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Going for gold: selling to the mining sector

South Africa’s mines, while driving a concerted modernisation effort, also grapple with a range of often unique and ‘old school’ challenges. What does this mean for ICT suppliers?

Although the local industry has had a rocky few years, mining is still a key component to the South African economy. According to the Chamber of Mines, the mining industry contributed R312 billion to GDP, or 6.8% of the economy, in 2017. That was marginally down from the seven percent of overall GDP recorded a year earlier.

Although the industry has lost almost 30 000 jobs since 2014, employment was estimated to have increased by 1.6% to 464 667 during 2017. In short – mining is still big business, across gold, platinum, diamonds, chrome, iron and coal.

But the sector is challenged by a number of unique issues: the need to drive ever-greater profit and productivity; extending the life of mines facing exhausted reserves; managing a massive workforce; critical safety issues; and the infiltration of illegal miners.

Towards modernised mining

South African mines are well advanced in their modernisation efforts, aiming to use advanced technologies in mechanising operations to increase outputs; in supporting research and development that drives efficiencies and safety; and even in improving the mines’ conservation of the environment.

The Chamber of Mines reports that mining companies have spent over R500 million annually on innovation over the past few years.

With such a large reliance on the sector for employment there are fears that new technologies could lead to spikes in unemployment. However, instead of costing the sector jobs, the Chamber estimates modernisation could save around 200 000 jobs by 2030. Noting that labour-intensive operations at ever-greater depths can be inefficient, unsafe and unhealthy, the Chamber says: “the eventual objectives of modernisation are systems that combine to deliver 24/7 mechanised operations with costs that permit the exploitation of ores at significantly lower cut-off grades. Modernisation will help to improve safety and health, facilitating the quest for zero harm. It will also contribute to increased skills development, employment, exports and revenue; and will have subsequent benefits for local communities.”

Top ICT priorities in mining today

A recent report, The Mobile Corporation in South Africa 2018, produced by World Wide Worx in partnership with SYSPRO, looked into various South African industry sectors and the  technologies they’re currently prioritising. The mining industry emerged as having the highest proportion of respondents (91.7%) ranking virtual private networks as important, or very important, in budget. Mines were also the top industry ranking converged communications as important, or very important, in budget, at 83.3%.

All respondents from the mining sector said that email was important overall for general mobile access, with the vast majority of respondents from the mining sector (91.7%) ranking being able to respond to enquiries on demand as important. And, the majority (91.7%) of respondents in the mining sector, as well as 88.2% of the IT software and services sector, said they used ERP software.
 
With one eye on the future, mining also emerged as the sector with the highest proportion of companies (80%) planning to use big data and machine learning, and had the highest proportion of companies (25%) using robotics.

Deirdre Fryer, Regional Product manager: Africa, SYSPRO, says in addition to the technologies identified in the research, local mines prioritise cyber security, physical security, artificial intelligence and analytics. “We see a great deal of focus on safety and security; and governance, risk and compliance,” she says. “There’s growing interest in using predictive analytics to understand where mines are in terms of their lifespan, and to extend the lives of mines.”

A closed shop

Selling ICTs to mines differs from selling to other sectors, however, and likely only a space for large, established vendors to play in. “Mines have to meet a lot of regulatory requirements, and strict governance and controls are in place in terms of procurement. So procurement is usually via a tender process, and decided by the CIO with strong involvement by the CFO,” Fryer says. “In other sectors, you see more operational involvement, but in mining the engagement is mainly on an IT and financial level.”
 
When it comes to pioneering technology innovation, South African mines have long been forerunners in terms of access control and identification systems, says Marius Coetzee, MD at Ideco Biometrics. “Safety is crucial in line with mines’ zero harm goals; and having to manage time and attendance with huge workforces drove mines to be early adopters of advanced biometrics for identification and access control. You can imagine the pressures of clocking up to 8 000 miners on and off duty simultaneously at the change of shifts – so mines had to adopt access control systems that could deliver speed and accuracy, as well as being able to function in tough environments.”

“These systems are important for HR and payroll, but also for tracking where employees are in the event of an incident,” says Coetzee. “We have also heard that many mines are increasingly challenged by illegal miners, the so-called Zama Zamas, in recent years. There are reports that they attempt to infiltrate the mine premises and the shafts themselves, making identification and access control even more important.”

Reduced risk

As a vendor, Ideco does engage with mines at a high level, but supplies mines via its channel partners. Coetzee notes that governance, risk and compliance are key in this sector, and that mines are unlikely to take chances on new or smaller players with untested technologies.

“In the mines we deal with regularly, there are insourced, subsidiary project offices that purchase on behalf of mine, and install and maintain the infrastructure themselves. These offices carry out thorough research and place orders, with suppliers assisting with integration and training. This approach may be unusual, but it’s a very safe model, in line with their stringent security requirements.” Because of the scale of mining operations, ICT projects usually undergo a lengthy and detailed planning and technology assessment phase before procurement takes place, says Coetzee. “This involves huge infrastructure, and major capital projects. So they may be big contracts, but it’s not a fast process.”

He adds: “Mining is a complex and difficult environment, so I don’t believe many of them would entertain new entrants. Mines want expert and trusted ICT suppliers with a proven track record. However, if new and relevant technologies enter the market, I believe mines would consider them, although they would first study and test the technology very thoroughly in-house.”

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