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Breathing new life into mining

Microsoft’s newly-launched Mining Core helps re-ignite the mining sector.
Exxaro has migrated its SAP solutions and other centrally-run applications to Microsoft Azure, establishing a secure, agile, cost-effective and scalable platform to improve business processes and continuity. Image: Supplied

It’s never a smart move to discount mining’s role in the economy. It has historically been a major contributor to the country’s GDP, tax revenue and employment.

There are 450 000 people employed in mining and last year it contributed R24.3 billion in taxes and R360.9 billion to GDP.

The impact of the Covid-19 lockdown has been devastating, further contributing to a long-term downtrend in global competitiveness. This makes it critical for the sector to find new and better ways of working to regain its competitiveness and help drive economic recovery.

Helping to do this is an investment in technological innovation, which is breathing new life into an old-world sector of the economy.

Virtually every aspect of mining has the potential to be overhauled with the use of technology: from predictive ore body sampling in exploration, to intelligent supply chains and predictive maintenance. Research by Accenture found that 75% of breakdowns in energy companies are eliminated by predictive maintenance.

The same predictive maintenance applied to mining is slashing costs. For example, measuring vibrations and temperatures on machines at regular intervals has been shown to cut downtime and extend the life of the equipment.

The risks facing mines in the post-Covid-19 world have multiplied, and this is prompting a race to overhaul and digitalise functions previously managed the old way.

“In a time of great disruption and uncertainty, customers are looking to accelerate their own digital resiliency and make smart investments that take advantage of advancements in the cloud, intelligent solutions and security,” says Amr Kamel, Microsoft enterprise director for South Africa.

This is why Microsoft launched its latest initiative – Mining Core – in September. It allows customers to immerse themselves in emerging technologies to build and create solutions that not only overcome specific business challenges but also broadly enable the sector to grow and prosper.

Mining Core is built around four pillars: community services and social impact, using Microsoft solutions to uplift and empower communities affected by mining; health and safety, applying technologies to drive better behaviour and reduce accidents and fatalities; environment, with the emphasis on reduced water consumption, a lower carbon footprint and better monitoring of environmental impacts; and responsible digital transformation, including the responsible use of artificial intelligence (AI).

Building solutions collaboratively around these pillars is helping to solve some critical functions, including:

  • Tracking the location of people and equipment, and getting information back up to the control room in real-time to make fast decisions to optimise output;
  • Optimising drilling, mining, transport and mine downtime;
  • Monitoring the safety and health of workers, while ensuring health protocols are observed;
  • Mitigating and managing environmental risks.

Another innovation introduced by Microsoft is Connected Mine, a complex ecosystem of self-regulating machines and sites that are able to customise the output and optimally allocate resources, whether for exploration, mine development, extraction of ore, or production. An operator in a control room can visualise huge amounts of data on a single dashboard showing the state of equipment production and whereabouts of personnel in a mine working area, all calibrated for maximum output and worker safety.

None of this is possible without digitising every aspect of mining operations. Given the hundreds or even thousands of activities that take place simultaneously in a typical mine, the room for failure is vast. As more and more functions are digitised, the scope for improving operating performance and reducing costs is huge.

We are in fact at the dawn of an entirely new era of safe, efficient mining, says Kamel.

To help get them there, mines are investing in technologies to optimise operations, reduce expenditures and support sustainability measures. Covid-19 has helped accelerate this trend.

Case studies

As price-takers rather than price-givers, mines are particularly sensitive to costs. Swiss commodities and manufacturing company GRISARD-Gruppe is an example of a client that reduced its SAP operating costs by moving to Microsoft Azure.

Azure is an intelligent cloud platform offering services such as analytics, virtual computing, storage and networking. AI and machine learning are embedded across Microsoft’s platform, allowing collaboration between distributed teams to get products designed and optimised at speeds never before thought possible.

Guyana Goldfields cut its enterprise resource planning maintenance costs by 40% by using Azure, according to the company’s chief information officer, Rohit Tellis. In both cases, the companies were able to gain insights into the business that were previously not visible.

In mining, any 1% reduction in costs delivers a substantial benefit to the bottom line.

Mining executives are under pressure to extract as many savings as possible, while living up to higher standards of environmental and social behaviour. Technology is proving to be one of the most effective ways to manage costs and improve return on assets.

Rio Tinto, regarded as one of the leaders in futuristic mining, is planning to deploy drones, sensors, AI, chatbots and a panoply of new technologies to help it do mining better.

Exxaro, one of South Africa’s leading coal producers, also migrated its SAP solutions and other centrally-run applications to Azure, establishing a secure, agile, cost-effective and scalable platform to improve business processes and continuity.

One of the other ways Microsoft is helping clients perform better is by enabling better collaboration between workers in companies that often employ tens of thousands of workers in different locations. The knowledge sharing this allows ensures a deeper level of communication between workers within the organisation, and with outside partners and customers.

The cost savings can be considerable. By way of example, Capstone Mining in Canada wanted to share information more efficiently and reliably across remote locations. It moved from on-premises data centres to the cloud with Microsoft 365 and the Azure platform, giving management and workers access to mission-critical information at any time, anywhere. The company expects to save $6 million over three years and allow employees more time for activities that add business value.

Technology has the power to address specific business challenges and improve operational performance and efficiencies – making it a critical tool for mining companies to use to respond to rapid change, recover and reimagine better ways of working to ultimately transform and grow the sector.

Brought to you by Microsoft SA.

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