While the introduction of digitalisation, automation and artificial intelligence (AI) into miners’ plans is generally a long-term plan, panelists at this year’s virtual Africa Mining Forum have urged miners to incorporate these elements into their short-term plans where possible.
Business intelligence company CRU Group mining analyst Hamish Sampson said that, given the Covid-19 pandemic, for mining companies to stay ahead of their peers in the industry, “they need to embed this philosophy into the heart of their business strategy”.
In most cases where companies have done so, they have seen improvements in their finances, as well as in their environmental and safety records, he added.
Assuming a mining company’s management has adopted this stance, Sampson emphasised that “there really are a lot of potential technologies for companies to consider”, whether they are a developer or a producer.
For producers, there are a range of options to consider too, whether they are looking to adjust their plant performance or whether they are looking to increase their output.
Ultimately, miners are looking at ways to automate the different processes to improve productivity and bring down costs, while enhancing the environmental and safety performance of their operation.
However, for mining companies in sub-Saharan Africa to have any hopes of achieving this, Sampson averred that there needed to be a “strong and reliable” infrastructure network in place to support these technologies, especially with regard to data connectivity.
“Companies need to ensure this cornerstone is in place before they can consider some of the more advanced technologies being developed,” he said.
While this is the first and “most important” step, Sampson explained that step two depends on where the mining company wants to take its business, and where it wants to see the most value-add when incorporating and switching to these new technologies.
“In terms of how quickly and cost effectively companies can go down this route depends on the route taken, as well as the state of their assets and the region’s infrastructure,” he said.
As a result, certain technologies can be implemented in a matter of months, whereas others may require years of development and high levels of capital.
Therefore, Sampson encouraged miners who are not in a position to embrace some of these new technologies, to “steer [the] business into a position so that you can do so in the future”.
However, the reality is that the junior mining industry, in particular, needs to adopt these technologies from the start.
Multinational professional services company Accenture MD Eric Croeser echoed Sampson’s sentiments, but warned that miners needed a lot of the infrastructure to be in place to drive value at scale, while on the other hand, they “can’t just wait” for it to be “perfectly in-place” before getting started, otherwise they “never will”.
“We understand that junior miners are really caught between a rock and a hard place, proverbially speaking,” he added, noting that in terms of this process, Accenture had seen that technology costs were becoming cheaper with the rise of the Internet of Things and the rise of fifth-generation mobile technology, which would make the barrier to entry a lot lower.
Additionally, the hyperscale of Edge and cloud computing capability advances will also “assist junior miners and other junior producers to really get to value a lot quicker”