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Adapting to the ‘new normal’ bought on by the Covid-19 outbreak will require companies to listen to and meet the changing needs of customers by adopting new working methods and complying with evolving lockdown regulations, says explosives and blasting services provider BME technology and marketing GM Ralf Hennecke.
BME is focused on delivering products safely and reliably, ensuring customers’ security of supply while improving their processes to realise greater efficiency amid the pandemic and beyond, he notes.
“The pandemic and subsequent hard lockdown, which started on March 27, was a wake-up call regarding supply security for everyone in the mining sector. We are proud that we had no stockouts during this time, so customers continued to be supplied.”
Planning for alternative solutions is key to ensuring security of supply during a pandemic, and while BME identified substitute sources of supplies and logistics, many of these have not been used, notes Hennecke.
“Our working capital strategy was also reviewed in many areas and involved keeping higher inventories to prevent stockouts to reduce risk. This was done in collaboration with our customer base.”
BME’s investment in digitalising processes across its service offering has also been significantly beneficial under the Covid-19 lockdown.
The company’s systems have made it easier to comply with physical-distancing regulations, work remotely and provide technical support for customers without travelling to site, Hennecke tells Mining Weekly.
Company innovations have also reduced human touch points across a mine’s blasting supply chain and allowed for the reporting and interpretation of data in real time to enable fast and effective decision-making.
Therefore, the outbreak has accelerated the move to a paperless environment, reducing the risk of infection through physical contact of any sort.
“We see many new working methods being retained after the lockdown, as part of an exciting journey towards safe and efficient mining,” says Hennecke, adding that BME’s digitalisation and software department is fine-tuning the company’s development pipeline for the future.
Prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, the South African mining industry was already under considerable pressure, facing falling yields and grades in some commodities, as well as cost pressures, owing to increasingly difficult accessibility to ore, high input costs, together with weak commodity prices.
Insufficient foreign direct investment; unreliable power supply from the national grid; inadequate road, rail and port infrastructure; and an uncertain labour law regulatory framework were also crippling the industry.
Hennecke says these factors caused an overall decline in production, making it more difficult for mining companies to recover from the lockdown.
“While there was some hope before the lockdown, owing to coal production increasing and the improving demand for commodities, such as manganese and chrome, the pandemic has dampened the outlook for the local industry.”
The hard lockdown had a significant impact on the mining industry and its explosives and blasting suppliers, as only coal mines supplying State-owned power utility Eskom continued production.
With the return to a ‘new normal’ from June, however, many customers resuming blasting activities to varying degrees.
“While some mines focused on returning to previous production levels and replenishing stockpiles, others took a more cautious approach and decided to produce less. In some sectors, production rates are still not at requisite levels,” says Hennecke.
BME aims to weather South Africa’s economic decline by focusing on diversifying the commodity types it services and expanding into new regions.
Hennecke says the benefit of this strategy is that different commodities generally do not follow the same economic cycles.
“The more commodities we serve, the more balanced the demand tends to be. While South African Development Community countries remain our primary markets, we have also expanded into other parts of Africa, as well as North America and Asia Pacific.”
In addition, BME believes that its ongoing technological innovation will play a role in the company’s sustainability.
Its technology-driven products and services range from its BLASTMAP blast planning software to its AXXIS digital initiation system, and can integrate into a mine’s software platform, feeding data into the monitoring, control and decision-making process.
“AXXIS is among our best-known innovations, and the latest generation of this system – AXXIS Titanium – is in the final testing stages across South Africa in quarries, and massive hard rock and coal mines and is due to be launched in the next quarter” says Hennecke.
AXXIS advances a mine’s efficiency and sustainability by allowing for larger, quality blasts that reduce not only the frequency of blasting but also disruptions caused by blast-related pit stoppages.
In June, BME also released the Blasting Guide mobile application for Android devices, which allows for rapid calculation and inspection of blast designs.
“These are all part of our offering to improve blasting efficiencies and leverage the value of real-time data at mines,” emphasises Hennecke.
He notes that the levels of responsiveness to BME’s offerings vary quite considerably across the local mining industry.
However, there are major mining players active in South Africa that look for the best available technology and work closely with innovation providers.
Hennecke stresses the need for technology partners in the mining industry to focus on product lines that support the fastest and most effective decision-making to improve mining efficiency, as this is key to South Africa regaining its competitiveness in the global minerals sector.