How the COVID-19 pandemic is changing mining operations in southern Africa

The COVID-19 lockdown is adding impetus to the adoption of technology in mining in a way that is likely to change the sector quite dramatically.

This according to Simon Andrews, managing director at Sandvik Mining and Rock Technology Southern Africa.

COVID-19 is changing mining operations in southern Africa
With Sandvik’s advanced mining automation and teleoperation systems, it is possible to monitor machines and optimise operations from any distance

Border control

Within the legal restrictions, Sandvik Mining and Rock Technology has continued operations in support of its mining customers in South Africa, Namibia, Botswana, Zimbabwe and Mozambique.

“Our structure – in which each country is managed independently – has proved invaluable under the lockdown conditions,” Andrews says. “This ensures we have the necessary skills in-country and on-site. In fact, there has been no need for our staff to cross borders.”

Most Sandvik Mining and Rock Technology staff are set up in home offices to keep the wheels turning, and a return to the normal office environment will not be considered before September. The company is also leveraging the technology in its equipment to facilitate remote working.

Monitoring operations from a distance

With its advanced mining automation and teleoperation systems, it is possible to monitor machines and optimise operations from any distance. Andrews says Sandvik has long promoted the merits of this technology, but it is not always simple to dislodge established practices in a conservative industry.

“No-one likes change, and the introduction of technology in any mining process can demand considerable commitment,” he says. “Rather like going to gym, everyone agrees that adopting technology has benefits for business, but actually acting on that belief, however, is a different story altogether.”

He highlights that the practical implementation of technology means tackling a steep learning curve. There is usually a significant change management process required, and myriad teething problems to resolve.

“It is a difficult process, and there often has to be something to break the inertia,” he says. “Certainly, COVID-19 has forced everyone to work differently and to adopt new technology. Just consider how we work from home with online platforms to communicate with colleagues and customers.”

Like most technology partners in mining, Sandvik Mining and Rock Technology had to accommodate a sharp drop in mining operations in the early stages of South Africa’s national lockdown. It continued working with its coal mining customers designated as essential services, and has been ramping up as the rest of the sector returns to work. Equipment and components have continued to be brought in by air and sea, ensuring necessary supplies to customers.

“We stay in close contact with all staff and customers, and the overall business looks positive,” says Andrews. “Projects are generally continuing and orders are coming through. We have, of course, been implementing cost-saving measures to preserve the business for 2020, as we look forward to a better 2021.”

He emphasises, however, that there will be no going back to normal when intensity of the pandemic eases. Technology will be increasingly embraced as it contributes to safer and more remote working practices.

“We want to be part of that journey with our mining customers, as they enter a new era of mining,” he says. “This will see technology, data management and remote operations become a way of life – making mines safer, more efficient and more sustainable.”

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