South Africa has been a leading player in mining for more than 100 years. We countered the challenges from past global economic conditions, surviving ever deeper mining conditions, navigating increased and variable legislation and continue to overcome the challenges from many other factors. Yet, the digital drive could be the one killer risk to the industry, driving the “sunset” agenda many have concluded for our mining industry. The didactic is understandable considering the current woes reported across the industry.
But what if we change the outlook and head for success? Can we stay with the curve or even get ahead?
Let’s look at Sweden for a possible strategy on how to become competitive in digital. A country with 1/6 our population and only a smidgeon of our natural resources, Sweden impacts 50% of global mining output with their globally successful equipment and technologies. Not satisfied with their success, the Swedish government, industry and key technology players collaborated and created SMAG: The Swedish Mining Automation Group. The six technology partners, Ericson, Eprioc, SKF, Sentian Technologies, Scania and Mobilaris (note all from different source industries!) joined up with Business Sweden to develop a collaborative ecosystem, grow Swedish companies and attract investment into the country. In less than two years since the initiative, they have already made their mark deploying the latest technology in highly developing areas such as the Canadian mining industry. What is really interesting is that Swedish mining companies are not driving a digitalisation objective. No. Their focus is Safety, Productivity and Efficiency. They have seen the value of digitalisation as an enabler and they are taking it to the world.
We need to catch up. Can we? Yes we can!
One local company leading the way is StoneThree. This Somerset-West based technology group has more than two decades of experience in deploying advanced digital processing techniques in mineral processing, which they have scaled to mining, communications and healthcare solutions. There are a number of similar locally developed technologies and of course system integrators deploying international solutions. We have the skills.
Perhaps our local industry is too small you say? Well, we could follow the Swedish model and create SAIMAG, the South African Industrial & Mining Automation Group. Joining forces with Oil&Gas, Refining, Power and other process industries, we do have enough skills and the platform to scale the development of homegrown technologies.
It is the will to collaborate and funding that we need to overcome.
To get collaboration going, understand IR4 and the solutions on offer, and how it will impact South Africa businesses and society, the Fourth Industrial Partnership for SA (4IRSA) initiative has been formed to help guide the process of collaboration on this topic. This initiative is driven by some of the country’s leading academic and research institutions. It was founded by the Universities of Witwatersrand (Wits), Johannesburg (UJ), and Fort Hare (UFH), with support from Telkom SA SOC Ltd. It is an open partnership and since its founding, it has incorporated Deloitte as a facilitation and knowledge partner.
As the initiative grows, it will include government, labour, business, civil society and researchers.
4IRSA is a platform that creates space for stimulating dialogue, understanding and action to shape a coherent 4IR plan for South Africa.
While government and industry sort out how to remain competitive, you want to get your operations on track.
Where to Start
We recommend that organisations start with a clear purpose before embarking on a digital journey. Once it is clearly understood and all reasoning aligned, a digital transformation strategy should be developed with a clear roadmap for implementation. Large operations or multi-site operations would benefit from developing a playbook, i.e. a framework implementation plan governing how multiple projects will be delivered in phases, at different locations and considering various levels of integration across the business.
The execution plan should consider the organisation’s human capital – skills, capabilities and attitude towards innovation and change. A detailed evaluation of available technologies, best guided by experienced specialists, will narrow down technology options available and supported in the local market. Do avoid making technology driven decisions though! We concur with other firms that your infrastructure and processes should be the foundation of your digitalisation strategy. Technology is the enabler. Before embarking in implementation, ensure your business culture is ready for the effort and change.
This means that a resource plan to execute your digital journey must be grounded early and strongly tied with the strategic objectives and timeline of realisation. It is a simple case of different attitudes, skills and approaches to what you historically deployed at your mining operations. You just cannot leave it to your IT manager alone! There has to be strong integration between operations people and technology people. Both groups need to understand more of each other’s worlds and collaborate to maximise the value from the deployment.
We mentioned earlier the importance of firmly placing innovation and digital transformation on the executive agenda. From here the cascading of objectives and KPIs must be contracted thoroughly throughout the organisation and progress monitored. Boards that distance themselves from the transformation, leaving digital implementation as yet another operational activity, will be doing this at their peril. Success from digital transformation requires full organisational buy-in. Fundamentally, the opportunity allows for new business models to be deployed in a significantly different way. Ensure your buy-in.
Meeting the demands of IR4 is one of the pressing issues considered by mining operators. The limitations of legacy control system, aging IT infrastructure, poor data architecture, decentralised systems engineering and inadequate business culture will all slow your transformation journey. Get help. The time to move is now!
In conclusion, organisations are advised to leave space for innovation and experimentation. While short cycle, low-hanging-fruit projects will capture your short-term attention, it is the progressive and pervasive delivery of digitalisation across the organisation (and integrated with strategic partners!) that will secure the benefits towards competitiveness and sustainability in the long run.
There will be mistakes. Contain them, learn from them, and move on. Your successes will scale and the collective benefits leave your operations in good stead for the next wave of activity. Enjoy the journey!
What to do?
Do you have the required skill and knowledge in-house? To ensure successful digital transformation, you need the right experience on your team. Organisational design, strategic partnership and progressive development of skills and attitudes are all essential to maximise benefits from your digital investment.
If you have not planned your strategy and organisation, get help. The journey is arduous and can be so much more satisfying if you have a clear plan and the organisation to deliver.
We live in exciting times with amazing opportunities available to organisations that are proactive and getting themselves ready for the digital transformation journey. Don’t allow your business to be caught lagging behind!
Johan Louw is the founder of Aguru Business Solutions. He helps companies to get ready for automation and digitalisation.