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Message to miners: modernise or fall behind

Message to miners: modernise or fall behind

Thu Oct 12 2017


South African mining companies and equipment makers have to collaborate to lift the country’s mining sector out of a self-inflicted technology slump and cannot expect the rest of the world to come to its rescue.


At last week’s Jo’burg Indaba mining conference, a panel of mining experts spoke of the urgent need to modernise and automate mining in order to bring down costs as well as extend the lives of deep-level South African gold and platinum mines and save jobs.


In recent years South African mining research and development has slowly been emerging from the doldrums — when less than R5m was spent annually on exploring new ideas — to a new era when in 2017, R100m of government money has been pumped into this kind of work.





It was a long way off the R4bn to R5bn other mining countries spend annually on research and development, said Alastair Macfarlane, a director of mining research at The Mining Precinct, which is a joint industry and government technology research project to modernise SA’s mines.


All seven panellists spoke of the need for co-operation between companies to selflessly share their concepts and innovation, but the reality of clinging on to in-house intellectual property was laid bare.


"What we also need to understand is it’s not a question of just sitting and handing out everything we’ve learnt. We have paid a lot of school fees. But we are more than prepared to start engaging and really getting around it and working on it," said Frik Fourie, who heads new mining technology at Anglo American Platinum (Amplats).


Amplats, the world’s largest platinum miner, had developed remotely controlled mining machines that operated in 0.9m high spaces and used hydrogen fuel cells. The technology would be rolled out at every new project because retro-fitting older mines was too expensive, Fourie said.


Sibanye Stillwater’s Alex Fenn, who manages safe technology and innovation, argued that the time to cling to intellectual property to modernise and advance mining had passed.


Intellectual property "is progressively becoming more irrelevant, so we shouldn’t spend a lot of time focusing on developing our own … we should just be open to sharing as much as possible," Fenn said.


The country’s unique ore bodies, which were deep and narrow, made the challenge of development of new technology a local problem.


"We will not really be able to depend on our global counterparts to solve our problems for us, which is generally what other industries do," he said.


"There will have to be an element of collaboration required from industry. "It will be a sacrifice of local competitiveness but on the basis of global survival," Fenn said.


The greatest concern for organised labour in SA was that machines would replace people, reducing the workforce, but Macfarlane said if nothing was done, the demise of the gold and platinum industries could be reached within the next 15 years rather than 30 years if continuous mechanised methods were developed. A quick fix for the local industry would be the implementation of a stable regulatory and legislative environment in which capital could make a return, said Dominic O’Kane from JPMorgan.


Source: https://www.businesslive.co.za/