IDC’s research shows that automation will be a core part of South African mining operations ability to deliver efficiency, control of variability, improved safety over the next two years.
By Emilie Ditton
Automation is accelerating across the mining sector driven by the desire to increase safety and improve risk management, efficiency and predictability.
IDC’s Worldwide Mining Technology Decision Maker Survey 2017 reveals that 98% of mining organisations in South Africa will have deployed automation to some extent over the next two years.
The set of technologies IDC is referring to is broad, in capability and function. Technologies can be relatively simple to very advanced implementations incorporating robotics, equipment hardware and software enabled by artificial intelligence (AI) and extending from insight/monitoring to full automation and all the stages in between.
Functionally, automation can apply to all equipment classes including the big focus areas of drilling, haulage, processing and rail.
Automation investments within South African mining operations are being made within the context of a move to digital operations.
Companies are looking at how to bring together technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), robotics and machine learning to enable the creation of an integrated operating environment with improved visibility and the implementation of closed loop control systems to enable visibility, decision support and ultimately a move to an environment of continuous feedback.
Automation in this context is not about maximising profit and minimising people but optimising systems of people and machines to deliver improved safety, predictability and efficiency.
This will be an ongoing journey that will mean organisational change, and change to the way that mine is managed, with the ultimate outcome being a better, safer place to work, new roles and opportunities, and more productive and efficient mining operations that can deliver far greater yield on the mined ore.
The ability of technologies like IoT, cognitive systems, robotics, 3D printing and augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) to reduce operational risk, while increasing visibility and capability, means they are becoming more critical to long-term strategic investments.
While many of these technologies are still in the early phases, their potential impact is clear.
It all starts with data, and fundamental to this is the deployment of cloud computing enabling a far more agile environment and data access. IDC’s research shows that 91% of the mining companies in South Africa already have cloud services in place now, although the ability to utilise operational data in realtime at site is very limited across the sector.
Focus areas for continued investment include collaboration, customer relationship management (CRM) platforms and operational data cloud platforms.
One of the areas of highest expected future growth is using cloud technologies for 3D and simulation applications.
As mining companies operating in South Africa look at the opportunities associated with moving to a more automated environment – there are challenges that will need to be assessed.
People and change management is a clear one – mining companies need to make the case for how automation will improve the safety, choices and prospects that their employees have.
Also, critical will be having the foundational capabilities in place – data management, connectivity and information and operational technology security – to enable this data environment.
IDC’s research has found that data quality and integration remain leading issues impacting in the ability of South African organisations within the mining sector to benefit from its analytics investment.
We are just at the beginning of this journey, with only 21% of local mining companies having actively started using IoT. Companies are looking to how remote monitoring and diagnostics can be used to minimise risk and improve operational transparency.
The opportunity for South African mining is to establish an environment across cloud, mobility, big data, IoT and automation that can support innovation and ignite change and opportunity.
Automation will play a critical role within that, enabling the activities of people to focus where the value and complex decision making is required. F
or mining companies that want to lead their industry segments in access to capital and resources, tackling the challenges inherent to delivering value through automation will be critical to long term success.
Emilie Ditton is the associate vice-president for worldwide mining and Asia-Pacific energy insights at International Data Corporation (IDC)