Can this tech im­prove min­ing pro­duc­tiv­ity?

Dig­i­tal­is­ing min­ing is not the eas­i­est of tasks, but there is a com­pany that is try­ing to change that.

Finweek English Edition - - Contents - ed­i­to­rial@fin­week.co.za

By David McKay

for­mer Gold Fields CEO Ian Cock­er­ill was scathing at a re­cent min­ing con­fer­ence re­gard­ing the ret­i­cence of the SA min­ing sec­tor to em­brace new tech­nol­ogy through the years. For too long, it had done its work “in the dark”, only find­ing out the re­sults of its ef­forts a month later and there­fore be­ing un­able to re­spond to prob­lems with much ef­fect.

It was “a di­nosaur”, he said.

That’s as damn­ing as it comes.

To be fair to SA min­ing, how­ever, much of its gold and some of its plat­inum min­ing is lo­cated deep un­der­ground; it is also highly labour-in­ten­sive. There­fore, dig­i­tal­is­ing min­ing ac­tiv­i­ties is not the eas­i­est of tasks; not when com­pared to open pit min­ing, where mon­i­tor­ing and vis­i­bil­ity is much eas­ier.

Just ask Gold Fields. Try as it might, the com­pany can­not seem to ex­tract a de­cent mar­gin from its South Deep mine, west of Jo­han­nes­burg. That is de­spite rounds and rounds of re-engi­neer­ing ini­tia­tives, shift changes, and im­port of costly con­sul­tants.

In this re­gard, deep-level un­der­ground min­ing, for which SA is famed, is some­what out­side the or­bit of the much-vaunted “fourth in­dus­trial rev­o­lu­tion” in which com­pa­nies like Busi­ness Sci­ence Cor­po­ra­tion (BSC) are hop­ing to as­sist.

BSC is a sub­set of Cyest Cor­po­ra­tion, a pri­vate tech­nol­ogy com­pany founded by El­ton Bondi about two decades ago, and which he claims has pro­duced a profit from day one. One tends to be­lieve that: Bondi comes across as a stick­ler for de­tail. It might also be help­ful to know that he’s a capped Protea pi­lot spe­cial­is­ing in dis­play aer­o­bat­ics. That’s not like lawn bowls: one crit­i­cal mis­take and you used to be a capped Protea pi­lot spe­cial­is­ing in dis­play aer­o­bat­ics.

The area where BSC hopes to work with the min­ing in­dus­try is in the ap­pli­ca­tion of dig­i­tal twin­ning. This is not new tech­nol­ogy so much as new ap­pli­ca­tion of the con­cept. “It’s been around quite a long time,” says Bondi dur­ing a me­dia pre­sen­ta­tion in BSC’s Sand­ton of­fices.

What’s dif­fer­ent about it, how­ever, is the role it plays in a con­ver­gence of dif­fer­ent tech­nolo­gies: the so-called In­ter­net of Things, in hi-fidelity vi­su­al­i­sa­tions, and in com­pu­ta­tional math­e­mat­ics. The BSC acro­nym is there for a rea­son: Bondi & Co are boffins of note.

In essence, what BSC is hop­ing to do with dig­i­tal twin­ning is show min­ing (and other) com­pa­nies how to im­prove pro­duc­tiv­ity by bet­ter un­der­stand­ing how the sum is driven by the parts. In its most gran­u­lar man­i­fes­ta­tion, BSC can model in real-time how the op­er­a­tion and per­for­mance of, say, a mine’s yel­low ma­chin­ery con­trib­utes to­wards earn­ings be­fore in­ter­est, tax, de­pre­ci­a­tion and amor­ti­sa­tion (ebitda), or are not con­tribut­ing to ebitda.

So, when one says “twin­ning”, what’s ac­tu­ally hap­pen­ing is that a com­pu­ta­tional model, that can be dis­played as a 3D-di­a­gram of a mine, is be­ing recre­ated with the per­for­mance of its con­stituent parts laid bare.

It’s a mi­cro-man­agers’ dream.

What’s in­ter­est­ing about the tech­nol­ogy is that it re­fines time-hon­oured pre­cepts about min­ing. One is the dom­i­nance of “vol­ume and grade”, es­sen­tially a ref­er­ence to the cru­cial as­pects of prof­itabil­ity of any mine. Bondi also dis­misses the no­tion of “av­er­age cost per tonne”.

“There’s only value loss in the rule of av­er­ages,” says Bondi who thinks dig­i­tal twin­ning can show that the “smooth­ing” ef­fects of av­er­age grade glosses over where pock­ets of value can be ex­tracted.

It also shifts the de­bate some­what away from what peo­ple mean by pro­duc­tiv­ity, which tra­di­tion­ally al­ways re­volves around mo­bil­is­ing a com­ple­ment of em­ploy­ees.

There are lim­its to the tech­nol­ogy, though. Where tech­nol­ogy is badly needed in SA min­ing is in mod­i­fy­ing hu­man be­hav­iour to im­prove safety. That’s hard for dig­i­tal twin­ning to achieve as hu­man be­ings are un­pre­dictable, con­trary and quite fre­quently act in ways that are un­safe.

El­ton Bondi Founder of Cyest Cor­po­ra­tion

Ian Cock­er­ill For­mer CEO of Gold Fields

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