African mining industry looks to technology, innovation

African mining industry looks to technology, innovation

This year’s Investing in African Mining Indaba focused on sustainability, and how to use technology and innovation to achieve sustainable operations.

The Investing in African Mining Indaba 2018 took place from 5 to 8 February under the theme ‘Providing the foundation for sustainable junior and major mining growth in Africa’, and set the stage for mining companies, investors, governments, and media to make valuable connections, learn from experts, and gain industry insight.

Stage C was the location for the panels and presentations comprising the Mining 2050 (Technology & Innovation) stream on day 3 of the conference.

Image credit: Robyn Grimsley

This year, for the first time, the event also had dedicated streams focusing on various pressing issues affecting the mining sector. One of these was the Mining 2050 Innovation programme, which looked at where companies should invest in the age of disruption. Industry leaders from companies such as Anglo American, Rio Tinto, Barrick, and even Caterpillar took part in panels discussing the latest disruptive technology and innovation strategies.

Speaking about the decision to include this focus area in the 2018 Mining Indaba, managing director Alex Grose says, “Mining 2050 looks to the future,” adding that the aim of the sessions was to examine how the mining sector can adopt innovative ways of thinking and technologies so that it thrives. “Africa is competing for investment and commodities around the world. While the continent has a head start in terms of its resources in the ground, let’s not fall behind in terms of planning for the future,” says Grose

Stage C was the location for the panels and presentations comprising the Mining 2050 (Technology & Innovation) stream on day 3 of the conference.
Image credit: Robyn Grimsley

Some of the topics under discussion throughout this stream included how exploration and processing are likely to change over the next 10 years and into the future; key ways that mines can use technology and big data to manage risk across the project life cycle; the power of big data and how companies are having to adjust their operations to take advantage of the opportunities it presents; sustainable intelligent mining; how the Internet of things (IoT) will shape the mine of the future; and how to develop sustainable procurement strategies.

Big data

“The digital age is giving us the ability to collect and analyse vast amounts of important data, which makes for better engineering decisions — whether these relate to rock mechanics, water management, or social impact,” says SRK partner and principal mining engineer, Marcin Wertz. “The current optimism about mining’s future prospects need to be based on this more innovative and inclusive approach if it is to provide the longer-term benefits to all stakeholders".

This focus on the data that is currently available, and what we can do with it, carried over into other sessions, with SRK Consulting (SA) chairman William Joughin presenting a range of technological innovations developed and applied by SRK in its mining project work. Joughin highlighted the need for mines to embrace these advances as active participants in the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and also looked at how data can form an important part of a mine’s planning. “Larger quantities of better     and more reliable data — combined with specialised and in-depth engineering experience — are  a  real step-change in our ability to understand and  manage  project  risk,”  he  said. “Today’s  technology gives us the power to collect and analyse data in previously unimaginable quantities —  and with remarkable benefits. We have used drones and photogrammetry, for instance, for mapping geological structures, giving us a better understanding of the geology and more reliable resource definition. This, in turn, helps mines manage geotechnical risks such as slope stability, as more data means more accurate interpretation of geological structures,” Joughin said.

Jeff Hamilton, director of brand strategy and alliances at Dassault Systèmes, spoke about how the   IoT will shape the mine of the future. He gave a brief overview of the areas that he believes will see great change by 2050, including increasing human population, changes in social structure (the rise of the sharing economy), human enhancement (in terms of both cognition and prosthetics), natural resource consumption (an increase in population levels will drive a decrease in per capita consumption and reuse of resources), natural resource extraction techniques, urbanisation, energy, robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), changing labour and skills requirements,  an  increase  in connected devices, and platform considerations stemming from this increase.

According to Hamilton, there will likely be between 35 billion and 50 billion IoT devices by 2050, which will have a significant impact on the way society — and industry — functions. But while big data is a recurring idea that comes up everywhere these days, he was quick to stress that this is a tool, not an end game. “It’s not really about big data; it’s about actionable intelligence, which relates to whatever KPIs you are looking at for your organisation. Our view is that the mining IoT is digitally connected, it’s data driven, it’s model based, and ultimately, we get to probably the most important element here: we combine the virtual and the real. So, what we can do with this … [IoT] ecosystem in 2050 is, we can make a digital twin of the mine, and then model, simulate, and optimise so that we can test things in the digital world before we apply them in the real world.

