The past few years have not been good to the South African mining industry.

This is mirrored by Stats SA’s latest findings, which points to drops in both the labour force and production levels.

In the company’s recent report for Mining: Productions and Sales, which looked at figures for the industry during February 2018, mining production had fallen by 2.4 percent and the number of mine workers also dipped by 1.5 percent.

Add to this the most significant issue plaguing local mines of late, the safety of its workers, and the outlook is not positive at all.

How then can these issues by addressed effectively, while at the same time have additional avenues for growth in the industry identified?

According to Software AG‘s chief technology officer, Patrick Shields, the answer lies in the Internet of Things (IoT). More specifically in the implementation of IoT solutions in innovative ways to tackle problems that have hampered the mining sector for the past few years.

We sat down with Shields to gain a better understanding of how IoT can tackle SA mining’s issues.     

Tackling current problems

“When you look at South Africa and the number of deaths that we’ve seen in mines, there are some very serious business problems that need to be solved within the industry. Specifically when it comes to health and safety,” explains Shields.

These are issues that can be addressed with the implementation of IoT systems, according to Software AG’s CTO.

With an IoT ecosystem dependant on connected devices feeding vast amounts of data to an intelligent platform, things such as mining wall collapses, high toxic gas levels, fires and equipment maintenance all have the potential to be monitored effectively with the right infrastructure in place.

Using the example of a recent mine fire that claimed the lives of some, but not all workers, Shields says that having an IoT system in place may have prevented even more deaths.

“Sensors were able to detect the fire, and the majority of workers were able to get out. The ones that did not make it could have been saved if the fire, or the things that led to the fire had been detected earlier. In this case, a conveyor belt mechanism had malfunctioned and caught alight. If there were sensors aboard the conveyor belt monitoring wear and tear, there could have been a higher chance of preventing the fire,” adds Shields.

This is where IoT is beginning to open up opportunities in mining, according to Shields.

With IoT you can take the level of detection several steps further. Where previously things like temperature and smoke are monitored, you’re now monitoring equipment and in doing so heightening the health and safety standards in mines.

“From a health and safety standpoint, you can protect human life if you can predict a failure before it happens and more proactively intervene,” notes Shields.  

He further believes that this is something we’ll start seeing more of as local mines begin adopting a smarter or more intelligent approach to problems that have been long left unaddressed.

Predicting the unknown

The predictive capability of IoT is not one that is gained overnight warns Shields, however, with the systems he evangelises requiring time to adapt.

This is where machine learning of such systems come into play, along with manufacturers in the industry designing products and equipment with self-monitoring functionalities built-in.

As such, it will take time for all the relevant aspects of IoT to merge and begin showcasing the power of prediction that comes with IoT, stresses Shields.

“It takes time in order to predict. One as aspect of our IoT platform leverages machine learning to analyse a constant stream of data in real-time, and it learns the patterns within that data. Over time, if you have 12 months of this data that’s available for the system’s artificial intelligence module to learn, then it can predict with better reliability the probability that something might break,” he adds.  

Therefore one of the important elements in understanding the value of IoT is that it’s a journey, according to Shields.

“The accuracy of prediction increases exponentially with the data that’s available,” says the CTO.

As for the role that Software AG wishes to play in the IoT equation, Shield says the value for the company and its clients lies in the former’s ability to monitor data as its flowing upstream and before it reaches rest.

During this process, Software AG and the mines implementing IoT systems can more easily learn how to react to anything that happens, and ultimately operate more efficiently to counteract issues like drops in productivity and lessening labour forces, explains Shields.

Human capital

While the case for IoT in terms of its value to mine operators is easy to see, what about those working in them?

According to Shields, workers too stand to benefit from IoT systems being in place.

“The impact of IoT in terms of jobs is fantastic as it creates the opportunity for new roles and skills that need to be filled. That’s important, especially in a society with such high unemployment. Any new skills or new jobs that are required as a bonus,” says Shields.

He also believes that the commonly held thought that IoT will eliminate jobs is a myth.

“The way I look at IoT and what is does for an organisation is that if it brings about efficiencies and a person that was previously counting and measuring now longer has to do so because a machine is doing it, that individual can repurposed within the company,” he enthuses.

Shields then notes that the onus falls on organisations to say as a part of change management that it will anticipate and repurpose the human capital it has within its ranks.

The focus should not be making tasks within the business obsolete with the implementation of automation, but rather in the upskilling of its employees to add value elsewhere in the business.  

“There will be a shift in the types of jobs required at present. If organisations can forecast and prepare for the shift, they can do their staff a favour by accounting for the need of reskilling, upskilling and repurposing,” notes Shields.

Kick the tyres

The most important part of this process is the elimination of fear of skepticism says Shields, particularly for organisations who have yet to see the value in IoT, which has been the case when it comes to the local mining industry.

Also significant is ensuring the correct planning is done in order to safeguard against any failure or impotence in getting the IoT system off the ground.

“There’s a large number of IoT projects that never make it out of pilot phase. Reduce things to thin slices, try things quickly, fail quickly and then pivot. Find your way in the IoT ecosystem, and having a model in place to do so is the most important aspect to this journey,” concludes Shields.     


[Image – CC0 Pixabay]