Is a mechanised mine the only answer?

Recently, there has been a massive move to mechanise (often used interchangeably with ‘modernise’) conventional mines. 

A 2022 paper titled Modernisation: Towards the mine of tomorrow has summarised the thinking behind this shift, stating that: “Modernisation will help to improve safety and health, facilitating the quest for zero harm. It will also contribute to increased skills development, employment, exports and revenue; not to mention the knock on effect on local communities.”

What is the key difference between a conventional and mechanised mine? Simply put, a conventional mine is rooted in manual operations and typically needs many workers to meet production targets, while mechanised mines are facilitated by machinery and digital systems. It is therefore believed that widespread mechanisation will lead to an increase in efficiency, thanks to the automation of previously manual tasks.

However, Arjen de Bruin, MD at OIM Consulting, believes that while there is widespread support for the mechanisation of mines across various stakeholder groups, there is simultaneously a lack of understanding around exactly what this entails.

Mechanisation vs Modernisation

“My view is that mechanisation and modernisation are two very different things and that to reap the full benefits of modernisation, you need to start with the people – not the tech.” 

“New technology will outpace organisational change every time, and thus in many aspects, mechanisation could be considered the ‘easy’ bit,” he explains. “Unlike a machine, human beings respond in unpredictable ways. True modernisation means getting your people onboard and gearing the organisation towards a new way of working, starting with the supervisor.”

OIM Consulting’s supervisory development programme coaches towards measurable operational impact to boost output within the mining sector. De Bruin explains that in this line of work, the company engages with a great deal of mines, many of which are mechanised. “Yet, even with all this machinery, technology and automation, our clients still complain of ongoing inefficiency,” he says.

Meeting targets doesn't necessarily equal optimal productivity

In 2021, global commodity prices soared. Led by metals, this surge partly reflected the strong recovery in demand following the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. “Anecdotal feedback suggests that, thanks to the commodity boom, financial targets are currently being achieved for the most part, but operational targets are not met anywhere near as consistently.

“And in many cases, these targets are set up to reflect the current state of operations and could be exponentially improved, should lingering inefficiencies be resolved,” De Bruin states.

He adds that sustainable, holistic modernisation means that organisational and cultural hurdles are addressed and overcome. One paper titled The socio-economic effects of mechanising and/ or modernising hard rock mines in South Africa highlighted that “the framework for mechanising mines reiterates the importance of consulting different stakeholders.

However, there seems to be a perception that companies which own internal change management programmes cover these socio-economic issues”, conceding that this was not a uniquely local problem, but rather a global one: “The mining industry around the world generally neglects the socio-economic effects of these initiatives,” says De Bruin.

“We have found that even when change management programmes are in place, the focus is on the implementation of the technology and upskilling technical aspects of the role; not on fostering a healthy organisational culture and operational leadership skills.

Aligning the organisation to the business strategy

“To effectively ‘modernise’ you need to align the organisation to the mechanisation strategy. New roles need to be defined with responsibilities. Scorecards need to be created, providing a clear understanding of deliverables and accountability. The relevant competencies must be identified, and individuals equipped to meet these requirements.”

He states that performance is directly linked to leadership and says that the supervisor is key to ensuring that a company delivers on its targets. “They are the link between senior leadership and the workforce, and the daily drivers of strategy execution.”

He says that many mechanised mines are missing their planned targets by more than 20%. “The reality is that these mines are not delivering on the promises of genuine modernisation, with all figures pointing to the fact that there is significant room for improvement.”

“True modernisation means getting your people onboard and gearing the organisation towards a new way of working.” ~ Arjen De Bruin

He shares that one of OIM Consulting’s clients had a gold mine that had been mechanised for decades, yet it had shown a loss for more than 11 years. Upon the rollout of OIM’s trademarked supervisory development programme, it was able to lift production by 40%.

“Genuine transformation – or modernisation – means that operational hurdles are overcome.” De Bruin adds that the involvement of other stakeholders – including suppliers and impacted communities – as well as a holistic consideration of all factors, such as environmental concerns, are also fundamental and will ultimately determine the sustainability of a mining company.”

“Thorough consideration around all of these factors will allow you to build for the future, so when the commodity cycle is down you will be resilient enough to weather the storm.”

“Mechanising or digitising a mine alone will not build operational efficiency. You need to start with the supervisor – the person who carries your culture, engages the team and ensures that daily targets are achieved. You can have all the technology in the world, but without gearing the organisation towards a new way of working, you will not be able to consistently deliver on your strategy,” De Bruin concludes.