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Mining Transformation and Future Prospects in response to the 4th Industrial Revolution

The extractive industry is concerned with depleting outputs and socio-environmental challenges, but ‘disruptive’ technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) could offer promising prospects. Innovative processes and a shift in operational practices will inevitably transform the industry, which will have a positive impact on miners and the communities as well as the environment and local economy.

With industrialisation, there has been a burgeoning demand for minerals and metals. As people and businesses move beyond mechanisation to the 4IR, systems and processes have evolved around the notion of interconnection, information transparency, decentralised decisions and technical assistance. 1​ The 4IR comprises technologies such as Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence, Cyber Physical Systems (CPS), Big Data (processing and large data analytics) and Virtual Reality. 2

Mining companies have to deal with resource depletion, ore grade reduction, and upward cost pressures while regulatory demands may impose operational limitations to mining activity. These factors may culminate in productivity losses and increase the financial burden of mining companies. With the advent of 4IR technologies, smart mines can be built to incorporate processes like automation and data analytics, which may make mining safer and reduce workplace injuries or fatalities.

Workplace accidents could be avoided if autonomous assets replaced workers in high-risk vocations. According to the United States Department of Labor’s Mine Safety and Health Administration, half of the fatalities in surface mining in the United States were attributed to haulage, although technologies are now available that reduce the risk of such workplace accidents. 3​ Mining company Anglo American has automated the rock cutting process, reducing workplace risk and reaping a 20% enhancement in productivity. 4​ A proof of concept with autonomous trucks was also successfully carried out in a South African opencast coal mine, and a 100% increase in productivity was noted from that project. 5​ Equipped with IoT devices, mining companies can accumulate a huge amount of data, which can be useful in creating reports, analysing operations, and redefining key performance indices. With this data and the corresponding digital tools, miners can achieve greater flexibility and mobility to communicate and collaborate with their peers. Productivity enhancements can also be further paired with industry-specific upskilling programmes for incremental benefits.

The smart mine is a step forward towards cost reductions, increased performance output, and quality upgrades. However, mere improvements in current work processes may not be sufficient. To fully reap the benefit of 4IR technologies, mining companies will have to build integrated platforms, adopt industry best practices, and adhere to government regulations. The interface of smart devices need to be user-friendly, convenient and efficient. This can be achieved with CPS, and there are different levels of integration that can dramatically improve productivity. 6

Abrupt structural changes to mining operations require a holistic leadership approach. Mining corporations must show agility and flexibility to adopt technological advancements, because players in the industry are increasingly facing pressure to reconcile their profits with the environmental, social and governance (ESG) requirements. 7​ The ​United NationsSustainable Development Goals has set out a blueprint to achieve a better and more sustainable future for all, and in line with this, the ten ​mining principles promulgated by the International Council on Mining and Metals pave the way for mining companies to promote responsible production and sustainable mining behaviour. Stricter regulations have also driven mining companies to re-evaluate current processes so as to derive greater value from 4IR technologies in their operations. 8

Besides 4IR technologies, mining operations can be improved with the revolutionary developments in mining lixiviants. To mine cleanly, safely, and sustainably, mining companies must ensure that they take committed steps to meet ESG standards. Clean Mining has an ​environmentally-friendly, non-toxic gold recovery reagent with rapid reaction kinetics that can replace cyanide and mercury in the gold extraction process.

With a gold recovery rate similar to that of cyanide on certain ore types, mining companies can reduce their mining footprint without compromising on their production output. ​4IR technologies and Clean Mining’s cyanide-free reagent present new opportunities for gold mining companies. By shifting away from “dirty” gold mining, mining companies can preserve the sanctity of the environment and provide better working conditions.

 

Clean Mining is part of the Clean Earth Technologies group.

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[1] For more on the 4th Industrial Revolution, see, “What Is the Fourth Industrial Revolution?,” Salesforce Blog, accessed October 15, 2020, ​https://www.salesforce.com/ap/blog/2020/03/apac-what-is-the-fourth-industrial-revolution-4IR.html​.

[2] See, for more on the elements of the 4IR, Inżynieria Mineralna, “How Will the 4th Industrial Revolution Influences the Extraction Industry?,” ​Journal of the Polish Mineral Engineering Society​, 2019, http://potopk.com.pl/Full_text/2019_full/IM%201-2019-a54.pdf​.

[3] Automation is the process whereby humans are replaced by machines in hopes of increasing efficiency and eliminating errors. This has an impact on workplace safety, which is a major concern for mining companies. For more on the fatalities in surface mining, see, Meng Zhang, Vladislav Kecojevic, and Dragan Komljenovic, “Investigation of Haul Truck-Related Fatal Accidents in Surface Mining Using Fault Tree Analysis,” 2014, ​https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ssci.2014.01.005.​

[4] For more on the automation process from Anglo American, see, Bryony Collins, “Anglo Using ‘Digital Twins’, Robotics to Boost Mining: Q&A,” BloombergNEF, June 20, 2018, ​https://about.bnef.com/blog/anglo-using-digital-twins-robotics-boost-mining-qa/​.

[5] For more on productivity gains from the South African opencast coal mine autonomous vehicles’ proof of concept, see, Victor Moolman, “Autonomous Mining Vehicle Test at SA Coal Mine Successfully Completed,” Mining Weekly, 2018, https://www.miningweekly.com/article/autonomous-mining-vehicle-test-at-sa-coal-mine-successfully-completed-2018-05-11/rep _id:3650​.

[6] Through CPS, horizontal integration helps the company stay on track with its business strategies, value networks and business models. For example, information about mining vehicles concerning fuel quantity, fuel usage, tyre cost per tonnes hauled, tyre quality and mining progress can be recorded or determined. End-to-end integration consists of cross-linking and understanding the full lifecycle of a product. For instance, data concerning the materials, design and costs of a product can be recorded and linked to material orders. This is followed by CPS deducing the manufacturing methods and allocated destinations for these products. Vertical integration facilitates the connection of various departments in a company, from product development to fabrication, logistics and marketing. CPS could provide an easily configurable system that stores all the data in a single location in real-time, resolving conflicts that arise from information clashes. For more on the types of integration, see, M. N. Sishi and A. Telukdarie, “Implementation of Industry 4.0 Technologies in the Mining Industry: A Case Study,” Implementation of industry 4.0 technologies in the mining industry: A case study (IEEE Conference Publication, 2017), https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/document/8289880​.

[7] A leadership model proposed from the South African Institute of Mining and Metallurgy suggests that there should be an integration between personal and organisational visions, missions and values, where leaders should first and foremost reflect on themselves before they lead their team towards a certain direction. This could be properly executed when they find a balance in synergies between their emotions, cognition and behaviour that is applicable to their role in the company. See, for more on the leadership model, J. Uys and R. Webber-Youngman, “A 4.0D Leadership Model Postulation for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Relating to the South African Mining Industry,” ​Journal of the Southern African Institute of Mining and Metallurgy​ 119, no. 10 (2019), ​https://doi.org/10.17159/2411-9717/17/450/2019​.

[8] Many countries have implemented Mining Codes and have made sure that ​reporting standards are on par with ​Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) member jurisdictions, such as Australia’s JORC Code, Canada’s CIM Guidelines, and Chile’s Certification Code​. institutional investors are taking more of an interest in ESG risks. Fi​rms with a negative social impact were valued at US$0.90 less per share as compared to those deemed to be socially “neutral”. For more on investors’ valuations, see, Jean-Francois Bonnefon et al., “Do Investors Care About Corporate Externalities? Experimental Evidence,” SSRN, October 2, 2019, ​​https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3458447​.

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