By Dineo Phoshoko
The face of mining has changed drastically since digitalisation came into the picture. Dennis Gibson, chief technical officer for Black & Veatch’s mining business, explains the role of digital infrastructure in mining, and the potential impact it has on the industry.
Digital infrastructure will help to improve safety, productivity and efficiency in the mining industry. So says Dennis Gibson, technical officer for Black & Veatch’s mining business, adding that from an efficiency point of view, digital infrastructure will help with reducing wastage at mining operations.
“Over time we have really looked at the old approach of ‘operations and “production at any cost”,’ which was prevalent in the late 2000s. At that time, it didn’t matter how much it cost to produce, because the product was so valuable and in such high demand, so we tended not to focus a lot on efficiency,” he says.
A white paper by the World Economic Forum – titled Digital Transformation Initiative: Mining and Metals – points out that in the mining and metals space, digitalisation is changing the nature of companies and their interaction with employees, communities, government and the environment. “From mineral exploration and valuation, through mining, ore processing and metals production, to downstream sales and distribution, digitalisation is blurring traditional industry lines and challenging the business models of the past,” the paper states.
Incorporating smart workflow technologies that highlight process deviations, will trigger the desired response mechanisms, as well as supporting the required behavioural change.
It’s almost impossible not to mention automation when talking about digital infrastructure. In addition to efficiency, the move towards digital infrastructure and the use of automation have provided many opportunities for efficiency and safety improvements. This equates to using technology to take people out of unsafe environments.
According to The Future of Mining in Africa, a report by Deloitte, digital infrastructure in a mine will address challenges associated with structural variability in the orebody, lack of visibility of what should be done, and management induced variability. The report highlighted that although mining companies cannot do anything about structural variability in the orebody, faster and better-informed response mechanisms enabled by digital technologies can be created.
Digital infrastructure will also play an important role when it comes to decision-making in mining operations, as it enables real-time monitoring. Gibson mentioned that rather than waiting for daily or weekly production results to make decisions, digitalisation makes it possible to analyse data and make adjustments in real-time using sophisticated computer algorithms. These data analytics will lead to better decision-making overall.
According to the report, complete, timely, insightful information and leading indicators enable the leadership and front line teams to intervene more proactively. In addition, the report mentions that incorporating smart workflow technologies that highlight process deviations, will trigger the desired response mechanisms, as well as supporting the required behavioural change.
Implementing digital infrastructure and challenges
Gibson says there are various factors to consider before a mine can implement digital transformation. Each mine is unique and therefore has different requirements for adopting digital infrastructure. These include a clear view of the benefits of digital, the right team at site and support requirements, mine location, existing technologies, and remaining mine life. Most importantly there must always be a clear digital strategy and business case for moving towards implementing digital infrastructure. “These days mining companies are looking very carefully at how they invest their limited resources of time, money and people,” Gibson says.
He explains that there is a super boom in the industry between 2000 and 2008, until the global financial crisis when things slowed down. Prior to 2013, most mining operations were investing in expansion projects. “After that there was a significant focus on how they [mines] could reduce capital costs.” Today, mining companies are emphasising capital rationalisation and operational efficiency.
Once a business case has been presented and approved, an onsite audit would take place at the mine to identify the digital infrastructure requirements. The audit entails working with operations management and the team on the ground who understand the mine’s current systems, to identify the current risks and identify exposure, as well as any potential risks by not implementing changes. Gibson believes that building a solid business case would be critical to implementing digital infrastructure, and that an audit will help to identify areas of opportunity and risk.
The report also mentions that the work, workplace and the workforce are likely to change in the age of digital infrastructure. This means that the type of work that people do would be affected going forward after implementing digital infrastructure. Furthermore, the structure and practices of the workplace and the portfolio of work forces, people and machines will also change. All these factors can be linked to the implementation of digital infrastructure.
Challenges of digital infrastructure in mining
There is no denying that the implementation of digital infrastructure on a mine has a lot of benefits. However, there are also challenges. Before the age of digital technology, mining relied heavily on manual labour. The emergence of digital technology has been met with some resistance as it is considered a threat. “In the past, automation has been aligned with job loss – it’s been seen as a threat rather than an opportunity. What we now need to do is to turn these perceived threats into opportunities, specifically with digitalisation and automation,” Gibson said.
This perspective is attributed to an old way of thinking where some mines don’t see the need to implement digital infrastructure because their way of operating has been working well. “Many operating mines still rely on legacy systems, so they are using older types of technologies. It can be a challenge to integrate new digital technologies with these older technologies,” Gibson explained.
The white paper mentions “workforce skill gaps”, another challenge that comes with digital infrastructure. The gap occurs where the mining industry has experienced workers who have knowledge, but they may not necessarily be exposed to digital infrastructure. On the other hand, there are millennials ‒ some new graduates ‒ with a strong understanding of anything associated with digital technology. The knowledge and understanding of mechanical physical operations of a mine may not be enough. “Companies are encountering a skill gap, especially in the developing world where they are struggling to recruit highly skilled workers to operate mines and metal plants that are being optimised with advanced technology,” states the report.
