Black industrial powerhouse backs large-scale roll-out of cutting-edge mechanised mining technology

Local manufacture a critical component of mine modernisation drive
October 25, 2018
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Black industrial powerhouse backs large-scale roll-out of cutting-edge mechanised mining technology

Southern Palace Group of Companies through its subsidiary Genrec Engineering, has put in motion ambitious plans to position South Africa as a leading hub for mining solutions research and development (R&D), as well as manufacturing.

Renowned industrialist, Sello Mahlangu, is the founder and Executive Chairman of Southern Palace Group of Companies, a black owned and managed holding company that oversees a diverse industrial portfolio comprising, among others, prominent participants in the infrastructure, steel fabrication, automotive manufacturing and technology sectors of the economy.

It recently acquired Genrec Engineering, one of Africa’s few remaining large-scale engineering companies with a state-of-the-art factory in Wadeville, which is now undergoing significant upgrades to also manufacture sophisticated mechanised mining technologies for the local and export markets.

Among the suite of technologies that will be manufactured in Wadeville are a number of variants of cutting-edge ultra-low profile (ULP) modular mobile platforms and a hybrid locomotive that were co-developed by a local technology specialist, CMTI Group.

These, together with integrated brake-testing technologies, were developed in partnership with gold and platinum-group metals (PGM) miner, Sibanye-Stillwater, and were designed according to international standards to serve the greater local and international mining industry.

Southern Palace owns a majority stake in CMTI Shared Services, which was established in 2011 to assist South African gold and PGM underground mines launch into a new mechanised era that replaces out-dated drill-and-blast methods.

CMTI Group’s technology has undergone extensive testing in some of South Africa’s most challenging underground environments for many years, while also receiving support from the Department of Trade & Industry and the Department of Science & Technology’s Technology Innovation Agency during the development cycle.

The outcome is home-grown innovation that has overcome all of the limitations of imported “off-the-shelf” machines that have long hindered the successful implementation of continuous mining operations in the country.

Moreover, the company’s solutions are facilitating mining at lower operating heights and at greater depths, as well as in previously inaccessible areas, such as remnant pillars and barred panels, and being used to clean back ends.

Importantly, the company’s technologies also support the mining industry’s drive to create safer operations by removing people from these dangerous and unpredictable working environments.

Its machines are operated remotely by trained operators, while additional skilled employment prospects will also be created in a controlled factory setting where these solutions are now being manufactured.

These will also be complemented by the many specialist technical training and apprenticeship opportunities that will also be required to support Genrec’s growing equipment population in South Africa and other prominent mining regions of the continent.

Importantly, Leslie Ntloko, chief-executive officer of notes that Southern Palace’s large investment into Genrec is also in line with government’s focus on resuscitating the country’s beleaguered manufacturing sector, which shrunk by more than two percent in the first quarter of 2018 due to general economic malaise.

“In his inaugural State of the Nation Address earlier this year, President Cyril Ramaphosa also acknowledged that South Africa had to urgently undergo a Fourth Industrial Revolution to bolster its ability to compete globally and, in so doing, develop vibrant and robust local black industrialists as part of the state’s Radical Economic Transformation agenda,” Ntloko says.

This strategy will be driven by a special Digital Industrial Revolution Commission, which will also incorporate critical insights from prominent participants from the private sector.

Dr. Danie Burger, founder of CMTI Holdings, says that the new manufacturing line at Genrec’s factory will aim to establish the benchmark, in terms of various Industry 4.0 themes in the country.

“Smart manufacturing, robotics and artificial intelligence are just some of the digital technologies that will be harnessed by Genrec to manufacture solutions faster and at a consistently high level of quality. This large investment by Southern Palace will also greatly assist CMTI Group’s ability to proactively design increasingly complex solutions to provide more value to our many existing and future clients as they also transition into this digital era. This is in line with our mantra of ‘engineering the future’ as a leading innovator in this sector,” Dr. Burger says.

