By Pavel Rastopshin, Managing Director of ZYFRA

Africa is a world leader in volume of reserves and the extraction of many valuable raw materials and fuels, over 90% of which is then exported. The mining industry forms the basis of many countries’ industrial capacity and exports, accounting for around 75% of all foreign investment. Traditional field development methods are becoming increasingly expensive. Productivity is dropping due to high maintenance costs, unreliable equipment, reactive troubleshooting, low capacity factors and incidents related to safety violations. What new technologies can ensure the development of modern industry? How can workplace and environmental safety issues in the mining industry are dealt with effectively?

With every passing year, mining operations are carried out in progressively more complex and dangerous geological and climatic conditions. Exploiting deposits in the Far North, where there are deserts and mountainous regions with insufficiently developed social infrastructure, significantly complicates the participation of personnel in mining processes, which require highly qualified specialists.

In order to increase production efficiency in accordance with industrial safety standards, there is a need to develop innovative solutions for the mining industry, including: dispatching and diagnostic systems, automatic or unmanned control systems for dump trucks and drilling rigs and predictive maintenance, and analytics for solving mining process optimization problems. Unmanned vehicles are the key to innovation in the mining industry.

Digital transformation

What is digital transformation: a fashionable phrase or an objective necessity? There are various definitions of digital transformation, but they are all united by a change in production management processes through all the stage of value creation with the use of modern technologies.

The focus of digital transformation is the mining plant. There are multiple systems which have been implemented for decades and are somehow connected to information technology, information acquisition, sensors and changes in processes. In fact, since the emergence of the term ‘digital transformation’, its core meaning has not changed and consists of modifying conventional management processes using information technologies and creating digital doppelgangers of these processes. In reality, digital transformation in the mining industry began with emergence of the first sensors.

What else is specific to digital transformation? It is not the evolutionary development of technology which has taken place over the last 20 years so much as the increase in the mining shovel bucket volume or mining truck loading capacity connected with major investments. Vice versa, the employment of information technology does not require investment but makes it possible to employ existing equipment effectively.

Moving away from the general to the specific, I would like to give several examples. The first example concerns the quality control of technological roads. Within the last five years, virtually all major mining plants began using dispatch systems, while road quality control and even road cross sections can be analyzed simply based on information from a suspension sensor, inclinometer and dispatch systems. Giving tasks to an equipment operator based on this data – that is the digital transformation we are talking about.

The main objective is to increase the efficiency of mining and conveyor equipment, i.e., all the equipment for solid raw material extraction, including dispatch control, by 10-20%. Russian experience shows that the implementation of automatic dispatching and the optimization of  control over mining and conveyor equipment makes it possible to increase the productivity of the excavator and truck fleet by 5-15%, reduce equipment operation costs by up to 8% and reduce expenditure on fuel by 5-10%, as well as reduce non-technological downtime by up to 80%.

Up-to-date decision solutions make it possible to obtain real-time information about the condition of all vehicles and identify weak points in equipment fleet operation with the possibility of making corrections to production cycle. Equipment technological downtimes are thereby reduced and the respective output by means of current equipment amount is increased.

Dynamic optimization makes it possible to assign dump trucks to routes throughout the shift while aligning factors reducing fleet productivity, for instance, downtimes loading.

Finally, the solutions allow for the monitoring and control of dump truck loading, as well as violations by drivers. The systems identify unsafe operations, such as speeding and downtimes, and evaluate drivers and operators based on their productivity within a shift.

Let’s take an example of Morocco. Kaspersky, a multinational cybersecurity and anti-virus provider, has ranked Morocco 34th in the list of countries with the most detected cyber threats. Between April and June 2019, a total of more than 5.06 million internet users in Morocco were victims of cyberattacks, mainly malware attacks. Dispatch system operation is performed over protected local network, which excludes data tampering.

The average time to create a technical project for dispatch system implementation is two to three months. Meanwhile, system installation and implementation take 5 to 11 months and the average payback period is six months to one year. Thus, the average amount of savings for an enterprise with output volume starting from 10 million tons is equal to 1.3 million dollars.

Another example is automated control systems for drilling operations based on high-accuracy navigation. They can help to improve the efficiency of drilling-and-blasting operations at open-cut mining plants and can help to monitor drilling parameters on a real-time basis. The system provides for reduction of the portion of manual work in routine and labor-intensive operations, thus improving the quality of drilling and blasting operations and the efficiency of drilling machines, as well as calculating accuracy. As a result, possible effects for an enterprise with an output volume starting at 10 million tons consists of reducing secondary drilling volumes by up to 10%, increasing drilling machine productivity by up to 15%, and prompting the fault detection and high-accuracy determination of the position, angles and depth of each well.

The pinnacle of digital transformation is the employment of robotized dump trucks and drilling machines, remotely controlled excavators and other support service vehicles, i.e., excluding human beings from the mining operations area. Morocco, as the country with large proportion of mining, should be among the high-end countries when it comes to employing new technologies.

Mining plants in Africa have made significant steps on the path to process automation. We are at a stage where the cost of digital technologies in mining is substantially decreasing in comparison to conventional technologies. It is therefore possible to try to achieve significant effects with minimum risks and investment.

The Harvard Business Review ranks Russia, Morocco, Cameroon and Kenya as countries which currently have a low level of digitalization but which are developing extremely rapidly. Among factors hampering the development of the digital economy are poor infrastructure and low quality of institutional environment. In terms of analytics, the best solution is to create new high-quality institutions which can promote the implementation of innovations.

For my part, I would add that state support is important in our countries. We know, for example, that many Australian engineering companies have been created with direct support from the state and mining companies. Potential state support, for example, financing pilot projects connected to innovations, could aid the process of digital transformation in Africa.

The maturity reached in bilateral relations between Russia and many African countries gives us a unique opportunity to diversify bilateral trade by increasing the share of high-technology products and implementing joint projects in the field of innovation. We need to promote networking between chambers of commerce and industry, business councils, professional associations and unions, intensify collaboration between business entities through joint projects, trade fairs and exhibitions in the hi-tech sector and establish joint ventures.

In the process of digitizing, there is no competition yet, but there is a lack of knowledge and experience. The main condition to enable our enterprises to transition to Industry 4.0 is the creation of a single information space where all factory management automation systems and industrial equipment can exchange information on-line.

On average, equipment monitoring increases production efficiency by 20%. By analyzing equipment and personnel operation information, the enterprise management is capable of making management decisions to increase equipment operation productivity and decrease manufacturing losses. Russia has accumulated extensive experience in implementing objective control systems for production equipment. Its experience could allow enterprises in Africa to speed up digital transformation, and Russian and African companies to implement pilot projects in the area of innovation, whose development will give impetus to all trade and economic cooperation between our countries.