Robots, a control room – in 5 years you won’t recognise our mines

2015-11-11 17:36
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Conventional mining as we know it will soon no longer exist, chief executive officer of South African-based gold miner, Gold Fields, Nick Holland, told a recent forum at the Gordon Institute of Business Science. 

Mining companies have three to five years to implement new technology and upskill their workers in order to be able to compete in the new paradigm and remain relevant. 

Holland said mines of the future would need to be agile and be able to respond to changing demand. They would have to do this by implementing digital technology that can monitor realtime information across the mine’s entire value chain: “We can’t rely on an increase in the gold price to bail us out,” he said. 

Gold mines are under pressure as the size and quality of discoveries continue to decline, reserves are deeper and more difficult to access and new frontiers become more difficult to uncover. 

“Productivity increases will become the order of the day,” he said. 

Holland outlined the current challenges faced by gold mining companies and Goldfields’ strategic plans to respond to these and create a gold mine for the future. 

Mechanisation, digitisation, automation 

While the idea of the mechanisation of mining was now a familiar one, Holland said this would go one step further with the digitisation and automation of future of mines. 

“Mining has become high-tech, and the digitisation of mines is going to happen sooner than we think,” he said. 

He explained that a centralised control room would be the core of mining operations in the future, with the ability to monitor information in real-time and respond to changing demand. 

“Real-time information of the entire mining value chain is a significant step towards improving productivity. New mines will need to be agile,” Holland said. 

Improved data and technology would create a more safety-conscious environment and enhance efficiency. 

In order to deliver a digitised mine, the gold mining industry was partnering with IT firms to assist with data collection and analysis to enable the decision-making process. These partnerships would allow for access to technology and the high-tech skills necessary to make mining relevant for the future. 

While the cost of gold extraction, or geological inflation, continues to increase, as does the time it takes to develop a mine from grassroots exploration to production, Holland said technology existed to address these challenges and assist with exploration. 

Better information and more efficient usage of data about ore bodies as well as precision drilling were examples of such advances. Automation in the form of robotics and Artificial Intelligence was the next step from mine mechanisation and would allow for remote mining of even deeper reserves to become a real possibility, Holland explained. 


Because the control room would become the focal point of future mining operations, Holland said a “a completely different type of miner” would be needed in five to 10 years’ time. 

“We have to train and upskill our workers and our communities, or it is going to be a huge risk,” he said. 

Water and energy constraints 

Water and energy constraints are a future risk for the gold mining industry. Refractory ore bodies, or those which are difficult to separate from other mineral components and require further processing, increase costs and place pressure on water and electricity usage. 

“Energy and water are going to be a scarce resource in the future. We are going to have to use them better and make use of renewable energy and underwater treatment systems,” Holland said. He said energy storage systems were improving and becoming cheaper, and alternative solutions were becoming more viable. 

Relationship with stakeholders 

Stakeholder management would continue to come under the spotlight, Holland said. Conflicts with communities had escalated enormously, increasing 22% between 2002 and 2013. 

He said the mining industry would have to continue to embrace and engage with the communities they operated in. 

Holland said the government and the mining industry would have to work together as “there is no other way.” 

The industry’s contribution to socioeconomic development in the form of taxes, public private partnership infrastructure upgrades, job creation and skills development needed to be recognised, Holland said. 

He concluded that the industry needed the government to provide a consistent, clear investment environment, as well as regulatory consistency and stability. 

» City Press is a sponsor of the Gordon Institute of Business Science’s forums 

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