The future of the mining industry in South Africa is digital, says Dr Bekir Genc of the School of Mining Engineering at the University of the Witwatersrand, and information technologies will help the sector achieve its goals of better working conditions and improved mine economics. Genc was speaking during the opening session of the Mining into the Future conference, currently underway in Boksburg.
The conference is a collaborative partnership between Caterpillar, Barloworld Equipment (as the Cat southern African dealer), the Wits School of Mining, and the Wits Centre for Mechanised Mining Systems (CMMS).
Genc says the digital revolution is happening everywhere, and that it is soon going to happen to the mining industry – “if not today, tomorrow”. In recognition of this, the Wits School of Mining Engineering established a Digital Mine project to support the existing strategy of the mining industry to continuously improve working conditions and mine economics.
“Digital technologies are fundamental for efficient and safe mining where all systems are optimised,” says Genc. “This requires clarity of multiple sources of underground data, communicated to a surface control room and back to the workplace in real time. This is not happening yet. It requires an enormous amount of work, but some parties have started trying to establish these systems.”
In the first phase of the project, the School built a mock-up of an underground tunnel. This allows Wits to simulate an underground mining environment that can be used for teaching, learning and research. The 70m tunnel cost around R15m, and features a stope, rescue bay and lamp room, built with sponsorship from Goldfields, New Concept Mining and Sibanye.
Research is being conducted into smart surveying and mapping (visualisation) systems; climate control systems and energy savings (particularly important in deeper-level mines); smart rock engineering systems, which can monitor rock mass movement and predict seismic events; and smart data processing, which can locate people and assets and monitor their performance, recognise actions and detect abnormalities – such as recognising that someone is ill. Smart mine design, mining planning and decision-making are also being studied.
The Digital Mine project involves four phases, Genc says. Phase One – the building of the mock-up mine for research, teaching and learning – is complete. Phase Two – the building of a laboratory hosting digital technologies inside the mine – is in the advanced planning stages. Phases Three and Four – monitoring an underground environment for optimised mine design and processes, and having a digital mine integrated with a digital city and communities – are mostly conceptual, he says, and will require further funding to develop.
Genc expects the Digital Mine project to benefit the mining sector through providing access to a safe, smart mine laboratory reaching into the surrounding community on a multi-sensor GIS platform (once the lab has been developed), and providing knowledge to industry so that it can collect appropriate and accurate information to optimise mine designs and processes. This will enable continuous and predictive operations, while having a positive impact on mine efficiency and security. The latter is of particular relevance to gold mines, which face dangers to both mine shafts and mine employees as a result of the activities of illegal miners.
With digitisation, notes Genc, the concept of a Mine-to-Order (or Demand Mining) becomes a real possibility, contributing to productivity, mine bottom-line and transforming the mining industry through information technology. Perhaps most importantly, a digital mine will accelerate the process of reaching the industry’s zero-harm goal.
A variety of technologies that are under development will help make the digital mine a reality. Underground communications systems will enable real-time intervention to manage all types of risk. Underground drones will be able to see, map and collect data, and communicate it, and can also be used to map abandoned mines that are too dangerous to send people into. Smart data processing and 3D modelling is planned in the future, and will require participation from various Schools across various Faculties at Wits.
The Mining into the Future Conference is taking place on 1 and 2 July at the Birchwood Conference Centre in Boksburg. The theme for this year’s conference is “Improving productivity in a time of low commodity prices”. The conference offers delegates key insights and solutions, with the focus on such topics as machine fleet selection for either underground or surface mining; the latest trends on telematics and automation; preventative maintenance interventions; budgeting and planning; and parts inventory management.