The mining industry has existed nearly as long as human civilization. So, you can well imagine that the challenges facing it today are incredibly complex — and the innovations needed to survive are nothing short of crucial.
Resource nationalism, licensing issues, degrading ore and mineral quality, and environmental difficulties are forcing mining companies to adapt to maintain profitability. But instead of seeing this external stress as a hindrance, leaders can use it as a motivator for evolution — embracing technological innovation to meet or exceed production targets.
Though it may surprise outsiders, digital technology is a top priority for many executives across mining as it helps reduce costs, increase productivity, and improve operational efficiency. To better understand how mining companies are working to leverage the rising tide of technology, Theorem spoke to Mulenga Mwendapole, a Chief Engineer at Barrick Gold Australia Pacific stationed in Zambia, to discuss the mining industry’s global and local challenges.
Understanding the Landscape
Theorem: Regarding environmental, social, and corporate governance (ESG) and raising standards for further reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions, what are your thoughts on pivoting to more sustainable energy sources? In Chile, for example, several companies, including Antofagasta Minerals, have all announced plans to switch to entirely renewable energy.
Mulenga: It’s good to have a reliable energy source. 95% of the Zambian power supply is hydro. Usually, there is enough water in the rivers, and we also have many hydro stations.
The unfortunate thing is when the rains are not good, it’s a big headache. If water isn’t there, then energy isn’t there. We are thinking outside the box to see how else we can get power.
We have coal-powered plants in the southern part of the country and a few solar plants as well. We need to diversify the electricity supply industry, so we’re not too reliant on hydro. Zambia is interlinked with the South African power pool. This power pool links countries within the central and southern parts of the country. If one country doesn’t have enough power, they can buy from another.
Hydro is pretty cheap. When you bring in other forms of energy, they come in much more expensive. It’s not easy to trade that power to customers.
Theorem: What challenges do you think are most pressing to companies within the mining industry?
Mulenga: In Zambia, we have no coast, so everything that comes in passes through other countries. There is the issue of bringing in materials. We encourage companies to set up distribution premises to set up satellite points to get parts.
Theorem: How does Barrick approach innovation?
Mulenga: Barrick focuses on copper production in Zambia. Everything that we do is centered around that — achieving efficient output and reducing costs. For us, innovation is about making these primary goals easier to achieve.
Theorem: How does your role at Barrick fit into this goal of making operations more efficient and reducing costs?
Mulenga: My role is very pivotal. Whatever I do, I need to think about the cost aspect and always consider the most efficient and cost-effective way to achieve our goal. Cost is at the center of what we do and, in my role, I help keep expenses down by effectively managing the power supply.
Theorem: What software does your team use?
Mulenga: We recently switched to SAP® enterprise software, so it still requires proper setup. As an electrical engineer, I’ve used a few software applications for network analysis and simulation of load flows. We had Paladin DesignBase, but we couldn’t renew the license, and as such, we moved over to ETAP® simulation software recently. It’s our engineering solution software.
Theorem: What area of mining do you think needs the most improvement regarding technology innovation or adoption?
Mulenga: Whole areas of the African mining industry are lagging compared to developed countries. The room for improvement is there, but we need to operate efficiently and cost-effectively to get there. We need widespread innovation here.
Theorem: What trends in mining do you think are most exciting?
Mulenga: We have worked with multiple companies on bringing in new technology like autonomous trolley tracks, trolley assists, and so on. These technologies are exciting.
We previously used trolley assists, but improper planning led to a challenging project. We didn’t properly execute our planning for this new technology. If you want to use new technology at your mine site, like a trolley, you must plan.
Theorem: How do you see new Internet of Things (IoT) application use cases in your world at Barrick?
Mulenga: We try to utilize IoT as much as we can with our new fleet. We have tracks, shovels, and continuous monitoring devices for condition-based monitoring. That’s the way to go. The more of those gadgets you have, the better. There are departments here using drones as well.
Theorem: You mentioned that you had formed partnerships with companies to collaborate on new technologies. What do you wish external consultants or vendors knew before working with your team?
Mulenga: There should be an element of specialization. In most cases, we engage with consultants who work within a specialized area.
Theorem: What software would make the most significant impact on your team?
Mulenga: Off the top of my head, I would say that getting our ETAP software setup properly would make the most significant impact for us because it is so essential to our job duties.
Theorem: It’s estimated that in the next ten years, electric vehicles (EVs) will account for almost a third of vehicle sales (up from just 3% in 2020). Do you think that EVs are one of the biggest trends of the next decade?
Mulenga: I agree that EVs will be a significant trend. They can bring down operational costs. Fuel is costly. In Zambia, fuel is much more expensive than electricity.
Theorem: What are the best methods to invest in lower operational costs?
Mulenga: You need to bring in new technology. Autonomous technology managed adequately can significantly reduce costs because of the reduction in human labor.
Theorem: When this year is over, what do you hope to say was your biggest accomplishment in 2021?
Mulenga: I would say my biggest accomplishment will hopefully be setting up our power system on our ETAP software. I want to set it up now and get it going. We previously set up everything in Paladin DesignBase, but now have to transfer everything to ETAP. I am responsible for protection studies, photo analysis, protection coordination, and load-flow studies, which ETAP helps me manage.
Theorem: What is your advice for leaders in similar roles to you within the mining industry?
Mulenga: The most important thing is that we know about valuable technologies in the world. That’s the only way we can improve things, to make use of the tech out there. Look for what’s on the market — what’s innovative?
Without that, it will not come to you, especially in Africa. You need always to be watching the market and seeing how you can apply new technology in a work environment.
As the mining industry continues to incorporate new software and technology — adapting as complexities and challenges evolve over time — other industries should all take note. To stand the ultimate test of time, constant innovation is the only surefire answer.
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