Exxaro’s digital journey paying dividends

5th July 2019 By: Nadine James - Features Deputy Editor

Exxaro’s digital journey paying dividends

POGISO MTHIMUNYE Grootegeluk is experiencing its highest ever output in its 50-year history in part because of the implementation of the digital strategy
Photo by: Creamer Media's Dylan Slater

The Digital@Exxaro Show & Tell event last week demonstrated that the digital transformation initiatives implemented by Exxaro Resources had been instrumental in the company’s achieving record performances in coal production, sales and export volumes in 2018.

CEO Mxolisi Mgojo explained that the digital strategy had evolved since inception in 2016. Back then, the priority was to mitigate potential headwinds by adopting disruptive technologies to ensure that the company could position itself at the lowest quartile of the cost curve. Now Exxaro is not only looking at adopting disruptive technologies, it also wants to be a disruptor.

Mgojo said that the digital strategy “talks to the Exxaro that we want to be”, adding that the company’s roots were “proudly South African” and that Exxaro saw itself as playing a catalytic role and creating a huge social impact through its continued success.

Mgojo noted that the innovative spirit incubated at Exxaro over the last three years had resulted in multilevel engagement in, and ownership of, the digital transformation journey. “Where our employees don’t find solutions, they ask: How do we create the solution?”

He added that a core focus of the digital strategy was aimed at establishing a culture that ensured that everyone could contribute – one that kept Exxaro at the forefront of technology adoption.

“We’ve seen too much disruption. We understood that, unless we became disruptors ourselves, we would not survive.”

He noted that, apart from upskilling people, one of the key aspects was learning to appreciate the experience gained from failure. “If you have failed, it means you have tried and that you may yet succeed.”

Further, given the nature of disruption, the potential benefits that might arise from being a disruptor are immeasurable.

Belfast Coal

Belfast implementation project business unit manager Lazarus Ramashilabele explained that Belfast had been in the construction phase for about 18 months and that “the intent then was that we’d complete the boxcut in May and start actual mining in October or so, but we’ve managed to really accelerate a lot of activities – for instance, the boxcut was started in November last year.”

Further, he noted that first blast occurred in March – something that was initially planned for around September.

“One of the key things we’re doing at Belfast is the integrated operations hub, which, from a value chain optimisation and decision-making point of view, is going to be unparalleled,” Ramashilabele commented.

The Belfast mine has an expected 17-year life. On its website, Exxaro notes that the plant will primarily produce A-grade, export-quality coal at an expected volume of 2.2-million tonnes a year, as well as about 500 000 t/y of a secondary-quality product. However, Ramashilabele noted that, when the operation started in earnest next year, 2.7-million tonnes of throughput a year would be a minimum.

“Just through the digitalisation and innovation initiatives, we will achieve an additional 20% improvement on the original design plan.”


Senior industrial engineer Pogiso Mthimunye noted that Grootegeluk had implemented three digital initiatives that had increased efficiency and production.

The digital route slip is an electronic work management system, which enables the various clearing, drilling, blasting, loading and hauling teams to view and sign off on site preparation prior to deployment.

He explained that this ensured that site preparation occured in the most effective manner possible, rather than having each team correct the previous team’s mistakes.

“With the route slip, you have the clearing team go out and work on the site and then take photos and videos of the area so that the drilling team can view the images and approve the site on the application without the drilling team having to go out only to realise that better preparation is needed.”

Mthimunye said that, prior to the route slip implementation, mining a block could take up to a month because of all the back and forth, whereas now “we could do it in a week”


The second initiative, the Equipment Utilisation system, is an end-user system that compiles the pertinent information of any given asset, including electronic monitoring information, and use and performance trends. Mthimunye said that, instead of disparate Excel sheets on each asset, there was one system that was accessible to mangers and operators, which provided visibility of all mining equipment to enable real-time decision-making to enhance productivity.

Finally, the centralised control room, or the ‘ops eye’, ensures full value-chain visualisation. Mthimunye noted that visibility of the entire operation enabled better decision-making and saved a lot of downtime.

“[Since the beginning of the year], our production is about 8% higher than this time last year. We’re experiencing our highest-ever output in our 50-year history, in part because of the implementation of our digital strategies,” Mthimunye stated.

He noted that Grootegeluk was currently trialling an autonomous drill. “We’ve given ourselves until the end of the year to prove the concept. “Once that is done. we’ll be ordering two more drills and, eventually. we’ll have seven autonomous drills.”

Mthimunye noted that the autonomous capability would expand to include dozers, loaders and eventually trucks, when Grootegeluk would become completely autonomous. However, he stressed that Exxaro was being extremely careful in ensuring that people were retained.

“We’re looking at upskilling operators to perform some of the maintenance and engineering tasks – if you’re no longer operating it, at least learn how to fix it. “That way, they can retain their employment, and we get the benefits of using modern technology.”