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Virtual panel discussion: Are South African mines ready for robots?

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Whether robots “will take over” and diminish employment opportunities is becoming increasingly debated across various industries. In a labour-intensive country such as South Africa, the fear is not totally unfounded. However, robotics can also play a hugely beneficial role in industries such as mining. Where manual labour is hard and dangerous, robotics can supplement this labour, making it safer and easier while improving production efficiency. We invited some experts on automation and mining to share their views on the topic.

In terms of the overall drive to modernise South African mining, what direction is robotics taking specifically?

Sietse van der Woude, senior executive modernisation and safety, Chamber of Mines.

Sietse van der Woude, senior executive modernisation and safety, Chamber of Mines: “It is important at the outset to understand what “robotics” means in mining applications. It is not the movie-inspired notion of a Star Wars C3-PO-type robot. Rather, it is the application of artificial intelligence to mining equipment to make the equipment more efficient, so the job is safer, healthier, easier and quicker for operators, freeing up their time and effort to do more thinking, analysis and innovation. There is a well-resourced, multi-stakeholder, collaborative initiative – co-ordinated by the CSIR and the Chamber of Mines – now underway to modernise the South African mining industry. Other stakeholders include various mining companies, the government, research institutions, universities and equipment manufacturers. There is a shared recognition that such modernisation, of which robotics is a part, must be people-centric. Simply stated, this envisages people and technology, working together in new processes that are safer, healthier and more productive, to exploit the country’s substantial remaining mineral wealth.”

The application of robotics differs, and will most probably continue to differ well into the future, between the country’s deep-level mines and shallow underground and opencast mines. The application of robotics in shallow underground and opencast mines is simply easier because, compared with deep-level mines, there is more space and communication is less complex. Already, in some South African mines there are driverless vehicles – load-haul-dumpers and dump trucks, for example – being operated in shallow underground mines and open pits, entirely from a central control room on the surface. In our established, deep-level, hard-rock gold and platinum mines, space is at a premium and communication is much more challenging. Neither of these factors can be easily and affordably changed.”

The other panellists agreed with van der Woude’s sentiments of making mines safer and more productive, and added on what benefits and challenges are associated with implementing robotics in local mines.

Shaniel Davrajh, principal engineer, CSIR.

Shaniel Davrajh, principal engineer, Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR): “The focus of modernising the mining industry in South Africa involves improving safety within the working environment, focussing mining efforts on reduction of losses and providing innovative methods to extract existing resources. The ultimate goal would be to use robots to autonomously operate and perform various functions within the mining cycle. Due to the lack of suitable technology and associated research and experience to implement that technology within a mining environment, this process has to be performed incrementally. Currently, many efforts are being directed towards implementing robotics in mining, however these are generally disjointed and specific to certain operations as a result of the unique layout of each ore body.”

Tim Walwyn, country business unit manager, Siemens Process Solutions: “Deeper mines with lower grades are leading to a safety and productivity crisis in South African mines as more and more resources are required just to access the production area safely. Robotic systems, in the form of automated drilling and hauling systems, have the potential to remove human operators from hazardous environments while simultaneously assisting mines to increase productivity by implementing continuous operation.”

Dr. Declan Vogt, lecturer – robotics and automation in mining, Camborne School of Mines, University of Exeter: “The use of robotics is currently limited because the technology is only slowly reaching the maturity necessary to take on underground mining tasks. The most common uses for robotics are to undertake development drilling automatically, and to control trucks underground and on the surface. In both cases, the benefit is in the repeatability and quality of the operations: automated trucks drive fast, on narrower roads, because their control systems prevent them from hitting the edges; and they run for significantly longer because their engines are never abused by their robotic brains. These benefits translate into lower development and operating costs for mines.”

With job preservation and job creation being national priorities across industries, how is recognition of this being aligned with the development and implementation of robotics in mining?

Tim Walwyn, country business unit manager, Siemens Process Solutions.

Tim Walwyn: “Along with advances in individual robotic systems, there has been a realisation that deployment of robotics in mines must be accompanied by a revolution in the entire technical and support landscape. As manual labour is removed from the rock face, significant new employment opportunities are created in a range of areas such as maintenance, operations management, and systems administration. The challenge is to educate and equip the workforce with the skills to adapt to this rapidly changing work environment. Whether this will happen is another story.”

Sietse van der Woude agreed with Walwyn: “The machines can work longer, more accurately and more productively. Thus, there is the potential to open up more production areas underground that are currently sterilised by economics. Very importantly, people are trained and retrained as operators, operating the machines remotely from safe locations, metres away, rather than from a control room on the surface. Their exposure to the safety and health risks at the face is removed, and they are able to use their minds more and their bodies less.”

Dr. Declan Vogt provided a fresh perspective on the idea of robotics taking jobs: “The current situation is clear: without a fundamental change of some kind, many mines will go out of business in the foreseable future because of their high costs. Automation and robotics provide ways of keeping mines open; ways to limit job losses rather than close entire mines.”

There is a substantial focus on developing South African expertise and products in mining automation, which will lead to the creation of jobs outside of mining, and jobs that can continue after the local mining resources are exhausted.”

There is also a call for decent work, and it is a stretch to describe manual labour in mining as “decent”. Robotics, automation and even mechanisation will lead to higher skilled jobs, with lower physical effort, or to put it another way, more decent work.”

