Automation and digitalisation bodes well for the future of mining in Africa, Robert Hull, vice president mining, minerals & metals Africa, at Worley tells Leon Louw.
Robert, please tell us more about your background and involvement in the mining industry
I was born in a mining town during the boom and mining was therefore always central – which eventually lead me to study a BSc Mining Engineering at Wits University. In my early career I worked as an underground miner and shift overseer at De Beers. Later, I became involved with strategic business planning and project development at De Beers. I moved to the mining consultancy world in 2007 and have been involved in a multitude of projects for various clients since then.
My expertise is in project management with a mining-focused background. In 2017 I took over the portfolio of projects for WorleyParsons, which involved about 80% mining and the rest were chemical and energy projects. After WorleyParsons’ acquisition of Jacobs Energy, Chemicals and Resources (ECR) earlier this year, I took over the role of vice president mining, minerals & metals Africa for Worley. My responsibilities include, amongst others, the delivery of all projects and building the mining business for the Worley Group within the continent.
What is your role in African projects?
My role is to drive the mining model throughout Africa. However, although the focus is on mining in Africa, we also provide mining-related skills to the global business. Worley’s Johannesburg office is highly regarded for deep level mining and shafts expertise and excellence in the Worley group. We are involved in a large number of projects in various stages of development around Africa.
Are there any trends in the African mining space that you have identified over the past year?
We have seen quite a significant increase in both brownfield and greenfield projects in the last six to 12 months, and this trend is currently continuing. There is a big drive in automation and mechanisation and Worley has done pioneering work in this regard.
There has also been an increase in the use of digitisation in the project design and mine development. Our Building Information Modelling (BIM), 4D, 5D, 6D and 7D technologies are extremely popular and more companies are making use of this technology. BIM is used to create a sophisticated digital project design/twin platform and to prepare for project execution as efficiently and cost effectively as possible. BIM augments the three primary spatial dimensions of width, height and depth with 4D, 5D, 6D and 7D technology, which allows the project team to visualise project objectives and will greatly improve operational efficiency.
Are mining companies designing and developing new mines with technology, digitisation and automation in mind?
Yes, definitely. Not only that, but they realise it is vital to incorporate BIM and that they will need to manage information systems through data-centric models and then feed that data into mine-specific automation.
Our rapid prototyping and StepWise systems enable us to very quickly build concept studies in the very early phases, shorten the feasibility phases, and significantly provide definitive direction. The fully-integrated financial and technical StepWise process model can be used to determine the best options for a project by considering all the relevant techno-economic factors, while rapid prototyping can create a visually data-centric smart model of a facility early in the project development process.
How will all this technology and automation change the mining industry in the future?
There has already been a significant step change. In most projects that we are involved in, from concept studies all the way through to implementation, there is a much more data-centric focus. We are able to run scenario testing and can look at constructability reviews through virtual reality. Who knows what mining will look like in five to ten years? The rate of change right now is so high it can only get better.
What do you do as a company to adapt to these rapid changes so that it benefits your clients?
We identified the coming changes a long time ago and implemented a formal business plan to make sure we stay ahead of that curve. Our new technology solutions prove that this was highly successful, and there has been an immense uptake.
What are the opportunities in Africa?
There are many positives about Africa and lots of opportunities as Africa hosts immense mineral wealth. This wealth, however, needs to create real value for the people in those countries rich in mineral reserves. I believe minerals will play a key role in the development of the continent.
Which minerals or commodities will you be focusing on?
Amongst others, we are working on platinum group metals, gold, diamond, iron ore, heavy minerals and manganese projects in Africa. I believe phosphates and platinum will remain big drivers. Globally, there is a big focus on clean energy and technology including electric vehicles and batteries. As a result, there will be an increased demand for minerals like lithium and graphite, which are used in the production of these new technologies. At the moment this sector is very competitive, but very exciting since most of these minerals are found in Africa.
The South African market seems to have lost its shine. What is your view on the mining industry in South Africa?
We have seen a real upturn in South African focused projects in the last year. There has been a positive upswing in terms of projects being delivered, and projects being driven through the lifecycle. Not only early phase studies, but we’ve also seen implementation studies, feasibility projects, and engineering and design projects coming through, and companies have implemented some of those projects. A fair amount of those are in brownfields expansion. But there are also a number of greenfield projects, although a lot of them are still in early phase and funding remains a challenge.
What role does infrastructure play in the development of a new mine, and at what stage does Worley become involved?
The majority, if not all, of the projects undertaken by Worley have infrastructure requirements, referred to as resource infrastructure, as opposed to urban or public infrastructure.
As part of our project delivery services, we advise our clients when and where the relevant infrastructure needs to integrate with their project, as invariably these projects have unique infrastructure challenges.
Typically, resource infrastructure includes front-end and delivery services relating to transport facilities, logistics, terminals, power and water supply and management, specialist consulting, environmental considerations and non-process infrastructure.