Mining companies are increasing their utilisation of automation, robots and operational software to improve profit margins, writes Itumeleng Mukhovha.
A few years after this century’s commodity boom, which was primarily driven by China’s resource-intensive manufacturing and infrastructure sectors, many segments within the global mining industry are facing challenges that have caused severe price declines, increased volatility and low utilisation levels.
To add to this, the current value-chain is being challenged by macroeconomic conditions and increasingly pervasive new technology. The digital transformation of mining companies is expected to persist indefinitely, and as a result, define the mining industry’s ‘new normal’.
Conventional mining requires extortionate fixed-asset operations and machinery, the maintenance and depreciable life of which can substantially impact production output, operating costs and ongoing capital expenditure. In order to move beyond stagnant growth and deliver exceptional shareholder, customer and safety value, mining companies are increasing the utilisation of automation, robots and operational software.
Previously, automated hardware was restricted to carrying out specific tasks it had been programmed to do. In recent years, robots and machinery have been modified to perform tasks with a high degree of autonomy, working for extended periods without human intervention.
According to a recent report by Markets and Markets Research [italics] the technology trends in autonomous operations and robotics technology are expected to provide a substantial value to the mining industry and its stakeholders, and ultimately, create a mining automation market worth over USD3.29-billion by 2023.
In addition, the adoption of mining automation in various mineral ore sites has increased the number of strategic partnerships between mining automation equipment vendors and other communication systems providers. For instance, in June 2016, BHP Billiton awarded a contract to Atlas Copco AB (Sweden) for the autonomous upgrade of 18 drill rigs. Similarly, Calibre Group has completed the first autonomous train deliveries across Rio Tinto’s Pilbara mining operations, establishing the world’s first automated heavy locomotives that haul ore hundreds of miles to port terminals. Rio Tinto’s automated operations in Australia are reportedly intended to preview a more efficient future for all its mining operations and reduce the need for human miners.
Meanwhile in Africa, joint venture partners Barrick Gold and AngloGold Ashanti have automated the Kibali operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo to the extent that remote operators function underground from safe air-conditioned cubicles, while managing the loaders on the open stopes of the underground operation that descends close to 800m below surface into a massive orebody. At Australian company Resolute Mining’s Syama gold mine the company partnered with internationally renowned Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) Sandvik to automate their underground mine in Mali.