In addition to agreeing with van der Woude, Shaniel Davrajh said: “Consideration should be given to the fact that there is industry-wide support for local manufacturers where possible. This means that more jobs will be created should the robotic technology being implemented be produced locally.”

What, in the last five years, have been the most significant strides made in the development and application of robotics in South African mining?

Dr. Declan Vogt, lecturer – robotics and automation in mining, Camborne School of Mines, University of Exeter.

Shaniel Davrajh: “The development of MOSH practices has significantly influenced the manner in which mining companies conduct their operations, by providing the necessary guidelines for implementing best practices. In addition, the presence of local manufacturers who understand and work with local mining companies to provide customised solutions has been a key development in the extraction of local resources. Implementing the SAMERDI strategy and the resulting mining precinct is also a crucial development in addressing the issues of local mining companies and OEMs.”

Sietse van der Woude: “Several South African mining companies and mining equipment manufacturers have developed and continue to develop affordable, small but robust, trackless, remotely operated machines to work in our deep-level, hard-rock mines. The move is toward machines with a range of front-end attachments that enable them to perform a number of repetitive actions at the rockface under the control of an operator, working at a safe distance. At various South African mines currently, such prototype machines are being tested in terms of the new, collaborative approach towards the modernisation of South Africa’s mining industry.”

Tim Walwyn: “The advent of Industry 4.0 has complemented advances in mechatronic systems to allow for the deployment of data acquisition and analytical systems that support semi-autonomous or even autonomous operations. The ongoing convergence of geological, technical, production, operational and business data systems is allowing mine operators to develop new insights into the performance of their assets that unlock the full potential of robotics and other automation technologies. These same technologies improve overall planning, scheduling and monitoring of personnel movements, thus reducing exposure to hazards.”

Recent developments aside, Dr. Declan Vogt had this to say: “For all the talk, automation is still immature, and there is still the challenge of transforming management and supervisory systems to successfully supervise a new technology mine. It is widely held in the industry that automating a bad mine just leads to a mine that is more efficient at being bad.”

To what extent can the development of robotics in SA mining be leveraged as export potential?

Dr. Declan Vogt: “This is the huge opportunity. In a world where there is not yet a clear leader in automation for mining, there is a short window of opportunity for that leader to emerge from South Africa. In the development of the “yellow metal”, or mechanised equipment industry, there is a huge capital requirement that holds South African companies back, but in the electronics/IT side of mining that underlies automation, South African companies are poised to become major international players.”

Internationally, more than 40% of the value of a modern car is now contained in its electronics and IT, and even for the major players like Ford or Volkswagen, this electronics often comes from third parties. Mining automation offers a possibility for the emergence of such an electronics company in South Africa, to become a future world giant.”

Shaniel Davrajh: “South Africa contains the deepest mines in the world. The challenges faced in these environments are not experienced internationally. However, as international resources become depleted, other countries will find that they have to go deeper as we have. The technology developed for our mining environments will then form the global standard resource set.”

Sietse van der Woude: “A very specific focus of the collaborative drive to modernise the South African mining industry is the development of markets for affordable, high-tech, high-quality South African-made mining equipment, particularly in other African mining domains where mining conditions and needs are similar to those in South Africa. The vision is for the development of a robust support mining equipment manufacturing industry with export potential.”

Could robotics be used to put low yielding mines back into production?

Tim Walwyn: “As the ecosystem of robotics and associated systems matures, we can expect to see advances in pricing and productivity that will ultimately bring low yielding mines back into play as economically viable operations. This is key to understanding how the benefits of robotic mining and automation need not be feared by labour, but embraced as a major driver of long term sustainability.”

Dr. Declan Vogt: “Maybe. Robotics holds out the potential to lower operational costs, but right now the technology is not yet mature enough to immediately make a difference in low yielding mines. There is also an issue of cost: robotic operations are not cheap, and their operational efficiency will need to be balanced against their capital cost, and the much-increased cost per operator driven by the higher skills requirements of automation.”

Shaniel Davrajh: “It is difficult to say. Can a robot always enhance a manufacturing line? It would depend on the environment and the operating state and constraints of that environment in which the technology is placed.”

Final comments were made by two panellists who believe that mine leadership and executives play a pivotal role in a mine’s ability to actually implement robotic advancements

Shaniel Davrajh: “The mining industry is one of the most complex environments to ever work in. Yes, robotic technology will always evolve, however it is simply a tool. The manner in which a skilled mine manager uses that tool is the ultimate factor in deciding the overall feasibility of a mining operation.”

Dr. Declan Vogt: “There are huge gains to be made in mining that do not depend on technology. It is clear that South African mining is not as well-organised or as well-managed as it used to be, and that the management systems on many mines are fundamentally unchanged from the late 19th century. If we can undertake the enormous task of changing the management and operational culture on many of our mines to match that in other 21st century businesses in South Africa, such as the automotive industry, we can show large benefits in the short term at very low cost. But the change requires commitment from all staff at all levels, and internationally it has proven difficult in other industries. Do enough South African executives, managers and mine captains have what it takes?”

While the panellists agreed that developments in robotics can be highly beneficial to the safety and productivity of a mine, the general sentiment seems to be that South Africa has some way to go before these benefits can be realised. Out-dated systems and the prohibitive cost of modernising may threaten the survival of the industry. Do you think our local mines have what it takes to modernise, digitise, and ultimately compete worldwide?

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