Mining companies chasing the kind of technological breakthroughs made long ago in the manufacture of cars and mobile phones have unveiled eye-catching innovations ranging from vast drills and remote-controlled trucks to second-by-second data analysis. Behind the scenes, however, there has so far been limited progress towards a transformation the companies say is more and more vital to their survival. They are being jolted into action by volatile commodity prices and the increasing difficulty and danger of accessing remaining reserves in hot, narrow seams several kilometres below ground.
"There'a a big awakening in mining. The time is ripe for things to begin to change," Anglo American's head of technology development Donovan Waller said. A major obstacle is the massive upfront cost for innovation that firms such as Anglo, BHP Billiton and Rio Tinto Sandvik, one of the world's biggest suppliers of mining equipment, told Reuters it had doubled its installation of automation systems between 2015 and 2016. But, asked what proportion of the loaders and trucks it sells are fully automated, it gave an estimate of 5 percent.
While automation represents a potential threat to jobs the world over, it is particularly sensitive in an industry employing hundreds of thousands of blue-collar workers in nations where mining represents a major chunk of GDP. Extreme environments and logistical barriers to transferring technology from other industries were other issues experienced by three big mining companies, in South Africa, Chile and Australia, which shed light on the complexity of the task.South Africa's South Deep started ahead of the pack back in 2008. Now the only fully mechanised large underground gold mine in South Africa, it broke even for the first time last year after years of losses and unveiled a new turnaround plan in February which cut production targets.
Mine owner Gold Fields blames unforgiving geology 3 km (2 miles) beneath the operation south west of Johannesburg, says it has not had to fire anyone over mechanisation and points to staff members who have readily embraced change.
"Our mining is going forward," said employee Margaret Motaung, describing training for remotely operated rock-breaking equipment imported from Australia as easy and reporting that she had had a pay rise, which she declined to specify. The mine's trade union leader, Victor Mphore, takes a very different view, saying miners were being replaced by outsiders.
At a national level, the union will not discuss mechanisation. "We won't participate in talks about mechanisation because it will lead to job losses," said National Union of Mineworkers spokesman Livhuwani Mammburu. "They (the mine owners) mustn't rush only to make profits."
The chamber says some job losses are inevitable, but that without technology to extend the life of mines, some 200,000 people would lose their jobs by 2025, affecting 2 million people via families or related industries.