Mining has played a crucial role in South Africa’s economy for the best part of two centuries. And while it may not play as big a role as it once did, it still contributed R400-billion to GDP in 2020 and employed more than 450 000 people. But if the sector is to remain competitive at a global level, it has to evolve particularly when it comes to embracing digital transformation.

While South Africa’s unique circumstances should be taken into account, especially when it comes to factors such as the orebody depth and labour intensity of the country’s mining operations, that doesn’t mean that mining companies should shy away from digital transformation.  The application of digital technologies, both in their current form and in future digital forms such as artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), big data analytics, and the Internet of Things (IOT) is increasingly pivotal to mining success. The players in the space which understand that and use these technologies as enablers are the ones most likely to thrive going forward.

Those were the overriding messages at a webinar hosted by Joburg Centre for Software Engineering (JCSE) at Wits University, which included speakers from mining houses, software builders that specialise in solutions for the mining industry, and Huawei.

“When we look at mining, what people don’t comprehend is that the mining value chain is extremely complex,” says Alex Fenn, Head of Technology and Innovation at Sibanye Stillwater. “The infrastructure varies from space to space, meaning that achieving digital transformation is far less simple than it would be in a factory, for instance.”

That does not, however, mean that it doesn’t hold benefits.

“Digital transformation is a key enabler to value delivery that is both incredibly specific as well as all encompassing,” he adds. “The aggregated benefits across the value chain are huge. That’s why we’re working towards becoming a digital first organisation that creates cultures, structures, and processes which support digital transformation.”

Practically, Pierre Swart, CEO of mining software specialist Accutrak, agrees with this whole-view approach to digital transformation. He does, however, believe that optimising data is crucial to any digital transformation initiative.

“Everything, for me, boils down to the optimisation of data at the end of the day,” he says. “If we have accurate data, we can analyse it to identify patterns, or when patterns break. We can create business improvement tools and start to use predictive algorithms that can tell us that something will likely happen before it does.”

That kind of data optimisation cannot, however, occur without the necessary levels of connectivity.  As Gys Malan, Solutions Manager, Huawei, points out: “What one absolutely cannot miss when it comes to thinking about a digitally-transformed mine is connectivity.”

Unfortunately, he adds, this is something that sometimes get neglected when mines try to embrace digital transformation. Here, Malan says, it’s important to understand that a typical mine may need a combination of several different technologies to meet its connectivity needs.

“It’s important that you have different options for transporting the data from sensors embedded in different parts of the mine to upper layer platforms,” he says.

He also points out that it’s important to be able to integrate the data from different platforms to create a central “data lake”, which allows for easier central decision making.

“At Huawei we assist our mining clients to achieve these objectives with a variety of products and services,” he says. “When it comes to connectivity, for instance, our 5G and private LTE offerings allow for large amounts of data to be transmitted at very low latencies.”

While these forms of connectivity are important, Malan still believes that Wi-Fi and Fibre have important roles to play in mines across the globe. Whether it’s connectivity or any other aspect of digital transformation, he cautions against anyone pegging their bets on any single technology.

“We have to diversify the communication technologies that we use based on environmental factors and application requirements,” he says.

If mining is to continue playing an important role in South Africa, then it must digitally transform. As the webinar speakers demonstrated, however, that’s not just about adopting new technologies but being selective and using them in the way that best suits a particular mine’s needs and aspirations.

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