The automation of mining operations is inevitable. Mining is a high stakes business with costly equipment and a small margin for operational error. Thanks to the digital disruption of the sector, mines are being made safer, more efficient, and productive.
Not many underground mining operations are automated. However, this will soon change. The Syama Mine in Mali is tipped to be the first fully-automated underground mine in the world. Resolute Mining, an Australian company, currently owns the gold mine.
The company intends to completely reorganize the mine with new technologies. An automated fleet of driverless trucks will drive the product around, and a remote monitoring team will be watching everything closely to ensure the mine is working at peak efficiency. Loaders and drills will be automated, too. Sensors will monitor the entire process providing real-time analysis of the health of the operation, and more.
As a result, the mine will not need to recruit or pay any drillers.
Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Africa is a prime candidate for the leapfrogging of technologies and is still a resource-rich continent. Many African workers rely on being employed as drillers in mines so they can put food on the table at home. Would the automation of these mines lead to job losses?
Resolute Mining, the company behind automating the Syama Mine, has said that not many jobs will be lost. And they are advocating for the upskilling of their workers.
What might it mean for the future of the mining industry? How might it disrupt a mining economy? How many jobs will be lost? Resolute Mining managing director John Wellborn says the company has an answer to these pertinent questions. He told ABC News:
“Rather than focusing on putting in wells in local villages and handing out school books, we’re focused on upskilling, training and empowering the local workforce.”
The automation will also save the mining company money — it will slash mining costs by 30 percent. There is also less chance of loss of life as well.
“Automation is often seen through the prism of a vehicle factory where you blow the whistle and sack 200 of your assembly line workers and replace them with robots or a large group of sewing machine operators who can be replaced by a machine. I often get asked about the political impacts of automation in Africa, with the perception that governments will be concerned we’re laying off workers. What we’re doing has very little to do with reducing workforce - it has everything to do with efficiency and productivity.”
The employees of the Syama Mine are waiting with bated breath. They are interested in seeing how automation might change or improve their working conditions, and whether it will mean prosperity for Resolute Mining.
Further afield in South Africa, a gold mine is ready and prepared to let a large number of employees go. While a mining surge has been observed in the country, gold production is down. Gold Fields has indicated it must let 1,100 of its permanent staff and 460 of their contractors go at its South Deep mine.
According to Times Live, the mine employs 3,614 full-time employees and 1,940 contractors. The mine had purportedly spent USD 20.2 million more than it had earned in the second quarter alone. Gold Fields has lost USD 275 million in South Africa.
It is not only Gold Fields that is actively pursuing a retrenchment scheme; Impala Platinum is to let 13,000 employees go, and will close 5 of their mines. Gold Fields CEO Nick Holland has previously said that the way gold has been mined for the last 100 years is not how gold will be extracted in the next 100 years.
South Africa seems to be significantly behind in leveraging new mining technologies and keeping the businesses afloat. It’s a widely held belief that Internet of Things technologies are necessary for the sector; the one thing not being said is whether miners and workers will receive upskilling work.
The mines may implement new technology, but the redundant workers might not be aptly skilled to continue working in the mine as it changes. The question remains: What will become of the uneducated driller that currently works at the mine? The answer: Upskilling.
The digitization of industries in South Africa may further intensify an already worrisome jobs crisis. Associate Director of Strategy and Operations at Deloitte, Jan-Adriaan du Plessis, in a discussion on South African radio, said:
“If you look at history, technology advancement, generally, creates more jobs than it destroys. That’s what the studies tell us. The focus should not be on trying to save as many jobs as possible, but to really upskill and repurpose jobs in the required areas.”
Nonetheless, with mining unions trying to protect their workforce, the loss of jobs in an already highly unemployed society does not make for an optimistic outlook. What is clear is that mining employees of past, present, and future, must upskill as much as possible and be ready for the future of mining on a continent that is ready to embrace new technologies with open arms.
Lucas, Jarrod, and ABC Goldfields. “Aussie-Owned African Gold Mine to Be World's First Robot-Only Underground Digs.” ABC News, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 8 Aug. 2018, www.abc.net.au/news/2018-08-09/worlds-first-fully-autonomous-underground-mine-in-africa/10090932.
Roux. “The Future of Mining, South Africa's Lifeblood (and Employer of 500 000 People).” 702, 17 Apr. 2018, www.702.co.za/articles/300105/the-future-of-mining-south-africa-s-lifeblood-and-employer-of-500-000-people.
Seccombe, Allan. “Gold Fields to Cut up to 1‚560 Jobs at South Deep Mine.” Times LIVE, Sunday Times, www.timeslive.co.za/sunday-times/business/2018-08-14-gold-fields-to-cut-up-to-1560-jobs-at-south-deep-mine/.