The mining industry across the globe is currently undergoing a technological paradigm shift.Mines of the future will require advanced technologies and mining operators are all set to embrace the new digital technologies to gain a competitive advantage.
For centuries, mining has provided us with the raw materials that have enabled us to develop our economies and build communities. Mining as an industry has been maturing over the last few decades on the back of an ever-increasing demand for resources on one side, and a need for sustainability on the other.
Even though there have been challenges in the South African mining industry for several years, it still employs nearly 5% of South Africa’s employed workforce, makes a significant direct contribution to GDP, sits on extensive reserves, and remains a world leader in the production of many minerals.
The mining industry across the globe currently faces some challenges – increasing production and reducing costs while safeguarding the health and safety of their workers and the environment. Miners often work in hazardous conditions, travelling deep underground to bring these precious elements to the surface.
But mines are entering a new era. The environment of a modern miner is being transformed. Automation and Digitalization have taken the centre stage in the mining industry across the globe, as the most defining trends of the 21st century.
Innovations in artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and the industrial Internet of things (IIoT) have the potential to save the sector an estimated $373 billion (over R6 trillion) and hundreds of lives by 2025 by automating machinery operation, planning and scheduling, facilitating predictive maintenance, improving man, material and asset traceability, harnessing the power of real-time data and analytics, and providing visibility across the mine-to-market value chain. People, process and technology are the drivers of change and the key to the transformation and future success of the mining industry.
All-electric mines don’t seem so far-fetched when the environmental pressures being faced by the mining industry are considered. The mines of the future will be carbon neutral, digitalized and autonomous.
One of the main hurdles while building an automated mine is community resistance. The main fear continues to be that AI and robotics are associated with loss of jobs. Automation and AI, in fact, will transform jobs and are key levers to increase people’s potential.
The mining industry needs to proactively take the workers and the community along with them in this automation journey. It is imperative to explain that automation ensures their safety and improves the standard of living of all stakeholders and is not an attempt towards reducing manpower. The Industry would also need to generate employment opportunities, for example, along the supply chain related to the mine or in alternate fields.
Despite the focus on diversity and inclusion in the last decade, the mining industry has not been able to move the dial on attracting and retaining the much-needed diversified talent. It is also burdened with a perception issue amongst both women and the younger generations as they make career choices.
The mining industry needs to adopt more technologically driven solutions and encourage innovation in day-to-day operations to change this mindset, thereby attracting a diverse workforce.
The mines of the future will be characterized by, amongst other things, integrated remote operation centres wherein everything from drill control to dispatch of trucks in a pit will be monitored and controlled virtually, thousands of miles away from where the physical assets are located.
Fully autonomous electric trucks and machines will bring a high degree of safety and efficiency to the operations. Configurable systems to manage the stockyards will be used to digitalize the complete material handling chain, acting as a digital twin of the physical asset.
Material flow will be modelled across conveyor belts and transportation equipment, with material properties and quality information, conveyed via automated data interfaces, to drive operational optimization.
Mining companies need to shift their strategies and adopt new business and operating models faster than ever before. The digital transformation of mining companies has become a business imperative – leveraging technology to improve processes is directly linked to value creation.