June 24, 2017

New tech trends driving IT/OT convergence in mining in Africa

By Stephen du Preez

Although Africa is said to be the final frontier for natural mineral resources, extractive industries across the continent have been experiencing a bumpy ride over the last near decade – although Africa is not alone in this. In truth, the ripple effect of the 2008/9 global financial crisis continues to be felt worldwide, where in recent years we have seen a slowdown in markets that are important trading partners for African economies, including China and several European countries. The influence of fragility in the world economy has had a significant impact on not only foreign direct investment (FDI) into African economies, but has also lead to severe declines in commodity prices – further affecting these economies export-trade and extractive industries. Collectively this has placed mining companies who operate across Africa under immense pressure to balance costs versus profits in tougher economic times.

Added to this, technology continues to evolved at a rapid pace, where, today, phrases like the sharing economy, digitalisation and collaboration are driving us towards a new era of digital possible – where developed and emerging economies, alike, are coming to terms with the Fourth Industrial Revolution and what this adaptation will mean in their industries and regions. Similarly, mining companies find themselves between a rock and a hard place with trying to balance investments to adopt transformative digital technology, and meeting local content and social licence to operate obligations – especially given the reliance many African states still have on their extractive and mining industries for economic growth.

ICT as an enabler

Traditional views on technology have evolved over the past several years, thanks in part to its consumerisation – and today, IT solutions have become an enabler to mobilisation, automation and improving decision making in sectors like mining. For instance, establishing visibility over far-flung global operations has never been more critical for those operating across mining sectors and, while the long-term outlook is strong, the digital mine with integrated data flows is fundamental if mining companies are to meet the numerous short and medium-term challenges now facing the industry locally.

The infrastructure and cloud play in mining

This, however, is easier said than done. Connectivity is a constant challenge for mine operators and as automation, process optimisation and integration with the Internet of Things (IoT) becomes critical for operational efficiency; an industrial IT centre with a solid IT infrastructure is required to support the amount of data generated. Just look at wearables. It not just a fitness step counter – in fact, if applied correctly within the mining space these interactive devises can be used to track under- and above-ground staff, providing feedback on their heart rate, elevated stress levels and even gases they may be exposure to – which becomes an incredible tool for improving health and safety on the mine. It’s about a connected workforce – but more importantly, information that can be used to drive safety, learnings and operational effectiveness.

This data however needs to be stored somewhere and this is where the cloud comes in. For these industries, there are two cloud plays that can be considered. Firstly, with connectivity and IoT to drive a competitive advantage, this information needs to be stored somewhere for analysis. The cloud is a perfect place for this and access is immediate for the analysis of trend leading indications and cross operational learning. Secondly, all non-mission critical applications can be strategically migrated to the cloud for consolidation and to reduce costs. Applied accurately and business will be able to obtain real insight and can understand its incremental cost of operations – and hence, it’s incremental value – at any given moment.

Convergence of IT and OT

At a time of rapid change this sector quickly needs to examine which technology investments will have the biggest positive impact on their business. And, what is the value potential and return on investment of investing in these technologies. Furthermore, businesses need to start to look at how the convergence of IT and OT makes tech more relevant in the industrial space.

Energy and resource companies may be facing some headwinds, but they are undeniably driving GDP growth. These industries are asset intensive and they need to be managed and driven effectively if we are to continue seeing growth across the continent. Amid a technological renaissance that is transforming world economies – Africa’s mining industries are perfect candidates to leverage the benefits of integrated Information and Operational Technologies, which is driven by solid network infrastructure, connectivity, cloud, security and a partner that understands how these can make or break a company.

Stephen du Preez is head of E&R, Asia, Middle East and Africa, BT

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