Increasing use of digitisation and automation technology has great potential to increase performance and productivity; but the real challenges are ensuring that these technologies help resolve the key risks that threaten sustainability and that stakeholders realize that mine life and related economic activity will be extended by success.
In management consultancy EY’s 10 most relevant risks and opportunities for the mining and metals sector, a social license to operate holds its top spot.
The economic lockdown required by the COVID-19 pandemic, in which it is estimated that millions of jobs have been lost, would only mean greater poverty, including in mining communities.
More than ever, a comprehensive and integrated approach to the range of challenges and risks facing mines is now more relevant.
Digitisation and automation innovations aim to make a vital difference at a high level where South Africa really matters: keeping the existing job prospects in the sector alive.
We are currently not developing many new mineral ventures in a mature sector like ours, and in a challenging economic climate, which could replace our old mines.
Rather, as they reach irreversible closure, we are witnessing a slow aging of operations.
This is in the essence of mining; the deposit of minerals is always finite and can only be mined as long as its income exceeds its expenses.
Rising efficiencies and lower costs while improving safety standards is an urgent priority, enabling mining operations to proceed in either deeper or lower-grade properties.
Stable and Remote
Technology definitely allows us to accomplish this, even though often the speed of implementation is inconsistent.
Remotely operated equipment allows drilling, loading and transport to be carried out, reducing the necessary manual labor and thereby reducing the safety and health risk.
Throughout an activity, equipment and personnel can be monitored, and can communicate more effectively, improving safety and productivity.
A South African mine is testing the use of hydrogen on the surface to power transport vehicles, reducing the carbon footprint and expense.
Digital technology improves planning and tracking, allowing operations to be safer and more effective.
Global collaboration between mines, consultants and academics has leveraged seismic wave research into useful applications that boost site protection by separating vibrations induced by blasting from those that indicate pit structure movement, for example.
Similar study also leads to developments in the modeling approaches to earthquake site response for mines.
Power of Sensor
In almost every area of mining and processing today, the use of sensors with digital capability enables the collection of “big data” for processing and analysis.
As we strengthen our ability to obtain useful data from this material, all activities can be streamlined. For example, advances in geo-metallurgical modeling may provide comprehensive geological data to enhance the performance of plants on a daily basis.
Mines may decrease power consumption and reagent usage by optimizing variables such as energy consumption and reagent volumes based on this data, lowering the cost per ton.
Technological progress is obviously not so much a challenge to mining workers as a critical lifeline, helping to maintain mining jobs for longer.
However, this effect is practically indirect, and therefore invisible to observers. With digital technologies, there are other possibilities that could be more specifically applied to the social license issue, primarily related to communication.
The provision of a mobile app and free internet connectivity to nearby areas was part of a local mining company project to promote stakeholder participation.
This provided two-way contact between members of the community and the mine, helping to create an accurate, reliable and sensitive source of activity data.
The inclusion of a digital platform enabled the creation of skills and education and opened a ‘digital doorway’ for work opportunities, educational connections, applications for bursaries and other opportunities in the area.
Digital communication technology, often mandated by law as part of environmental and social permitting processes, is now being used to strengthen structured stakeholder participation processes.
Innovations like this could be applied to promote local procurement, which is both an essential component of mining enforcement and a recurrent source of community frustration that increases the risks of social licensing.
The Digital platforms can promote interaction and cooperation by helping to encourage connections between mines, local small businesses, community groups and other stakeholders including municipalities.
The ultimate objective is not technology, but rather digital inclusion and an improvement in local economies’ economic resilience and power.
This makes it possible to more effectively share the potential benefits generated from mining locally through commercial transactions rather than charity handouts.
The challenges facing communities close to mines in South Africa’s underperforming economy, further devastated by the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, will gradually spill over into the mines themselves.
Digital technologies can make a difference in bridging the many complex and potentially destructive divisions in an increasingly interconnected world.