”Gift of the Givers was also present at the event, raising awareness of Cape Town’s water crisis and encouraging delegates to donate to help address the situation.

Image credit: Robyn Grimsley

In summary, Hamilton stated that it is likely there will be some dramatic technological changes by the year 2050. “From an industry standpoint, we really need to start innovating with digitalisation and IoT. All of the majors are talking about this, but just by listening to Mining Indaba this week, it is a recurring theme overall.”


Another topic that was prevalent throughout Mining Indaba 2018 is that of sustainability in all its many forms. Bridging the gap between technology and sustainability was Deloitte’s Jan-Adriaan du Plessis, associate director for strategy and operations – energy and resources. Du Plessis gave a presentation on sustainable intelligent mining, which he defined as addressing four main issues: the way decisions are made; the skills that will be required in future; how resources are managed; and how value is shared.

What does this mean? He explained that digital platforms allow for more descriptive real-time information to be used for decision-making. Digitisation and technology will also change the way the mine of the future works, requiring mining organisations to be more proactive in understanding what the workforce of the future will look like. Resource management includes areas such as infrastructure, utilities, and energy, which have historically been managed as a fixed cost.

“I think that in the future, we will manage these as variable costs through the value chain, in the same way we manage material flow,” said Du Plessis. Finally, when it comes to how value is shared, Du Plessis pointed out that, “The Fourth Industrial Revolution is not necessarily a zero-sum game. You operate within a broader ecosystem, and value should be shared with all stakeholders in that ecosystem."

SRK Consulting (SA) chairman William Joughin presented a range of technological innovations developed and applied by SRK in its mining project work.

Image credit: SRK

Deloitte’s Centre of the Long View business unit makes extensive use of AI technology to identify the drivers that will shape the business of the future, organised within the broad categories social, politics, technology, economy, and environment. And, unsurprisingly, many identified drivers are linked to technology and to the Fourth Industrial Revolution (Industry 4.0). Looking at why this is important to the mining sector, Du Plessis said that according to an analysis which Deloitte conducted back in 2012, the impact of technology is going to be what he referred to as, “long fuse, small bang,” meaning it will take a long time to come to fruition and have a (relatively) small impact on business. “I think that the disruption for mining will come not in mining itself, but in all the supporting industries — your clients, your customers."

Emphasising a point that was raised multiple times throughout the event, Du Plessis said that “digital solves real business problems.” The benefits to mining organisations impact a few main areas: core processes (reducing process variability with real-time information, enhancing and augmenting decision-making, and automating processes and improving the whole system); the workforce (improving safety, increasing digital workforce engagement); and the broader ecosystem in which mines operate.

“I think that's probably one of the most important dimensions,” Du Plessis said. “If you're going to make investments in digital infrastructure, extend it to the community around where you operate. If you need to develop new skills and an understanding for the workforce of the future, develop those skills within the community using digital platforms.” This extends to establishing partnerships within the community to develop suppliers and the workforce of the future through digital education platforms, among other solutions.

One of the other sustainability issues in focus over the course of the event was local procurement, with the question, “How local is local?” being raised more than once. When we speak of local procurement, are we talking about the national, provincial, or community level? Does having South African suppliers from outside the ‘local-local’ community fulfil the spirit of the endeavour, or do companies need to focus more on those in the communities directly surrounding their operations? And if the latter, how can this be done in a manner that is sustainable in the long term?

Overall, the feeling at the Investing in African Mining Indaba 2018 was optimistic, with a clear focus on ways to integrate technology and innovation into mining operations and the surrounding community to build an industry that is sustainable. And with the industry — and the economy — finally beginning to recover from recent downturns, the outlook for the future of mining in Africa is unmistakably positive.

Acknowledged: Plant & Equipment Hire: Robyn Grimsley




SRK Africa