Is mechanisation the future of African mining?
Several African miners have expressed the desire to move towards more mechanised and streamlined production for better information management systems that result in significant reductions in manpower needs.
On the back of downward commodity prices, constrained markets and labour issues, there are growing calls to mechanise systems at mines as production figures continue to tumble. Does the future of African mining lie in mechanisation?
The African mining sector has made its intentions clear, its future lies in mechanisation of systems. For example, amid an unceasing labour turmoil in the mining industry in South Africa, mining companies believe their future lies in productivity turnaround, and that can only be achieved by improving output per worker.
Several mines, and quarries to some extent, have expressed the desire to move towards more mechanised and streamlined production for better information management systems that result in significant reductions in manpower needs, and more efficient daily operations and increased production flexibility.
However, Dr Declan Vogt, director of the Centre for Mechanised Mining Systems at Wits University, warns that technically, mechanisation may not be feasible on every operation. He reasons that in old mines with established infrastructure, and in mines and quarries with difficult geotechnical conditions, it may also not be possible to mechanise. “In mining, the emphasis is now on modernising, which means improve operations by using more modern means, whether these are mechanisation or just improved conventional techniques,” he says.
“There will be a shift in jobs, from traditional lower skilled jobs to more highly skilled operator jobs. There will also be a shift in jobs away from the quarry or the mine to the maintenance depot for the equipment,” he adds. “In the past, mechanisation has brought an increase in jobs. There are now more jobs in the coal industry than there were before mechanisation, because the industry grew as it became more efficient compared to its competitors.”
However, he is of the view that in some areas, particularly gold and platinum mines, there is little choice – mines have to improve their productivity, or they will go out of business.
Dr Declan Vogt says the primary challenge of implementing mechanised systems in the African operating environment is skills.
Dr Vogt says from the operator point of view, the biggest advantage of a mechanised operation is in safety – people are removed from the immediate danger, and so automatically become safer.
“Perhaps the most under-rated aspect of mechanisation is the improvement in consistency. A mechanised solution may not be as fast as the best manual operators, but it is the same every single time, which greatly improves the consistency of the operation, which in turn improves productivity,” he says.
But, does the future of quarrying lie in mechanisation and automation of operations? “It will for some operations – it depends on the situation at each mine and quarry,” argues Dr Vogt.
In mining, the emphasis is now on modernising, which means improve operations by using more modern means.
He advises that more needs to be invested in the systems around mechanisation. “It is not enough to buy a good machine and throw it over the wall into your operation. Everyone, from operator to manager, needs to understand the need for the machine, what it can deliver and why it should be supported,” he says.
He adds that attempts to mechanise have often failed not because of the machine itself, but because of the lack of appropriate processes that enable the machine to deliver on its promise, and because of the lack of attention to the people. ”Machines don’t allow mines and quarries to ignore their people, in fact people become much more important, because a machine allows a person to be so much more productive, if that person chooses not to work hard, the consequences are so much more serious than in a labour intensive operation,” he says.
According to Dr Vogt, the primary challenge of implementing these systems in the African operating environment is skills. “We need the skills to operate the machinery, the skills to maintain it and the skills to manage mechanised operations. All these skills exist in South Africa and Africa, but not in the numbers that are going to be required in the long term.”
Equipment Africa says: Mechanisation is coming, like the cellphone did. It is growing at the moment, and will continue to grow, because of the advantages it offers, and one of the biggest advantages is a better quality of life for the people who work at the face. Some operations will convert quickly, others will take longer, and some will never change because mechanisation is not appropriate for their circumstances. But we will see more mechanisation, and in a few years it will seem like the obvious way to work – as it already does in the coal industry.