“One of the big challenges of new technology is cyber security. When you are dealing with cyber security everybody hears about countries getting hacked into by foreign governments or freelance hackers.” Data loss or compromise is also a risk that comes with digital technology. “The moment you get into the use of technology, you have to ensure that you have very strong systems in place to prevent hackers from getting access and holding you hostage.” The report pointed out that some of the most common cyber-attacks against mining companies were predominantly from inside threats, corporate espionage, hacktivism and data manipulation.
Cyber security becomes critical in ensuring that a mine site and its operations are secure from intrusion. “A lot of mining companies are getting increasingly sophisticated and proactive to prevent their systems from being attacked,” says Gibson. According to the report, a better understanding of the impact that cyber risk poses to mining operations has led to a more proactive management approach.
Mining companies have to manage various assets across geographically diverse locations. All too often, this results in inadequate communication between mine sites, which according to Gibson can result in “a lot of repeat work” being done. “Technology would definitely enable mining companies to improve their knowledge base to increase access to historical knowledge and to enhance collaboration,” Gibson says.
Today’s digital solutions allow mining operators to leverage technology in real time and communicate instantly across different geographical locations and time zones. This is especially helpful as mining is a global activity where a mining company could have a number of mines across the world. “I believe collaboration is absolutely critical if we are going to operate smarter.”
Collaboration across the board
On the point of collaboration, different mining companies can benefit from collaborating with each other even if they are in competition. “There are a number of areas where mining companies may collaborate, such as safety, environmental and health, which will benefit the industry – and the communities where they operate – as a whole,” Gibson says.
For example, the Brumadinho dam disaster in Brazil resulted in a massive loss of life, affecting the community for a long time. Incidents such as these can harm the industry’s reputation, and make it difficult for mines to maintain their social licences to operate. “Mines have the opportunity to increase collaboration to work towards improving environmental health and safety,” Gibson said.
In addition, Gibson referred to the International Council on Mining and Metals (ICMM) which represents 27 of the world’s mining companies to enhance sustainability in mining. Created in 2001, the ICMM’s role is to improve the social and environmental performance of the mining and metals industry. “ICMM determined rules and principles for mining operations with the goal of increasing collaboration across a number of critical areas,” Gibson says. The growing adoption of digital technology will make information sharing and collaboration between mining companies even more possible in important areas such as sustainability.
According to Gibson, an increased collaboration across the industry would also save costs when it comes to building infrastructure such as water and power, required to operate a mine. “It is expensive for mines to individually create water and power sources of their own, and in the interest of the broader environment, shared infrastructure is going to be critical in this regard,” he says.
However, there are certain areas where mining companies would rather not collaborate and share information – such as with the use of patented technologies or proprietary algorithms – in order to maintain a competitive advantage.
They can also remotely operate mining plants that are thousands of kilometres away. It brings a whole new pool of talent into the mining sector that would not necessarily have been there before.
Opportunities for digitisation in mining
Digital infrastructure comes with many opportunities for the mining industry, including contributing towards diversity among mine employees. According to Gibson, this has been a big shift over the past couple of years towards improving diversity and inclusion in the mining industry.
Historically the mining industry was predominantly male — mainly due to the physical labour requirements that women could not meet. Digital technology facilitates a reduction in the physical requirements and thus creates equal opportunities for gender diversity in the industry. “The use of the Internet of Things (IoT), tablets, cell phones, and electronic equipment is certainly facilitating women being able to come in and be treated equally to men,” Gibson says. He adds that there are exciting opportunities for women in mining as most mining companies are looking to improve their ratio of women in the industry. Digital technology also makes it possible for people with disabilities to work in the mining industry.
Digital technology is also paving the way for the younger generation to get involved. Gibson says young people are set to benefit the most from digitalisation because of their interaction with phones and computers from an early age. “They are used to playing games, and now instead of playing they can use these skills to operate haul trucks. They can also remotely operate mining plants that are thousands of kilometres away. It brings a whole new pool of talent into the mining sector that would not necessarily have been there before.” On the opposite end, digitalisation should not be seen as a threat by the older generation, because it creates opportunities for upskilling.
Africa has the youngest population globally and in the age of digitalisation with the IoT and the 4IR, Africa with its young population is in a good position to capitalise on digital infrastructure.
As a developing continent, Africa became exposed to technology later than the rest of the world, which was beneficial because the continent leapfrogged with certain types of technologies. “In Africa, for example, where there are a lot of mobile and cellular systems, the continent is on par, and in certain instances, in advance of the rest of the world when it comes to sophisticated systems such as monetary transfers using digital banking systems,” said Gibson.
From a mining perspective, late exposure to technology in Africa presents many opportunities for mines. Gibson points out that many international mining companies have a presence in Africa, and as these companies continue to capitalise on the latest digital technology and use it to design new mines, many mines are being developed in Africa with the best digital technology available on the market.
Gibson mentions that “if it’s not grown, it’s mined” so to continue with our way of life means that mining is needed to provide our essential non-grown needs. He adds that these are exciting times, with improvements of technologies advancing at a rapid pace. He concludes that it’s important not be deterred by challenges, but to investigate how advances in technology can help overcome these new challenges and ensure a successful future for mankind.