Alex Fenn, Sibanye-Stillwater’s technology portfolio manager, says that the mining house is extremely excited and proud of this development as a long-standing client of CMTI Group.

“We have viewed CMTI as a technology partner since we started working with the company in 2013, and are very pleased with what they have been able to achieve in this period. This is a significant step forward for technology development and manufacturing excellence in South Africa. We are proud of the part that we have played in it, and certainly look forward to driving the commercial adoption of this technology to enhance our sustainability.”

Importantly, those MT3500X/NX and MT950 ULPs that have been working at its various gold and PGM operations have also been identified as primary projects at the Mandela Mining Precinct, a collaborative industry initiative that aims to advance the mining clusters through research and development.

Mark Cutifani, chief executive of Anglo American; Neal Froneman, chief-executive officer (CEO) of Sibanye-Stillwater; and Nick Holland, CEO of Gold Fields, are among the many captains of industry that continue to back the accelerated mechanisation of the local mining industry.

They are all members of the Minerals Council of South Africa, which warns that production in the South African gold mining industry risks almost dying out completely by 2033 if it continues to rely on mining methods that are over 100 years old.

The council notes that more than 200 000 jobs are at stake in an industry that now only employs 480 000 people compared to some 600 000 people in the 1970s when South Africa’s gold mining industry was at its peak and produced 1 000 tonnes annually.

Meanwhile, at least one South African PGM producer has already made known its intentions of retrenching about 13 000 people, which includes employees of contractors, over the next two years as it embarks on a turnaround strategy in an extremely challenging economic environment.

Worryingly, the mining industry experienced its second consecutive quarter of economic decline and is, therefore, now in a recession.

Production slumped by just under 10% in the first quarter of 2018, following a decrease of 4,4% in the fourth quarter of last year, with lower production in gold and PGMs mainly contributing towards this grim scenario.

This is on the back of declining safety levels in both underground gold and PGM operations, which remain the deadliest mines in the country, accounting for more than 80% of all fatalities in the industry in 2017, according to the Department of Mineral Resources.

The mining authority, therefore, also supports modernisation and mechanisation efforts to save lives, as recently reiterated by Ramaphosa when he noted the need for all stakeholders to collaborate more closely to make the industry safer for its many employees.

“One mining fatality is one too many,” the president said, while emphasising the large role that this “sunrise” industry still had to play in growing the local economy under his New Dawn.

There is also general consensus among policy and decision makers that traditional mundane underground mining jobs need to be replaced with skilled and higher paid positions in factories.

More recently, Minister of Trade & Industry, Rob Davis, also recently emphasised the need for all economic sectors to embrace advanced technologies to boost South Africa’s competitiveness on the global stage.

Southern Palace, Genrec and CMTI are also committed to working closely with all stakeholders, including the unions, to create this “job-neutral” scenario – a term coined by Dr. Paul Jourdan, a distinguished resource-development strategist and staunch proponent of mechanised mines.

However, Genrec and its innovation partner are also increasingly fielding enquiries from international mining houses, which are similarly preparing to undergo their Fourth Industrial Revolution to harness the power of digitally-enabled hardware tools to perform or improve activities that have traditionally been undertaken manually.

This is in addition to using connected mobility, as well as virtual and augmented reality to empower field, remote and centralised workers in real time.

The findings of a study undertaken by the World Economic Forum (WEF) has shown that the Fourth Industrial Revolution has the potential to unlock well over US$400-billion of value for the international mining and metals industry, customers, society and the environment over the next decade.

This is the equivalent to between three to four percent of the industry revenue during the same period, while the mining sector is expected to directly benefit from about US$190-billion and the metals sector approximately US$130-billion from these “disruptive” technologies.

“Just as importantly, is the giant leap forward that the global industry will take, in terms of creating safer working environments. According to the WEF study, about 1 000 lives will be saved and 44 000 injuries avoided through the widespread adoption of many of these digital themes. This is about a 10% decrease in lives lost and a 20% decrease in injuries in both sub-sectors. Can the industry really afford to stall any longer?” Burger concludes.

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