"We are at a stage when we must examine how we can modernize hard rock mining operations in South Africa, but there are limited technologies that are appropriate for these environments. We need to be looking at a combination of people, processes and technology."
Can you provide an overview of the Mandela Mining Precinct and the organization’s vision moving forward?
The Mandela Mining Precinct is a public private partnership between government and industry to foster growth, transformation, investment and employment preservation and creation along the entire mining value chain. The aim of the partnership is to maximize the returns of South Africa’s mineral wealth through collaborative and sustainable research, development, innovation and implementation of mining technologies in a socially, environmentally and financially responsible manner that is rooted in the wellbeing of local communities and the national economy.
Why has South Africa been slow to adopt innovative technologies in the mining space?
Productivity in South Africa has decreased by approximately 35% since 2005, partially due to inadequate adaptation to technology. When Mandela Mining Precinct was established, we focused on the gold and platinum industries as these industries employ the most people, and at the same time, it is in these industries where the majority of jobs are at risk. Jobs are at risk as a result of a combination of productivity decline and the metal price cycle. Generally gold and platinum companies that use conventional mining techniques have been running very tight margins. We have experienced a time when approximately 70% of the platinum industry and 60% of the gold industry were under water financially.
We are at a stage when we must examine how we can modernize hard rock mining operations in South Africa, but there are limited technologies that are appropriate for these environments. We need to be looking at a combination of people, processes and technology. Trying to introduce a piece of technology without considering the people will surely fail, and we have to have a very strong focus on people when looking at the modernization of mines.
Mining companies need to consider how they can make work easier, safer, healthier and more efficient. I believe that there is potential for technology to help to achieve these goals and at the same time to enhance mining equipment with communication systems and improved mining processes.
How extensive are the re-education needs when looking at the transition period towards industry 4.0?
Re-education needs will be extensive. We are having as many conversations as we can with organized labor unions and various government departments to demystify industry 4.0. The truth of the matter is that nobody really understands what industry 4.0 means and what it is going to do. We have the responsibility to educate people on the implication of artificial intelligence (AI) in a conventional mine.
Modernized equipment and machines are not replacing human capital, but are designed so that operators have more safety and productivity is increased. Operators are still necessary but need to be retrained for operating modernized equipment. The operators are now doing much more value added work instead of only manual labor. We want to allay the fears of organized labor about modernization and industry 4.0 taking away jobs from the human workforce. Once we have communicated and educated the labor force on what industry 4.0 is, we can start looking at the re-education and retraining initiatives needed to implement modern processes in mines.
Can you elaborate on Mandela Mining Precinct’s involvement in mining simulation programs?
Mandela Mining Precinct collaborates with partners who are involved in simulation work of the value chain process. The idea is to get people to understand where the value add occurs in the mining value chain. Simulation programs allow for strategic testing and tactical decision making in a simulated mine. The mining simulation is a physical simulation of the mining environment that can be used to expose and build systems' capabilities in the mining industry. The partners are also looking at developing digital twins across all commodities, which can be configured to represent any complex system, process or mine. This digital twin allows for a low cost and low risk approach to conceptualization of new technologies and approaches and tests the impact as part of the overall system.
We are also in the final design stages of developing a test mine where you can demonstrate, test and showcase technologies while at the same time training people to implement and use these technologies. We are well on track to establish a test mine facility.
Can you explain Mandela Mining Precinct’s financing structure?
The mining value chain can be divided into three parts – geoscience, mining and processing. The geoscience part has been funded by a government agency, the Council for Geoscience. The processing side has also been funded by government through Mintek. The mining side received significantly little funding apart from what was going to the Mine Health and Safety Council. The Chamber of Mines Research Organization used to receive a substantial amount of funding for deep level mining research, but gradually this funding avenue diminished down to virtually nothing. It became clear that if we were going to save South Africa’s mining industry, we needed to invigorate research and development. A commitment was made by government and the Minerals Council to reinvest in mining research and development.
The funding that Mandela Mining Precinct receives is through a public-private partnership on a two-to-one basis, the two coming from the Department of Science and Innovation and the one coming from the Minerals Council, which is industry. We also have the involvement of the Department of Trade and Industry who support MEMSA. The Mandela Mining Precinct aims to be a facilitator of research where ultimately we are the center of a mining research ecosystem.
What is Mandela Mining Precinct’s vision moving forward?
Mandela Mining Precinct's vision aligns with the Minerals Council’s modernization strategy, South Africa’s National Development plan and the Africa Mining Vision, which are all working towards the 2030 milestone. We need to reestablish research and development in South Africa in a sustainable way. This means recreating research and development capacity and capability. We need to reestablish capacity and capability in universities for applied research, which we aim to do through the establishment of centers at the universities that match our programs.
The challenge we face is that our current funding is nowhere near the target investment into mining research that the government wants to acheive. Funding has to increase approximately tenfold, and increasing investment into research is part of our strategic journey.
We also have the vision that by 2030, MEMSA and its members become serious exporters into Africa. Beneficiation of South Africa’s commodities and products are of high priority moving forward, and we are also focused on community development. Additionally, we want to industrialize simple mining technologies to create sustainable industries in communities that will still be there after mine closures. Simply put, we want to engineer a better future for the entire country.