By Dineo Phoshoko

Digital technologies are being utilised in many industries and have contributed to greater productivity and efficiencies. The mining industry is also following suit and exploring digital technologies to see how best they can benefit operations and the industry at large.

In an exclusive interview with Mining News, John Manuell ABB’s local division manager in the process industries, discusses digital transformation in the mining industry. He talks about its potential, challenges and solutions.

How do South African mines fair compared to other mines in developed countries when it comes to digital transformation?

We’ve probably been a bit slower than some of the developed countries. If you look at what’s been happening in Northern Europe and the likes, they are really pushing the boundaries a lot more than us and experimenting with these technologies. I think in South Africa, the mining houses now realise that digitalisation is something that they implement because they are just going to become uncompetitive otherwise.

And if you compare mining in general with other industries – if you look at what’s happened from a digitalisation and fourth industrial revolution point of view in retail or transport or financial services – they are miles ahead of where we are in the mining industry as well. There is a huge amount of room for improvement from that point of view.

What are the challenges associated with digital transformation in the industry?

From a skills point of view and an infrastructure point of view, we potentially have challenges. Firstly, in South Africa there are not many new mines being built, which means we would be retrofitting digital offerings on top of an existing mine. If you could build the digital infrastructure into the design from the beginning, the costs of doing so are a lot lower. We’ve got to take what we already have and then build on that from a digital point of view – which is always a little bit more difficult.

The other aspect is from a skills point of view and from a local mining community point of view. There’s a lot of work to be done to get those communities to buy into this concept. I think that mining communities might have quite a lot of fear about digitalisation. There’s a lot of work that needs to be done to involve them, to explain the safety and sustainability benefits and to bring them along on this digital journey. If we fail to do this, we won’t be successful in the digital transformation. Because mining has always been such a big employer, there’s a perception that maybe automation or digitalisation is going to result in job losses. The reality is, you very seldom see profitable mines that are reducing the number of staff that they have. If a mine is profitable, the shareholders are going to want to expand and that creates all sorts of opportunities downstream. It’s having open and honest discussions and agreeing on what can actually benefit everyone.

Digital transformation in mining
One of ABB’s technological solutions for the mining industry is the Ability Operations Management System. (Credit: ABB)

How can the industry go about having constructive discussions about digital transformation with all stakeholders?

Maybe the main issue is that we are not having these discussions often enough. The more consultations and involvement there are, the better it is.

I think fourth industrial revolution and digitalisation are not really new concepts, we’re all seeing it in other areas like smart phones and internet banking, but we need to change the reluctance to consider them in an industrial context, which can only come through creating a better understanding of the implications.

There will be changes in requirements for skills, which can create resistance. We need to look at upskilling the workforce and mining communities and identify ways to make a win-win out of this.

Does South Africa have adequate infrastructure to progress with digital transformation in the mining industry?

As a country, we would have the required infrastructure, but there is a definite need for improvements in the infrastructure which can support digitalisation on the mines.

From an underground mining point of view especially, that’s something that needs to be looked at. I think that on many of the mines that we have in South Africa, there’s not really a consolidation of information into one place. We’ve got various different islands of automation but little information travelling between them.

Fibre and wireless communication infrastructure is another area where there’s a lot work required. And even electrical power is a limitation in some cases. The transformation from diesel machinery to electric power also provides many benefits and possibilities. There is a fair amount of cost associated with the infrastructure requirements, but the benefits that come out of it outweigh the costs many times over.

What needs to be done to fast track digital transformation in the mining industry?

We are at the point now where the mining industry understands the need for digitalisation and many of the major mining companies have now in the last few years developed road maps for where they need to go.

Fast tracking the digital transformation requires collaboration. It is the mining customers that understand their mines and requirements better than anyone, and companies like us that can provide the technology required. We also need to collaborate with partners in the I.T field, with skills in areas such as artificial intelligence and cloud computing. It is only by understanding the needs of the mining customers and combining skills from multiple disciplines that we will be able to fulfil the vision of the digital mine of the future.

Digital transformation in mining
A graphic showing what a digital technology mine would look like. (Credit: ABB)

Is the mining industry appealing to students currently studying or qualified within the digital technology discipline?

Although the digital competencies in the mining industry are improving, most students and graduates skilled in digital technologies would probably not consider the mining industry as their first choice. As an industry, I think there’s probably quite a lot of work to be done to change the perception. With time, more digitally transformed mines will increasingly provide opportunities in automation, artificial intelligence, cloud computing, analytics and other similar fields.

Can you give a few examples of ABB’s technological solutions for digitalisations within the mining industry?

One example would be smarter maintenance practices. We are looking at enterprise wide asset management and condition monitoring solutions, which monitor the health of equipment and allow for the implementation of predictive maintenance strategies. This ensures improved availability of equipment and a reduction in risk and operational costs.

A second example would be data analytics and advanced process control. I spoke earlier about the need to consolidate data into one central place. Once we have this information centralised, there is huge potential to use technologies such as artificial intelligence and cloud computing to analyse this data and provide insights which can improve plant efficiency.

Another example is our Operations and production management offerings. The co-ordination between the production schedule and the real-time operations has always been a major challenge to miners. Our operations management system provides a new level of visibility in mining operations and allows for optimisation of the schedule in real-time. This allows for improved productivity and faster responses to any disturbances.

Are mine companies aware of the technological solutions available to enhance digital transformation at their operations?

I would say that within the mining companies, there are definitely people that are aware of these solutions, but this awareness is not necessarily making its way to the people who are involved in the day-to-day operations. I think that there are also challenges to integrate the various offerings available in a manner that will maximise the benefit to the miner.

Anything you would like to add?

When embarking on digital initiatives, we need to understand what we are trying to get out of digitalisation. The end goals would probably relate to greater efficiency, productivity and safety. It is only once we understand the real challenges, that we can look at potential solutions through the use of technology.

Productivity and efficiency are key aspects that we need to look at. If our mines in South Africa are not competitive compared to global competitors, we will see a gradual decline in the industry. Another challenge relates to sustainability. How can we minimise our environmental impact and how can we reduce our energy usage and water usage in this process? I think there is going to be increased pressure on mining companies to look at implementing more sustainable practices. I think that digitalisation offers great possibilities, which weren’t available previously, to overcome these challenges and can ensure a bright future for the mining industry.

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