A sudden halt in the operation of a mine can result in tens of millions of dollars in losses, especially if the stoppage lasts weeks. The COVID-19 pandemic has made it clear that unexpected situations like these could very well happen. A health emergency can turn into an economic emergency in just weeks.
Having the means to protect against such unexpected events will be key to stabilizing an industry that is highly exposed to external events. In this context, the Mexican mining sector has recognized the need to invest not only in the most revolutionary and disruptive technologies, but in traditional technologies as well. AI, IoT and Industry 4.0 will obviously mark the future of the industry, but without the study of geology, developments in exploration and 3D technology applied to topography and the operational efficiency of mines, it will be very unlikely to continue making any important progress.
Sandwiched between the southern deserts of the US and the northern rainforests of Central America, Mexico is considered one of the world’s most diverse countries, not only in terms of mineral exploitation, but also in regard to the locations where those exploitations take place. According to an industry slogan, “every mine is completely different;” in Mexico, the saying becomes axiomatic. Hence the need for companies to find customized solutions to maximize mining operations.
The pandemic allowed a change in the focus of investments, which are now aimed at risk prevention; nevertheless, this has not changed the government's direction with regard to halting mine concession and exploration permits, a matter in which President López Obrador has personally interceded. However, it is precisely in exploration where traditional technology has enormous room for improvement. “3D modeling techniques use software to create schematics for subway areas prior to construction of new mines. This can expand the area covered by exploration work by allowing imaging of areas that would otherwise be difficult or impossible to access. Modeling also offers significant opportunities for worker safety by providing users with a greater degree of information about a mine and its safety, and by reducing the degree to which humans must investigate potentially dangerous or unexplored subway areas,” according to the report, “Minerals and Metals: Technology Trends 2020” by Baker McKenzie.
AI and the use of drones have also impacted this mining phase, exposing the need for the federal government to make an effort to boost the mining industry, as well as all industries that supply technology to the mines. Donovan Sanchez, Mining Director of SGS, is emphatic. “Exploration in Mexico has also been significantly affected by the tax levied on exploration. I think this tax should disappear. To explore is to risk money, as nobody can know for certain that the exploration target will yield a mine. Exploration must be favored to generate new projects that can become operational and later guarantee a constant tax income for the government when producing. I think that it is simply not correct to tax companies that are already assuming the high risks of exploration and betting their money. As for service providers like us, we can assume part of the risk by also investing in our process, our people and the solutions that we offer.”
Locating new mining deposits, controlling the mine’s operational activities, minimizing risks in the use of explosives, monitoring leaching dams, improving logistics and transportation of minerals, waste and workforce, and managing water resources are other areas where traditional technologies have found windows of opportunity during the pandemic. However, the implementation of new technologies and operational structures must be accompanied by constant monitoring that, in addition to control, provides data to further improve and streamline operations in real time. “Technology must be accompanied by a great deal of experience and specialists must be in charge to be able to monitor its performance,” says Alejandro Espejel, Head of Smart Services at FLSmidth.
Another indispensable companion in this journey is the labor force, which is becoming increasingly skilled and prepared, thanks to the efforts made by the public and private sectors and the clusters that are spread throughout Mexico and which play a fundamental intermediary role between these two entities.
“The best thing we have done is to cultivate and to grow a construction team,” says John McCluskey, CEO of Alamos Gold. For Jody Kuzenko, CEO of Torex Gold, sometimes the most complicated problems require the simplest solutions. “Not everything needs to be cutting-edge technology. By incorporating ‘5S’ criteria: sort, set in order, shine, standardize and sustain, an efficient workspace can become a reality.”