The distinct transition from early to widespread adoption of digitalisation in the mining industry was an interesting development between last year and this year’s Mining Indaba. There was clear focus on digitalisation in everyone’s presentations, across all technologies, which highlighted the growing trend of digital disruption in the sector, from smaller companies to major conglomerates.
‘Smart mining’ is happening – in South Africa, Africa and globally – and its effects are having a positive impact on a range of sectors within the mines, extending to neighbouring communities.
The reality is that technology is contributing to an evolution within the mining industry. It’s a far cry from where it was two or three decades ago when barriers to entry were huge, and today smaller mining companies are burgeoning. Digitalisation has developed to the stage where it is widely accessible – both in terms of cost and ease of use. In the past, in general, mining machinery was advanced and complex to operate, but the newer range of technology is ‘plug and play’, such as our platform, which is IoT enabled and features open and inter-operable architecture and delivers real-time control and operational efficiency. These technologies don’t require major qualifications to deploy, and they are enabling the smaller miner to play a larger role in the mining industry, certainly in South Africa.
Technology is bringing in remarkable energy efficiencies in a wide range of areas – with IoT providing far greater access to data. Energy cannot be harvested once used and the more efficiencies incorporated into processes through technology, the greater the savings. For example, in the past, to produce 1oz of gold a certain number of kW hours of electricity were used. The biggest consumer of electricity is in the grinding of rocks or substrate, with a correlation between rock hardness and usage of energy. Now, through the use of cost-effective sensor technology, the parameters on crushers can be adjusted to work as hard as they need to according to the substrate being crushed. It’s smarter mining at work – and in Africa we are seeing efforts to squeeze every opportunity to improve the efficiency of resources.
Exciting developments too, are evident in both augmented reality and virtual reality in the industry – adding vastly to the safety of individuals on mines and improving efficiencies, allowing IoT enabled communication with cell phones and tablets with the open standards technology in the case of augmented reality, alerting staff and contractors to potential hazards, or, in the case of virtual reality, enabling interaction with mining technology from the safety of a control room with a VR enabled device, such as Oculus Rift or Holonens devices. We have applications of this type in South Africa, in mining, utilities and water.
The Indaba also highlighted the increased emphasis on water management in mines, which was not restricted to consumption, but the overall direct impact that mines have on the supply and quality of the water in local communities and on the immediate eco-systems. Of significant interest is that Anglo American has incorporated water usage as one of their key performance indicators – which is the first mining company we’ve been involved with that has placed water at such a high level, but it is a clear barometer of the growing value of water usage in mining worldwide.
Here too, the management, measurement and control of water is through technology and digitalisation – where flows and consumption points can be accurately monitored and measured, and sustainability strategies implemented to ensure minimal impact on the community and environment.
Training and skills development is another key focus area in mining, and increasingly, products in the technology sector are being developed that are simpler to implement in a plug and play fashion. To play its part even further, Schneider Electric South Africa is proud of its online free-to-all Energy University, which offers training and certification in a wide range of comprehensive courses in electrical energy, which are aligned to local skills development needs, and fills in a vital gap between unskilled labour and graduates.
There has also been a gratifying upsurge by mines in social development and upliftment initiatives in the areas where they operate, recognising the value of the communities that host their operations. Schneider Electric SA has also collaborated with mines in a number of investment programmes that have directly benefited the communities. At a large open pit mine in Limpopo, we have collaborated in an enterprise development project, SESA invested in solar street lighting for the local neighbourhood, and at another mine we have invested in solar powered pumping systems to pump water up from the local stream to feed the local bakery and the farming community. It is extremely rewarding to see lives affected so directly from our involvement. Schneider’s ethos will always be that access to energy is a basic human right.
Marc Ramsay is the Vice President of the Anglophone Africa Mining, Metals and Minerals Industry Business Unit at Schneider Electric SA