The mining sector is at a turning point in its history thanks to shifts in technology that are transforming the industry.
Although technology adoption in this sector has been slow in the past, new pressures from the global pandemic, combined with supply chain issues, and falling commodity prices in South Africa, are forcing mining concerns to re-evaluate how their operations are run.
Many forward-thinking leaders in this sector are eyeing digital transformation as a solution to help them reduce their costs and increase profits by streamlining their operations and giving them greater data insights to drive strategic, business decisions.
Some of these entities are already ahead of the curve and are harnessing the power of powerful technologies such as cloud, artificial intelligence (AI), robotics, and big data analytics, to help them optimise exploration processes, streamline production, improve supply chain and logistics, and ensure future sustainability.
Other technologies such as automation have been used in certain processes for some time now and have laid a solid foundation for future digitisation. The mining sector is still lagging behind other comparable industries, with the Boston Consulting Group revealing that the metals and mining industry is about 30% to 40% less digitally mature than the chemical industry, for example.
More intelligent technologies
This highlights how many mining concerns are in the pre-implementation phase of their digital transformation journeys but are starting to explore the technologies that could add real value to their businesses.
We are seeing several major trends and themes when it comes to digitisation in the mining sector.
Firstly, the increased use of more intelligent automation, and digitally-enabled hardware. These tools have the ability to optimise all onerous, manual, and dangerous operational activities and processes. These include adding sensors and harnessing the power of robotics.
Next, having working forces that are digitally enabled, means employing innovative new technologies such as virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR). These technologies, when combined with good connectivity and mobility solutions, help workers, both in the field and at the office to perform more effectively, from anywhere.
Integration is also a key element of the mining sector’s digital transformation. This means integrating platforms, ecosystems, operations, technology layers, and any system or part of the tech infrastructure that is currently working in isolation.
Integrating OT with IT
In essence, we’re looking at the integration of operational technology (OT) with information technology (IT). This integration leads to enhanced efficiencies, improved logistics, and better operations all around.
Then, these entities need to consider advanced analytics and decision support, which means using the technologies at their disposal to process data from sources inside and outside the historical value chain to offer real-time decision support and more accurate future forecasts.
These applications include big data, advanced data analytics, machine learning, simulation modelling, and AI.
It is also key for mining organisations to find ways to boost operational efficiency. This ultimately centres on minimising the impact of numerous variables and depends heavily on smart technology to accurately pinpoint trends and tweak forecasts and scheduling accordingly.
This happens by using the right tools and skills to examine the data flows being communicated between mining equipment and the output of the various stages in the mining process. Businesses that can do this effectively, have the advantage of gaining insightful, meaningful insights that can help them formulate the planning and coordination of future mining activities.
Less costs, better discovery
Mining costs have skyrocketed over the last 10 years due to higher costs of materials and labour, as well as the associated costs that more stringent regulatory environments have driven. Here again, digitisation can help by making processes more efficient, and cutting waste as much as possible.
Without the ability to find new sources of raw metals and minerals, the mining industry would not survive. However, as mining companies are under pressure to do more with shrinking budgets, exploration budgets have been cut to the bone.
Once more, technology can help make the exploration and discovery of new sources of raw materials more effective.
For example, a new innovation called Muon tomography - a technique that uses cosmic ray-produced muons to generate three-dimensional images of volumes - can help explorers identify cavities inside immensely large and dense structures without the need for drilling or digging.
Instead of relying on blind drilling and examining core samples in the hope of finding ore, these scans can help mining concerns find mineral deposits with far greater ease.
The human factor
There are tremendous risks to workers within the mining industry. Organisations can dramatically lower the high rates of injury and even death by implementing new technologies that are safety-driven, such as monitoring sensors and automated equipment.
Also, digitisation can help enhance communications, helping mining leaders communicate more effectively with their employees, supervisors at the mines, and those tasked with operating the machinery.
It’s very simple, the more information a mining concern has, the smarter decision it is able to make, and the better it can communicate. By harnessing the power of digital transformation, mining companies can understand how they are running, improve operations, and enable their workforces to operate more safely and efficiently.