires mine employees to wear “wearables”, while the machines are guided through onboard technology which will help them to identify other machines or people, and prevent any collisions, without operator interference.
“Dealing with these [solutions] will have a dramatic impact on our safety performance,” he commented.
On the sustainability front, however, Lane said digitalisation allowed for “the ability to engage with stakeholders, communities and employees”, which he believed would advance a mining company’s community impact.
He explained that a company’s ability to use digital technologies would allow it to nurture emerging suppliers, broaden its supply base and assist it reach decarbonisation goals.
The mining industry is, however, spoilt for choice when considering available technologies, said Corali, who noted that the real question is what kind of problem will require which technology solution.
As an example, he believes the bio-mine will play a “very important” role in the future for pit-to-port operations, while blockchain, on the other hand, will present an ability to control minerals better, or make them more traceable.
Artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things are the “real gamechangers”, Corali added, noting that cloud computing “also enhances” these technologies.
However, Lane warned that when changing to and adapting these technologies, “the path is as much about people as it is about the technologies”. He explained that while the nature of the workforce will “inevitably change”, it does not necessarily constitute a negative impact.
“I think the way to think about this is not to think about the disadvantage that technology is creating for people, but to think realistically and consider the opportunities it brings for them instead,” he said.