The Journey to Modern Mining

The challenges and opportunities of mining industry 4.0

2020 proved that innovation and technology are vital to all industries as they seek to adapt to rapidly altering circumstances. The digitalization of society has transformed the fundamentals of services and equipment and revolutionized their delivery and maintenance. To meet evolving expectations of stakeholders, the mining industry is also evolving and undergoing new rapid technological changes, which have been fast-tracked due to the pandemic. Applications that raised suspicions previously, such as remote monitoring of employees and unmanned equipment, are now considered essential to ensure operational efficiency and safety.

"The industry spotlight has shifted from increasing capacity to enhancing productivity through optimization and digitalization. Utilizing the right data and combining it with human experts can lead to significant gains in reliability, productivity and sustainability," confirmed Deon de Kock, president of FLSmidth in sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and South Asia.

Data analysis and acquisition are vital for mines to realize their future in automation. Increasingly, technology-focused service providers such as ABB, Maptek and TOMRA Sorting and equipment suppliers ensure they offer a platform that allows for data visualization from machinery and equipment, which is also critical in the aftersales market.

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“Smart mining is a hot topic in the industry, especially due to the pandemic. From a value and revenue-generating perspective, it has been predicted that smart mining technologies will grow fourfold in the next three years.”

Ralf Hennecke, General Manager: Technology and Marketing, BME

TOMRA Sorting, which offers sensor-based solutions for the mining, recycling and food industries, invested in the production of a cloud-based data platform known as TOMRA Insight. "The information is collected and visualized for the client in such a way so that it is actionable and can optimize upstream or downstream processes," elaborated Albert Du Preez, SVP, head of TOMRA in South Africa.

The client can follow up on the status and throughput of machines remotely. The platform also improves personnel efficiency, enables operators to act quickly and reduces the need to constantly monitor operations manually.

Maptek, an Australia-based software provider to the mining industry, has developed a machine learning tool that accesses and analyses data rapidly, known as the DomainMCF. Gideon Slabbert, general manager of Maptek in South Africa, highlighted that data quality is also just as important as its acquisition. Therefore, data validation is vital, which is why Maptek's software addresses this issue. "The combined effective output of machine learning and AI is equivalent to the work of 1,000 scheduling engineers. The genetic algorithm approach cross breeds different scenarios to give a combined best solution for presenting to clients in a much shorter time," explained Slabbert.

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In the blasting space, the South African leading manufacturer of explosives BME also relies on data analytics under its XPLOLOG system. The company is also investing in innovations to enhance operational safety by allowing for real-time monitoring, which comes in handy, especially in underground operations. "BLASTMAP is essentially the start of the cycle for the process of blasting, allowing you to easily design and predict the outcome of blasts," highlighted Ralf Hennecke, general manager of technology of marketing of BME. "The information is sent to the XPLOLOG system, which then applies it in the field. Management can see what is happening on the block and during blasting in real-time."

Significant investments in innovation and R&D are also being made by OEMs to develop autonomous electrically powered fleets. Local South African manufacturer Rham Equipment started investing in this transition years ago. Meanwhile, Vermeer Equipment Suppliers, the exclusive distributor of US-based Vermeer branded equipment throughout Sub-Saharan Africa, supplies partially automated equipment with auto-steer functions, which can execute a pre-loaded 3-dimensional mining task. "I see far more opportunities in terms of autonomous technology for fleets of multiple equipment on one mine site," commented Vermeer's managing director Frank Beerthuis.

All this new advanced technology will alter the labour market dynamics and require new skills to create, maintain and operate. "When it comes to digitization and automation, skills may be lacking. This is not only in the SADC region but is rather a global phenomenon," explained Hennecke.

To respond to these challenges, JSE-listed contractor Murray and Roberts relies on a training academy to help find and retain talent, as well as train clients. "The centre is essential in training our workforce and developing the skills we need for the modern mine by focusing on occupationally directed technical skills and safety training," elaborated Mike da Costa, CEO of global mining at Murray and Roberts. "Using simulators and virtual reality, training can also be conducted virtually."

“The industry spotlight has shifted from increasing capacity to enhancing productivity through optimization and digitalization. Utilizing the right data and combining it with human experts can lead to significant gains on reliability, productivity and sustainability.”

Deon de Kock, President, Sub-Saharan Africa, Middle East and South Asia, FLSmidth

Nonetheless, even by ensuring training and availability of technology, mines will not automatically adopt a new system or software due to multiple reasons. One of which is the difficulty in integrating a mine's different platforms and software, which make it difficult to analyse various data sources to guide decision making. In an effort to solve this issue, ABB developed the Ability System 800xA. "In many cases in the South African mining industry you find several different control systems on a plant with poor integration," explained John Manuell, local division manager of ABB. "The 800xA system can effectively consolidate information from multiple sources across a mine, which can then be used in other higher-level digital implementations. It is not only a distributed control system but also an electrical control system, a safety system, and a collaboration enabler with the capacity to improve engineering efficiency, operator performance and asset utilization for mining operations."

Digitization is the hot topic for the mining industry, and for a good reason. African mines are adopting these technologies just as much as Australian or South American mines. While there may be hindrances to the digital mining revolution, mine modernization is crucial to surviving competition due to its evident cost and efficiency benefits.

Image courtesy of Afrimat