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Schooling miners for a new age - Mining Journal

Friday, 1 July 2016

Respected minerals educator Fred Cawood is heading a new South African mining industry initiative aimed at developing “21st century artisan and technician” skills in miners of the future.

Professor Cawood, recently retired as head of the School of Mining Engineering at Johannesburg’s internationally acclaimed University of the Witwatersrand, is pursuing a goal of instilling the knowledge and skills needed for smarter, safer mining through leadership of a Wits Mining Institute (WMI) ‘Digital Mine’ project.

The Wits University unit is hosting the project and a new ‘mock mine’ under development the South Africa Chamber of Mines building at the university’s West Campus.

“The institute’s mission is to make mining safer and more sustainable by harnessing fast-developing technologies and practices from different sectors – which are sadly not always incorporated into mining applications quickly enough to address the industry’s many challenges,”  said Cawood. 

The WMI had forged working links across the university’s schools and research units so mining issues could be addressed in an integrated manner.

“It has taken some time to achieve this, but the WMI now draws upon a formidable battery of expertise and insights from disciplines like architecture, public health, law, global change, population migration, urban development, electronics and computer science,” Cawood said.

“These now augment the already substantial work being done within the School of Mining Engineering through its Centre for Mechanised Mining Systems and the Centre for Sustainability in Mining and Industry.”

Cawood said South Africa’s deep-level orebodies posed particularly difficult challenges to mining operations, but argued encouraging progress was being made towards highlighting a new path forward for both established and new operations.
“Work on converting ‘indoor’ positioning systems to underground applications is already underway, for instance, paving the way to developing an automated tunnel for mining at depths no longer viable or safe for humans to operate,” he said.

Cutting edge software, sensors and related high-tech infrastructure were allowing developments such as real-time underground airflow modelling, and access systems that could automatically exclude personnel restricted by health issues or legal compliance requirements. 

“This kind of intervention brings us closer to the concept of the intelligent mine, where the data required for good decisions is available in real time – and in many cases can inform automated responses that removes the risk of human error.

“The vision of safe and more efficient operations is reachable, if we can adapt and apply the remarkable technologies available to us,” Cawood said.

The mock mine at Wits University already features a 67m life-size mine tunnel called “Nick’s Tunnel”, a stairwell equipped as a mock vertical shaft, the NCM Stope,  Lamp room and Control room – used for teaching and research into aspects such as security, systems integration and video analytics.

Skills development by the WMI will focus on modern aptitudes needed to install and maintain the various new technologies being implemented or considered by mechanised and digital mines. 

“Mines that are already mechanised find themselves in a difficult position, as last century’s skills are unable to properly manage and advance the modern technologies that they have installed in their operations,” Cawood said.

Major funders of the digital mine project include Gold Fields, Aveng Mining, the Minerals and Education Trust Fund, Wits University, New Concept Mining and Sibanye Gold.

Cawood said the research agenda was significant, with 16 postgraduates using the facility for research and 10 undergraduate students who will graduate at the end of this year with a digital mining competence.

Cawood, succeeded by professor Cuthbert Musingwini as head of Wits University’s School of Mining Engineering, said the vision of a ‘digital mine’ was of particular interest to him. The former mine surveyor who started his mining career with Gold Fields in 1981 and began an association with Wits University in 1993 completed a Master’s degree in mineral economics in 1997 and then a PhD degree in 2000 on determining the optimal rent for South African mineral resources.

Implications of this research are still being seen as aspects of his findings were used by the SA Treasury to establish mining royalty payments.

“Significant changes to mining will require different skill sets for executives, managers and workers, and relevance of programmes will become the measure of success for mining schools,” he said.

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