The South African mining industry, for some years, has been faced with unceasing labour turmoil, coupled with downward trends in commodity prices. For many businesses in this sector, the belief is that their future lies in productivity turnaround, and that the only way to achieve this is to more seriously consider increased mechanisation.
A good example of how mechanisation may benefit the industry lies in the simple fact that much of South Africa’s remaining gold reserves, for instance, are found at such great depths that the costs to obtain these increase significantly. However, mechanisation means the mines can remove people from the workplace, lowering the costs required to mine at these depths. Remote-controlled machines also do not need the same degree of ventilation and safety standards as people do.
The employment conundrum
According to Tristan du Pisanie, ADT product marketing manager at Bell Equipment SA, mechanisation is certainly one of the hot topics in mining at the moment. The discussions being had, he says, are not just about using more of what is already available on the market. Instead, there are increasing calls for cutting-edge technologies, such as automated operations and machines, and pedestrian detection.
“Obviously, increased mechanisation will have an impact on employment, and in a country that has one of the highest unemployment rates in the world, this is a valid concern. One way to minimise the impact would be to use locally designed and manufactured equipment to do the mechanisation. This will stimulate job creation in the manufacturing sector. It is up to the manufacturing sector to deliver a good product at a good price to serve the mining sector, but here a partnership approach between mining and manufacturing could be beneficial for South Africa as a whole.”
Andrew Main, Sandvik Mining and Rock Technology’s GM business development for southern Africa, adds that while mechanisation is the evolutionary process of this industry, we have seen very few, if any, brownfields operations transforming from more conventional mining to fully mechanised operations.
“There is a drive to plan future mines around the mechanised offerings of today, and these operations will create new employment profiles at the mine operations and communities wherein they operate. The working conditions and opportunities to upskill employees would enhance sustainable employee relations.
“Mechanised mining also requires support services at and near the operations, including parts, supply, repairs, rebuilds, service and training of technicians and operators. All of these create additional opportunities for employment.”
A competitiveness boost
There are a number of potential benefits to mechanisation, suggests Du Pisanie. Among these are higher productivity, better safety and increased efficiency.
“Improvements in these areas can increase our competitiveness on the global stage, which should, in turn, bring in new opportunities for both the mining industry and its suppliers.”
Main believes mechanisation alone will not bring the required benefits. Instead, he says it is necessary to plan for the expected benefits and then operate the mine is such a way that those benefits are captured.
“For example, by introducing ‘smarter’ mechanised equipment, it becomes possible not only to measure performance, but also optimise this via a continuous improvement programme. By doing this, one of the main benefits would be the ability to mine to plan, or as close as possible; obtaining this kind of consistency in your processes leads to predictability.”
Bell Equipment offers mechanisation products and services aimed at making customers more productive, more efficient and more profitable, Du Pisanie points out. An example is the launch of the B60E, the company’s flagship articulated dump truck (ADT), the largest of its kind in the world.
“This machine offers productivity during inclement weather, when rigid dump trucks are unable to run. It also offers a level of productivity not seen before in the ADT market,” he says.
For this industry, its survival hinges on productivity improvements, continues Main, and it is in everyone’s interest to fast-track these potential gains.
“Sandvik sees the opportunity of working with customers, understanding the applications, limitations and their business in general, as a typical way of working. By being involved from the planning to the execution stages, we assist service providers to be sustainable and able to add value to their products throughout the lifecycle.”
“As we have seen in many industries, technology advances are fast and furious. However, these solutions need to demonstrate value and be able to capture it for those who invest in the technologies,” states Main.
“We have seen a fast move to the capturing of real-time data. This is a start, but to be effective, this data needs to be converted into relevant information that can be rapidly reacted upon. Ideally, what you want are customised reports that are generated on a continuous basis, available on your PC, smartphone or tablet underground, and that keep operational staff and management aware of progress against plans.”
Du Pisanie says that while the basics of mining have remained the same for a very long time, the means of getting the basics done have evolved continually.
“The Internet of Things (IoT) is certainly an opportunity for evolving and improving further. On a worksite, if all of the machines know where all of the other machines are and where all of the pedestrians are, then safety will be significantly enhanced.
“However, there is also great potential for both productivity and efficiency benefits with the enhanced visibility that the site supervisor has of the operation he is in control of. For example, if he sees that trucks are idling at the loading site, he will know about it sooner, can quickly investigate what the problem is and also implement corrective action in a time scale that is much more rapid than the way things are currently done.”
In the short term, adds Du Pisanie, Bell believes telematics solutions such as its Fleetm@tic offering have the potential to offer customers a means to track machines and optimise their use.
“In the medium to long term, a fully connected IoT site offers the opportunity to take the concept even further. Ultimately, we believe that automated sites are going to become a reality,” he says.
Main is also optimistic, pointing out that mining is a long-term industry that will require many complicated decisions to be made for the foreseeable future.
“Over the past year, most commodity prices have improved and, as seen in market news, there has been an improved demand for equipment. Mechanisation and associated benefits like automation and digitalisation are certainly key topics and focus areas. These are currently being evaluated and will definitely be part of the mining industry’s medium to longer-term future,” he concludes.