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Key Insights from the SAIMM Digital Transformation in Mining Conference

We attended the Digital Transformation in Mining conference held late June at the innovation hub in Riversands, Johannesburg, and organised by the South African Institute of Mining and Metallurgy (SAIMM). The conference was a great opportunity to feel the pulse of an industry that has traditionally been a laggard, but is fast closing the digitalisation gap to other sectors. While the event had a South African focus, we recognise the same issues around the world in our mining engagements. Below are some of the key insights that we felt emerged from the event.

Digital adoption is increasing fast:

The mining sector has historically lagged behind in embracing digital transformation. Some of the contributing reasons could be feast or famine commodity price cycles, highly capital intensive production, and the complexity inherent in the mineral extraction process. From geological complexities and variability to intricate operational workflows, mining operations pose unique challenges that necessitate tailored digital solutions. The over-arching sense from looking at the technology use case studies, the process control and smart sensor technology suppliers present at the conference, and the job titles from the mining industry itself, like Chief Digital Officer, or Digital & Transformation Business Specialist, was that mining is a sector well on its way to leaving the past behind.

This sense is supported by the Digital and Innovation trend dropping from 2nd on the risk register (2022) to 9th (2023) in Ernst & Young’s top 10 business risks to mining, suggesting that this is less something on the horizon these days, than a journey already underway. Similarly, PWC’s smart mining unit, present at the conference, affirmed through their recent publication, Ten insights into 4IR in South African mining 2023, that the digital agenda is now actively being driven by leadership.

Digital Transformation is about people, not technology:

A maturing perspective on digital transformation is taking hold within the mining industry, with multiple voices emphasizing that it is ultimately about people rather than technology. Successful transformation requires aligning digital initiatives with organizational identity, strategy, and leadership buy-in from the CEO, C-suite executives, and functional heads. By involving stakeholders at all levels, organizations can foster a culture of innovation, encouraging employee engagement and collaboration. Recognizing the importance of the human element ensures that digitalization efforts are purposeful and sustainable.

Balancing Expectations and Business Value:

The allure of digital transformation can sometimes lead to overselling its potential, resulting in under-delivery. One critical challenge lies in identifying areas of high business value and prioritizing digital initiatives accordingly. Failing to account for variability and interdependence within the mining ecosystem can lead to inefficient resource allocation and implementation gaps. To mitigate this risk, mining companies must adopt a strategic approach that carefully assesses the potential impact of digital solutions across the value chain, ultimately driving measurable outcomes and tangible returns on investment.

Digitalisation processes can be about delivering in key focussed areas of high potential value, one slice at a time. Creating measurable and attainable KPIs through targeted value creation and shorter time to value can create success and momentum, taking people along, and delivering the overall strategy by increments of success. Trying to achieve sweeping, end-to-end changes all at once can be painful and risky, and is not always the answer.

The New Generation:

It was encouraging to see up and coming generations represented through South African Universities of Witwatersrand, Pretoria and Stellenbosch, the Mandela Mining Precinct, the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) and some spin-off startups. A skills and generation gap is a well documented threat to mining’s future, but the range of presentation topics on display from the above research institutions, such as machine learning models, smart vehicle management systems, digital twins and disruptive, SMART IIoT technologies gave the impression that innovation is active and applied in the sector.

Beyond Digitalisation, Becoming an Insight Driven Organisation:

Real time information management systems supporting short interval control was a dominant theme in the research and vendor presentations. Another repeating theme was the problem of data availability, or siloed data. Beyond digitalisation, how do mines integrate and thread data generated from numerous digital technical systems to become insight driven organisations, using data to improve strategic, tactical and operational decision-making processes?

In Closing:

Distilling the insights from the conference, our overall take-aways from the two days were:

  1. Mining in South Africa (and by extension globally) is in a better, and more mature position in terms of its innovation and digitalisation journey than only 2-3 years ago;

  2. Our business model at MMS is robust, focussing on supplying an agnostic integration layer that creates a single source of truth by threading metal management data from any best-of-breed mining, processing and logistical systems across the mining value chain. To learn more about how we achieve this read our blog article, What is WIRE?

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