Picture: 123RF/IURII KOVALENKO
Picture: 123RF/IURII KOVALENKO

The heritage from the Mapungubwe Empire 800 years ago shows how long mining innovation has been flowing through SA’s veins. While we celebrate our heritage, minerals are necessary to build a future of which future generations can likewise be proud.

All 39 elements in technologies for a low-carbon economy such as solar panels, wind turbines and electric vehicles are mined or are by-products of mining. A total 28 of the 29 elements used in mobile phones need mining and 14 of these elements have a recycle rate of less than 1%, making mining essential. Yet it is imperative that we transition to a socially just world in which we keep within ecological limits: we need to think innovatively about the way we mine.

Like innovation needs mining, SA mining urgently needs innovation. Over the past decade, multifactor productivity in SA, an indicator of innovation, has fallen 7.6%. Mining cost inflation was 2%-3% higher annually than general inflation, leading to two-thirds of our output being on the upper half of the global mining cost curve. Mining output declined 10% and minerals sales contracted 11%.

Many of the world’s largest investors, such as BlackRock and the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund, have increased their focus on environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues.

There are numerous examples of how tailings dam failures, corruption charges or the destruction of heritage sites affected companies’ reputations, their social licence to operate, and share performance — not to mention the time to acquire mining rights, or management employment.

Firms that fail on ESG issues will be increasingly distanced from the best talent, find it harder to access capital and it will affect their global competitiveness.

There are two challenges: the need to innovate mining, and to undertake this in a socially just, ecologically sustainable and inclusive way.

Use of drones

More should be invested in innovation, which in a context of high unemployment, poverty and inequality must be people-centric. As the relationship between people, data, equipment and material is changed, SA’s global competitiveness will improve, and shared value will be created for all stakeholders.  

The use of drones with machine learning, for example, can improve exploration accuracy. In one case, 90% more deposits were identified by a drone than by human experts. Embedding internet-of-things devices inside mining equipment to provide real-time usage insights can improve efficiency, such as a 20% improvement in drill rates at one mine.

Artificial intelligence, machine learning and visual recognition enables us to sift through enormous volumes of data. By combining data from 2,000 projects and more than 100 SAP tables, project change costs in one instance were reduced by R500m a year. A different project increased the speed of ore sorting by 25%.

All this new and newly analysed data can create value if it reaches decisionmakers, whether the CEO or a driller, in a way that they can quickly and effectively use that information.

The advantage of these innovations is that it creates new, better-paid, safer, healthier and more fulfilling jobs. This strategy is about turning technology into an ally that helps people, rather than a threat to replace them.

Meaningful engagement with all stakeholders is needed to co-create innovations that will better the lives of employees and communities. This includes new ways to upskill employees for new jobs in mining or reskill them for different jobs in other industries. Our technological and human capabilities should walk hand in hand.

Accelerated by the demands of dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic, organisations and individuals are experimenting with new ways of working and living, rapidly adapting to save lives and livelihoods.

Kumba Iron Ore rapidly digitised its shift-change processes with Covid-19 screening to reduce it from four hours to 35 minutes. Impala’s Marula mine started operating a double drill shift, something never before deemed possible. A total 80% of Seriti’s employees registered on an engagement application with a weekly message from the CEO.

Nelson Mandela said that everything seems impossible until it is done. We can make different decisions and do things in a better way — which is what innovation is. We need:

  • A people-centric, fourth industrial revolution-enabled modernisation strategy that provides solutions for globally competitive mining.
  • An accelerated, transforming innovation capacity-building programme to restore SA as a global leader in mining.
  • Public-private partnerships such as the Mandela Mining Precinct to facilitate modernisation.
  • Innovation infrastructure, such as a test mine where innovators can turn research into globally competitive products.
  • Multisource, significant mining innovation investments.

Mining is an integral part of how humans, hand in hand with technology, will build a socially just world keeping within its ecological limits. Using innovation to enable a more modern mining sector, SA mining will become globally competitive, attract the best talent, and ultimately contribute even more as we reimagine our economy and society.

• Van der Woude is senior executive: modernisation and safety at the Minerals Council SA.

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