Forces Of Disruption Shaping The Future of Mining

The rapid advance of mining digitalisation will change the way that African mines operate.

This requires careful consideration of the impacts of this change, Deloitte African energy and resources leader Andrew Lane tells SASCHA SOLOMONS.

“Technology in the mining space is more to do with innovation than just technical innovation. We need a step change in operational and safety performance, and therefore there is an imperative to use technology,” starts Lane.

“Technology in the mining space is more to do with innovation than just technical innovation. We need a step change in operational and safety performance, and therefore there is an imperative to use technology,” starts Lane.

There is disruption coming in the mining industry. Electric vehicles are coming faster than expected.  Cars are moving from steel to aluminium, and airlines from aluminium to carbon fibre.

The mining industry needs to be agile in an uncertain environment.  If mining companies don’t have their processes under control, a step change is difficult.

He explains that the digital age is set to disrupt the lives of individuals, communities, but particularly organisations. Mines are no exception to this rule, with far-reaching implications and important opportunities.

Mines on the African continent need to be cognisant of both the impending digital changes to their business, and of the impact of those changes to the societies in which they operate.

However, it’s important to note that this revolution is not only about technology – because people are still needed to make a business work. The nature of work changes and how people behave  and interact with the technology changes and one needs to be very aware of that and how you help the organisation evolve from one profile to another.

Uncertainty about adopting digital approaches can also be alleviated by focusing on solving specific business problems such as production rates, safety, efficiency and predictability.

Towards digital mining

According to Monitor Deloitte Philip Raw and strategy and operations Jan-Adriaan du Plessis, mining operators today across commodity types and across the world are facing the combined challenges of declining ore grades and operating efficiency.

Responding to such challenges is particularly difficult in the mining environment given significant variability encountered in ore bodies and operations.

This is compounded by costly and capital intensive infrastructure requirements, distant planning horizons and lengthy implementation timelines, not forgetting the inherent danger in the operating environments and subsequent critical safety considerations. Mines have thus felt constrained and uncertain as to how to improve.

Lacking real visibility and access to accurate, complete, timely data or business options they struggle to make meaningful, transformative changes to their businesses.

The result is a reactive response with inadequately informed decisions; with mines continuing to follow the approaches of old – sweating their remaining assets and working harder for smaller gains.

“With the low hanging optimisation fruit gone, the innovation focus rests now on two stages: firstly step-change innovation to address current challenges; thereafter in the second stage the focus shifts to possibilities of the future mine.”

Artificial intelligence

Lane points out that one very obvious digital change in mining is the adoption of Artificial Intelligence (AI), which is through big data analytics, the collection of clean usable data, in a format that can be readily used for predictive analytics. Better decisions come from full, accurate and on-time data.

Mine operating management systems collect data, store it and allow quick analysis and reporting through real-time dashboards for quicker informed decision making for optimisation, inventory, and real time on downtime analysis

Lane puts forward that AI will have a significant impact in the medium term or even in the short term because it allows mines to work very quickly with very large data sets.

It will have an impact on jobs and the type of skills required. At a macro level it won’t necessarily impact employment negatively because mines are competitive and should open up more mining opportunities, keeping mines in business for longer and grow the mining sector. It also increases companies’ ability to survive during commodity down cycles.

“AI is a technology that also allows investors to see beforehand how operations should perform and what problems may arise, which in turn could increase investors’ interests in projects,” adds Lane.

At a micro level there will be individuals that are doing jobs today that won’t be able to do the jobs of tomorrow. AI will also impact specific communities and how social spend is used and how it affects those communities.

However, Lane mentions that it is still early in the digital era and it is going to be a gradual adoption as more and more mines go down the digital route.

The future of work

Belinda Booyens and Frik Snyman from Deloitte’s human capital consulting division highlight that the continued rise in operating costs and complex ore bodies that have an impact on safety and the health and well-being of employees are putting pressure on mines to think differently about how they should operate.

Mines are also working with a younger workforce that expect career progression and growth, and continuous legislative changes forces mines to rethink how technology will enable them to be more efficient, effective and compliant.

Digital technologies are changing the way of work in the following three areas:

  • Work: The type of work that people will do in the future
  • Workplace: The structure and practices that enable people to create value in the future
  • Workforce: The portfolio of workforces, people and machines, on balance sheet and contingent workers and crowds

“With the move towards digital mining, a significant impact is anticipated from the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) on the constitution and collaboration of the workforce, as local expertise and manual processes give way to global connectivity and technological augmentation.”

Dangerous, labour-intensive extraction processes will transition to safe, remote monitoring of equipment. Digitised processing will change the number of mining personnel required as well as the nature of their skillsets. Workforce mobility and flexibility will better align the timing of needed skills with the remuneration structure of those employees.