South African mines wanting to drive greater operational safety, productivity and sustainability, as well as increase mine life, should tap into electrification, digitalisation and automation, says engineering company ABB South Africa process industries division manager John Manuell.
From a global perspective, he points out that the mining industry is already seeing a clear shift from diesel-derived power to the use of electric systems at mining operations.
In terms of digitalisation, Manuell says a greater degree of this is resulting in increased productivity and more sustainable use of resources, while lowering input costs.
Further, automation is increasing productivity and changing the way mines work. “Together, these three trends are “shaping what we call the mine of the future”, he says.
He adds that these three trends are critical success factors for the mining industry to continue its moves towards modernisation and meet increasingly stringent environmental and sustainability goals, while also staying globally competitive.
“They offer real possibilities, which were not available previously, to overcome today’s challenges and ensure a bright future for the mining industry,” says Manuell.
As mines step up their efforts to cut costs and increase efficiency, he says the supply of energy is emerging as one of their biggest challenges, with regions such as Europe and South America undertaking vast measures to shift their operations to be electrically powered.
However, the mining industry has historically been heavily reliant on diesel to power machinery, plant and equipment, as well as generators; and Manuell says that, on top of the expense of delivering diesel fuel to remote sites, the costs for the servicing, repair and replacement of diesel-powered vehicles and machinery has been added.
In terms of embracing electrification, he says an obvious starting point for several miners is to invest in fully electric or hybrid-electric vehicles to lower diesel use and cut costs and pollution.
“Swedish company Boliden is to install an additional 3 km of trolley line at its Aitik mine after a successful 700 m pilot project, plus 1.8 km at Kevitsa; and says it will reduce its diesel consumption by 5.5-million litres when [this] investment is complete,” says Manuell.
Another mine going a more electrified route is Copper Mountain Mining in Canada – a site at which ABB will install its haul truck trolley assist infrastructure to help the mine achieve a reduction in carbon intensity of more than 50% in the medium term, with a final target of zero emissions by 2035.
The installation, which includes engineering, supply and construction management for a direct current substation and an overhead catenary system, combines ABB’s electrification and automation experience in the mining industry.
He highlights that data is key for the mine of the future to oversee critical processes and increase the useful life of mines by improving cost efficiency, ore recovery and asset management.
“Mining companies collect huge amounts of data from their equipment and operations, but this information is hardly used at all to generate insights,” says Manuell.
As such, it is crucial for mining companies to have a solid digital strategy in place to ensure well-informed decision-making that will help improve energy use, productivity, reliability and safety, while reducing outages, emissions and costs.
Meanwhile, he says automation has immense potential to reduce operating costs, improve operations and take people out of harm’s way.
“Many South African mines are experimenting with technologies like automated drilling and blasting, but they are only scratching the surface of what is available.
“The mine of the future is not one where robots do all the work. Rather, it is a connected operation where all assets are linked and smart, decision-makers can see exactly what is happening across their operations on a dashboard, and asset management is proactive,” he says.
However, the biggest challenge facing local mines is to get buy-in for the transformation – a factor that is perceived to result in job losses as machines replace humans.
“The reality is, profitable mines do not reduce headcount. If a mine is profitable, the shareholders are going to want to expand and that creates numerous opportunities downstream,” concludes Manuell.