Embracing technology will help mining shine again
The sector needs to boost its research, development and innovation capability to ensure maximum benefit
The mining industry is one of the few sectors that has emerged from the worst of the pandemic-induced economic crisis in solid financial shape. But this is primarily due to strong fundamental demand and higher prices, which created a unique opportunity for operational renewal.
Physical volumes of production and exports have in fact only reached levels slightly above recent 12-month averages and pre-pandemic levels over the most recent months of 2021. This shows the equally severe effect of the lockdown disruptions on the mining sector.
Unsurprisingly, official data trends still show great volatility. But the strong performance of many commodity markets meant the value of mining turnover and exports recovered well. This shows mining’s contribution to, and effect on, the national economic performance, demonstrating the real value of the mining industry to the national GDP.
The Minerals Council SA shares mineral resources & energy minister Gwede Mantashe’s vision that mining could raise its contribution to the economy to more than 10% of GDP and attract 5% of global exploration spend through collaborative leadership discussion and action. It has been acknowledged that important to accelerating this growth, as well as addressing our global competitiveness rankings, is the rate at which the local mining industry embraces a people-centric fourth industrial revolution (4IR)-enabled modernisation strategy. In many ways the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated the application of 4IR technologies across the industry by forcing a rethink of the way it does business and how it mines.
The speed at which the sector is embracing modernisation has made it clear that there is work to be done if we want an adequately resourced and strongly capacitated local industry. But to do that we need to reimagine mining through accelerated research, development and innovation (RD&I) capability and capacity development.
Some will remember when SA was a global leader in mining RD&I and how this capability and capacity was eroded over the past two decades due to various factors, including commodity market conditions and the forced transition of the Chamber of Mines Research Organisation (Comro) into the Council for Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR).
The Minerals Council has been calling for a resurgence in RD&I and, along with public and private partners, the formation of the Mandela Mining Precinct in 2018 has gone some way towards that. Now more than ever we are intent on building a new generation of mining innovators that can restore our industry’s global leadership.
The CSIR recently completed a pilot study to ascertain its current RD&I capabilities and capacity. Drawing together globally leading assessment methods from three different fields, the pilot study mapped eight mining systems, identified the skills, equipment and processes required for each element of a system, and assessed the skills level, maturity and fit of the skills available. This was followed by the analysis of systems and capability needed for 4IR-enabled modernisation and a gap analysis.
The outcome recognises that SA’s RD&I capability and capacity must be rebuilt before the country can claim to have the local knowledge and skills required to resolve technology challenges. The industry must also tap into the full potential of SA’s diversity in gender, race and education. It also acknowledges the place of new technologies in closing the gap between where we are now and where we wish to be if we want to compete internationally as an industry.
There is little doubt that the application of 4IR technologies such as augmented reality and virtual reality — to simulate immersive training and extend expertise, advice and support to technical staff in the field — can speed up capacity development. These technologies offer the benefits of on-the-job training, improved retention and application, and improved awareness leading to behavioural change.
Now that we have a better understanding of what the challenges are, the mining cluster is putting in place the right building blocks for a wider capacity-building programme. Together with our strategic partners in the Mandela Mining Precinct, we have already identified opportunities to expand the study quantitatively and qualitatively. Because practical exposure to mining is critical to the development of capacity, the Minerals Council and its members, professional bodies and others can support the programme by facilitating access to relevant internal structures, operations and mentors.
Collaborative interventions have been central to the mining cluster’s approach to modernisation since the Mining Phakisa of 2015 and it is no different now — we continue to require a business model that incentivises multidisciplinary collaboration. It is only by entrenching collaboration that the cluster can hope to alter the economic, environmental, social, governance and other issues that have faced the industry to date.
At the centre of collaboration is people. People and the development of their capacity are as much a part of the 4IR technology-enabled modernisation as is technology. It is this capacity and capability that will ensure that modernisation is indeed people-centred and meaningful.
By leveraging RD&I capacity and capability, we ensure a future for SA mining while building the skills that made us global mining leaders. There is an exciting future ahead if we build back better.
• Van der Woude is senior executive: modernisation & safety at the Minerals Council SA.
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