/ 25 February 2020

Digging deep

Mining Remote Control Operator
Digitalisation and automation will help with health and safety issues in South Africa’s mining industry. (Russell Scott, Tyrone Bradley/Red Bull Content Pool; Anglo American)

“I don’t believe that robots are just going to eat up people’s jobs,” says University of Pretoria vice-chancellor Professor Tawana Kupe, quoted in a report by McKinsey & Company that will be referenced throughout this article. “Instead, there can be a complementary relationship. Technology can free people from routine, repetitive work and enable them to take on higher-level work, decision-making and critical thinking.” 

During a panel titled Digitised Mining: The Rise of the Machines at the Investing in Africa Mining Indaba 2020 on February 6, the benefits of digitisation to the mining industry were explained as being best understood when divided into two categories: the ways in which they affect business, and the ways in which they affect the industry. 

The business side of the equation is perhaps most easily understood: digitisation leads to major savings for mining companies by cutting down on the need for travel (and the downtime that this would have incurred), while increasing profits through tech-enabled insights that allow for more effective, efficient processes. Jamie van Schoor, chief executive of Dwyka Mining Services, made a compelling case for the ways in which tech solutions could allow remote access to mines when a problem needs to be diagnosed and solved, saving valuable time, as well as the more futuristic solutions that allow for a more comprehensive overview of mining processes. Michallay Brown of Tracr talked about industry transformation, providing insight into how data can be used to track, refine and improve processes, in much the same way that analytics are already employed by those to whom website visits and conversion are important. 

The panel — also comprising Antony Mello, consultant at SiMINE, Mandela Mining Institute and Professor Tshilidzi Marwala, vice-chancellor of the University of Johannesburg — then delved into the more significant issue at hand: how digitisation will affect people. 

In terms of health and safety, digitalisation and automation can go a long way to keep humans out of danger. If implemented correctly, digitisation stands to decrease gender-based division in the workplace. In industries in which much of the essential labour is currently physical, women are still at a disadvantage because of their generally lesser physical strength, but when machines perform the bulk of physical tasks, physical ability will become less important. 

The 2019 report by McKinsey & Company, The Future of Work in South Africa: Digitisation, Productivity and Job Creation, states it is becoming evident that automation and digitisation are undoubtedly going to lead to the displacement of many roles in the industry, but that a careful look at the numbers demonstrates that significantly more jobs are going to be generated than those lost. However, the report’s outlook is not overly idealistic: it acknowledges the need for significant reskilling, and that time is of the essence. After all, “new, tech-enabled jobs will require higher skills levels than most of the jobs displaced”. 

The skills shortfall can be managed by reskilling those already in the mining industry, but also through a more holistic approach to education. The report recommends that: “South African decision-makers across sectors need to take bold steps to ensure that there is sufficient reskilling to help reabsorb workers into the workforce. They also need to strengthen the education system to generate the new technology-related and life skills needed at sufficient scale.” 

The McKinsey report suggests that automation can be leveraged to improve South Africa’s employment statistics as a whole. “South Africa can shape a smart approach to embrace digitisation for the benefit of all citizens,” the document explains. “The plan can help define the country’s digital agenda, including prioritising industries where South Africa has or can develop a competitive edge in technology-driven solutions, such as mining and manufacturing.”

It’s clear that unavoidable, far-reaching change is on its way, but there are few areas in which its impact will be felt as significantly as in mining. Whether the impact of that change means a darker or brighter future is dependent on immediate-term action. 

Digitisation vs automation 

Automation makes a process automatic that was previously performed manually. An easy example of this would be an assembly line in which a machine performs a repetitive task such as screwing caps onto bottles. Many are worried about losing their jobs to automation (consider self-checkout replacing tellers in grocery stores, or self-service banking), but proponents of automation suggest that its benefits include freeing up workers from menial tasks to perform more engaging jobs, keeping humans away from dangerous areas of the workplace, and ensuring a more democratic workplace by decreasing the number of roles dependent on physical attributes. 

Digitisation means a move to take processes into a digital format. For example, scanning a code rather than entering the code manually doesn’t eliminate the need for the code, but it does digitise the process with which the code is used. An even simpler example: drawing on paper using a laptop and software that allows mouse strokes or motions on a touchpad to convert to images. Automation can be a kind of digitisation, but not every process that’s digitised can be automated: many tasks will still be performed by humans, using digital tools. 

So, will robots take all of our jobs? Not quite, but there’s a little more to the question than meets the eye. A recent study by McKinsey & Company unearthed some interesting facts about the future of our economy. 

300% — The percentage by which South Africa’s productivity could grow as a result of technology-related gains

45% — The percentage of the workforce that women are expected to comprise following the adoption of new technology by 2030 – up two percentage points from current numbers 

450 000 — The number of people employed in the mining sector in South Africa 

R300 billion — The mining industry’s contribution to South Africa’s GDP 

1 200 000 — The net gain in jobs across various sectors predicted by 2030

All numbers from The Future of Work in South Africa: Digitisation, Productivity and Job Creation report published by McKinsey & Company (2019)