Half of mining industry still resisting AI integration

At least half of heavy machinery users within the global…

At least half of heavy machinery users within the global mining industry still rely primarily on manual supply chain management tools, with 40% still using manual tools for operational planning, Wits Mining Institute’s Professor Glen Nwaila has said.

“So even if the automation is partially achieved, you will find that the plant is heavily automated but, in the mine, only a portion of it is actually automated,” he said, speaking at the Mind Shift conference hosted by Mine Equipment Manufacturers of South Africa, in Sandton, on May 15.

He further noted that only 10% of industry players saw their industrial data as useful.

However, for those mining companies that have embraced AI and automation technologies, Nwaila said research showed a 75% decrease in unplanned downtime, 50% faster analysis of data leading to more reliable decisions and a more than 20% reduction in emissions.

However, while these reductions could lead to cost reductions, he said the development and adoption of Industry 4.0 technologies was not without its challenges, leading to a continued reluctance by many industry players to fully embrace it.

“We are often forced to produce technology faster than we used to do before. But this comes with its own challenges because it means you also have less time to test the reliability of your technology. Sometimes this can work against you,” Nwaila noted.

He further noted, particularly in South Africa, there was a disconnect between developers and vendors of new technologies and end-users within the mining industry, where he said that most conferences and discussions around new mining technologies tended to be 90% steered by vendors with few end-users participating. This resulted in a state of continuous isolation of end-users who did not feel as though their needs were being met.

“Moreover, a certain number of companies tend to buy technology based on how much it costs. Who can sell it for cheaper. You will find that maybe they’ll consult up to five different suppliers and the one that they choose is not because they are very efficient, but they were a couple of rands slightly lower,” Nwaila said.

Another significant challenge standing in the way of greater Industry 4.0 technology adoption in the mining industry was the increased demand for the development of bespoke solutions, which used up the capacity of developers to develop generic solutions.

“Nowadays, each and every mine wants a bespoke solution because they will tell you they were facing a unique set of problems. And for that particular reason, it becomes difficult for original-equipment manufacturers to build engineering solutions that can be generalised to the entire industry,” Nwaila said.

He added that the demand for greater efficiencies was leading to a trend of increasingly large machines to process larger volumes at a time. However, he warned that scale increases could not be implemented indefinitely.

“Everyone wants larger machines, something that is going to be faster and deliver something far much quicker. We tend to speak a lot of volume, but we tend not to think a lot about the maintenance that is required. The bigger you go, the more challenges you have,” Nwaila said.

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