SA mines urged to quickly to benefit from technology innovations

2nd December 2016 By: David Oliveira - Creamer Media Staff Writer

South Africa’s mining industry needs to move quickly to take advantage of the opportunities and mitigate the risks inherent in the onset of disruptive technology innovations to remain competitive, advises management consultancy Datta Burton & Associates (DBA).

DBA partner Aaron Burton tells Mining Weekly that while mines in South Africa are currently not designed for such innovations, such as autonomous vehicles, mining majors Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton are making significant strides in developing the technology in locations where they operate to gain a competitive advantage over slower-moving competitors.

Rio Tinto and BHP Billiton currently deploy a number of autonomous haulage trucks at their iron-ore operations in the Pilbara region of Western Australia, which has significantly improved operating efficiencies while reducing operating costs.

Burton points out that while autonomous technology is being deployed on haulage trucks, it can also be applied to other equipment such as continuous miners, loaders and drill rigs.

Automating equipment will result in several job redundancies, particularly equipment operators. This poses a significant threat for the local mining industry, which had experienced significant job losses of 5.9% to 462 000 jobs by the end of last year.

However, Burton points out that demand for other jobs, such as equipment maintenance, will increase and that disruptive technologies in other sectors has proven to reduce unemployment over the long term.

He notes that skills development will remain a major hurdle for mass adoption of autonomous vehicles in the local mining industry and suggests that government and local businesses need to aggressively pursue the development of skills relevant to disruptive technologies.

“The Luddite fallacy has shown us that the nature of the work will change and, therefore, the nature of the worker will need to change as well.”

The Luddite fallacy refers to the observation that while new technology does displace jobs it does not increase overall unemployment, but rather changes the composition of job profiles available in an economy.

Burton states that, therefore, if South Africa does not address the skills requirement, it will lag further behind nations such as Australia, which are leading the charge in mining innovation.

Meanwhile, he suggests that government should also consider developing legislation to govern the impending adoption of disruptive technologies. Australia, for example, is considering revising the legislation to allow for driverless vehicles to legally operate on its roads.

“This signifies that the [Australian] government is thinking on a broader scale about how this big disruption is going to affect the country,” Burton points out, adding that this shows an attempt to “get in front of the problem” to take advantage of the opportunities and control the impacts.