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South Africa: Sibanye-Stillwater Wits DigiMine seminar highlights key role universities play in implementing mine digital solutions.

The future is here… it will disrupt everything and mining and the higher education industry needs to adapt or risk falling behind. This was the key message at the Sibanye-Stillwater Wits DigiMine Seminar, held at the University of Witwatersrand from 8 to 10 December.

Professor Fred Cawood, University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) Mining Institute director.

In his opening address, Professor Fred Cawood, University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) Mining Institute director, noted that the modern mining industry faces many challenges that it needs to overcome to continue thriving, including the implementation of artificial intelligence in the context of poverty on the continent, and accompanying job security. 

With the increasing scarcity of finite mineral resources, decarbonisation, mining activities becoming more remote and at extreme depths, Cawood believes that universities and research institutions have a key role to play in the mining sector.

Through ongoing partnerships, mining companies and universities can leverage research and development (R&D) to explore the right digital solutions and assist in skills acceleration to reduce risk, while capitalising on future opportunities.

In his seminar keynote address, Neal Froneman, CEO of Sibanye-Stillwater, the world’s largest primary producer of platinum, the second-largest primary producer of palladium and third-largest producer of gold, noted that the company is aligning its strategy and focus to a digital-first approach. “Through ongoing research, we have already made significant strategic and organisational changes in culture, structure and process.”

To achieve this approach, Sibanye-Stillwater is developing and establishing an innovation culture to support adoption within the organization. “Digital first is about more than just digital technology,” he pointed out, highlighting that the adoption has also allowed a better work-life balance for its employees.

He added that successful innovation synthesis required diversity of thought, collaborative engagement, iterative learning, positive re-enforcement, thought leadership and enablement.

Froneman’s statement that “We remain confident that digital technologies will occupy an increasingly important position in shaping the mine of the future” was referred to several times during the three-day event, emphasizing the need for support at the highest level when embarking on a digital transformation journey.

Alex Fenn, head of innovation at Sibanye-Stillwater, added in his keynote for Day 3 that looking at digital-first as a research and development option is opening new doors for mining technology adoption. “Our industry is still digitally nascent. There is a lack of digital density across a vastly complex value chain, which limits our ability to adopt off the shelf technology without additional R&D. Recognising the need to support academic institutions, we have established anchor agreements with key partner universities,” he said.

These partnerships allow miners, like Sibanye-Stillwater, to access broader infrastructure and multidisciplinary intellectual capital.

Showcasing the efforts that the DigiMine 21st-century mining laboratory is implementing to align mining companies to digitalisation, Wits head of DigiMine, Ahsan Mahboob noted with increasing instability and unpredictability, mining operations worldwide have had to grapple with the threat of total shutdowns or a reduced workforce.

“The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the absolute need for the mining industry to improve their digital systems. It has certainly pushed the fast-forward button in bringing the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) to the front for most mining companies.” However, he noted that although digitalisation in mines was quite possible with 4IR, it remained challenging to implement the available digital solutions in the industry.

The implementation, he said, would be determined by four key elements: the choice of technology, the communication systems being used in underground deep mines, computational power and the cost and time of implementation for systems connectivity.

“Our aim, through our research agenda, is to reduce risk, research, install and test technologies, innovate, reduce energy consumption, increase productivity and reduce environmental impact.”

 Studying in a digital world

Wits Faculty of Engineering and the Built Environment Dean Professor Ian Jandrell noted in his keynote for Day 2 that although COVID-19 had devastating economic and global effects, it also placed a focus on digital learning. “Effective online pedagogy, if properly implemented, is remarkably powerful. It creates the online option parallel to the face-to-face option,” he said.

He further highlighted that this new way of learning also opened the borders for students who would like to study a course elsewhere, while allowing certain flexibility to students in their first year, who are not yet entirely sure of the career they would like to follow, or the course they would like to study. “This allows students to also transition from one qualification to another.”

For those students who were less than tech-savvy, boot camps were held. “In the Faculty of Engineering Science, we are now running a boot camp for students who couldn’t get up to speed quickly enough in the online environment. This was done in conjunction with strong tutor support.”

The question of how the digitalisation of mines would affect future students was also discussed. Prof Cawood raised the question of why students would still consider studying mining when mines are working more towards automation. “The world needs minerals, the world is addicted and needs more of the old [resources] like copper, gold, and new [resources] like minerals for battery storage technology. However, what is being mined and when it is being mined will also be influenced by external pressures such as climate change and carbon footprints.”

Cawood concluded, “To keep up with this demand, world production of these products doubles every 30 to 40 years. More mining and processing pose tremendous challenges to the planet and its people. The result is that we have to do things differently and much better. Mining remains important as demand for mineral production grows, there are good jobs in mining and we need more brainpower to do better. And this is where the younger generation enters the scene – your challenge is to be better and this is exciting!”

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