The mine of the near future

Posted on December 06, 2021

The fourth industrial revolution is now in full play, forcing big industry to either adapt or go under. For the adaptable it has opened many opportunities, with the mining and minerals industry rapidly pursuing the exploration and implementation of innovative technologies and processes.

Best of 4IR innovation is no longer a nice to have, it’s a have to have for growth and improvement. In Africa, with our abundance of minerals, we need to seize these opportunities to claim our place at the global technology table and achieve greater productivity, growth, health, safety and best practice environmental standards.

A key component of this is a relevant mining engineering education. The mining engineer for this era is what I call an ‘imagineer’ (imagining and implementing real engineering solutions for the mining industry worldwide). The person is required to be highly adaptable, and innovative to rise to the need for disruptive mining and mining-related solutions.

Disruptive from my perspective has a very positive slant, where it means the use of technology to disrupt the historical or traditional way of doing things and replace these with new technologies and approaches. In an article in Investopedia by financial writer and trader Tim Smith, March 2020, he explains that disruptive technology is an innovation that significantly alters the way that consumers, industries, or businesses operate. A disruptive technology sweeps away the systems or habits it replaces because it has attributes that are recognisably superior. 

Recognising the need for disruptive technology, in 2015 the Department of Mining Engineering took a giant leap in modernising education with our Kumba Virtual Reality Centre for Mine design, a 360º cylinder to fully immerse our students in an underground- or any mining scenario.

Students in the 3D theatre visualise the practical elements of their syllabus. 

The mine of the near future will include remote control of most activities, autonomous or near autonomous driverless vehicles (improved safety, mine design holography, real-time monitoring and real time response and interventions in ensuring safe and healthy working environments with automated critical control interventions),

3D printing of designs, and an emphasis on non-technical skills as part of the curriculum (management and leadership skills).

The mine of the near future will make full use of Extended Reality (XR) technology (a coming together of VR (virtual reality), AR (augmented reality), and MR (mixed reality) and fourth industrial revolution solutions as part of a strategic intervention in dealing with mining-, industry and educational related challenges. UP officially launched the Exxaro Chair in Extended Reality (XR) Technology on 1 September, virtually of course. This is a partnership between UP’s Department of Information Science, Department of Mining Engineering (which this year celebrates its 60th anniversary), and the mining company Exxaro.

The Chair is working with the Virtual Reality and Interaction (VRI) lab at UP to identify the best available technologies for solutions in industry towards a safer, economical, and more environmentally sensitive form of mining. It is also educating and train the next generation of developers and researchers with real-world projects that are unique to XR technology and immersive learning,

As touched on earlier, the mine of the future will further ensure that technology is combined with non-technical people and leadership skills to promote the harmonious interaction of technology and humans. These skills are integral to the success of the fourth industrial revolution, as emphasised the by the World Economic forum 2020.

Non-technical skills such as creativity, strong people management, group coo-ordination, judgement, negotiating and decision-making skills and emotional intelligence to mention a few, need to be incorporated as part of the learning experience at university. 

The Department of Mining Engineering at UP started a mining engineering leadership academy in the fourth year of mining engineering to empower students with non-technical skills for their mining careers and lives. We strongly believe that the harmonious interaction of technology and humans, based on strong associated leadership capabilities, are essential for dealing with the complexities of life and work, now and into the fifth industrial revolution of which we are already on the threshold.

As philosophy professor Stephen Gardiner at the University of Washington puts it: “5IR, technology will bend back towards the service of humanity, marked by creativity and a common purpose.” 

Gardiner further explains in an article developed in collaboration with the World Economic Forum: “In contrast to trends in the Fourth Revolution toward dehumanization, technology and innovation best practices are being bent back toward the service of humanity by the champions of the Fifth … In the Fifth Industrial Revolution, humans and machines will dance together, metaphorically.” 

We’re are heading there if not already experiencing it in many cases, and it is up to us in South Africa and Africa to keep our “dance” going.

Professor Ronny Webber-Youngman is head of the Department of Mining Engineering at the University of Pretoria and council member of the international Council of the Society of Mining Professors (SOMP).

- Author Professor Ronny Webber-Youngman
Published by Hlengiwe Mnguni

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