Picture: 123RF/Milosh Kojadinovich
Picture: 123RF/Milosh Kojadinovich

At a mine in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) — where mining is often associated with child labour and the funding of warlords — technology has been recruited for the fight against conflict minerals.

A new system developed by Berlin-based supply-chain company RCS Global audits the movement of tantalum, a rare metal used in smartphones.

According to Reuters, a government official puts a barcoded tag on a sack of ore that is rich in tantalum.

Using a handheld device, the official scans the barcode, uploading data into the cloud about the bag’s weight, when it was tagged and by whom.

The system has the potential to offer assurance to people buying smartphones and other products that the metals used in their manufacture are ethically sourced.

This is of particular interest to tech companies, such as Apple and Samsung, to carmakers and to the industry regulators that are putting pressure on companies to prove their supply chains are clean.

The RCS Global system brings a fairly simple process of supply-chain digitisation to the mining industry. It is yet more evidence of how technology can benefit business — and the mining sector, often regarded as having old-world systems and applications, shouldn’t be left behind.

Mining has been slow to adopt some new technologies because of the scale and complexity of its operations, as well as the heavy costs that come with change.

But tech can help the industry mitigate risks, operate more efficiently, reduce carbon emissions, eliminate fatalities and connect with suppliers and employees, say audit firms PwC and Deloitte.

In a recent report, "Tracking the Trends 2019", Deloitte says mining will soon urgently need to expand its use of technology, including artificial intelligence.

"Though many companies have begun digitising discrete pieces of equipment — such as their trucks and trains — they have not extended these efforts across the entire supply chain, from pit to port," Deloitte says.

The potential is vast. PwC’s "SA Mine 2019" report, released last month, says the move towards digitisation of the supply chain means it becomes "a completely integrated ecosystem that is fully transparent to all the players involved — from the suppliers of raw materials, components and parts, to the transporters of those supplies and finished goods, and finally to the customers demanding fulfilment".

SA — where mining has been in decline — has a unique set of problems, including ageing shafts, low productivity, volatile global demand and regulatory uncertainty. Can the type of tech used in the DRC be of benefit to local miners?

Mining analyst Peter Major says the biggest impediment to technological advancement at SA mines is corruption.

"Syndicates have entrenched themselves so much these past 15, 20 years and they have permeated every level of government, they’ve permeated most of every level of industry.

"There is so much illegal mining here and illegal minerals. It’s actually easier to be an illegal miner than a legal miner," he says.

Not everyone in the sector will agree with Major, but it is clear the technology used in the DRC could have applications in SA.

For all SA’s tech shortcomings, Ken Mathu, a supply-chain expert who lectures at the Gordon Institute of Business Science, says local mines are more technologically advanced than those in other countries on the continent.

"The issue with those countries like the DRC is that there is a lot of smuggling, and technology that can track stolen minerals is probably not yet available [in SA].

"But we have other technologies," says Mathu.

In gold mining, for example, "our mines are now very deep" which can be dangerous. "To be able to mine, companies like AngloGold have to use technology for remote exploration and use remote sensing and drilling to exploit that," Mathu says.

Technology is also being used in such areas as health and safety, a critically important issue for the industry.

The president of the Minerals Council SA, Mxolisi Mgojo, addressed this at the Joburg Indaba mining conference this month. "I think we’ve put the building blocks in place in terms of how we should look at safety and health into the future. I think also we need to accept that there are new ways you can address the issues by adopting new technologies."

Mgojo said the mining industry needs to work towards introducing more technology and innovation, which he said will require research. Last year the World Economic Forum (WEF) and Accenture estimated that digitisation could bring more than $425bn of value for the mining industry and its customers, as well as for society and the environment, until 2025.

The negative consequences of investment in technology also need to be considered. In SA, these include the potential for tech to reduce reliance on human skills and labour in an industry that has already shed thousands of jobs in recent years.

Globally, the WEF report says as many as 300,000 jobs could be directly affected by greater digitisation.