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Technology a beneficial partner for consulting engineers

ANDREW VAN ZYL Van Zyl says that, to fully leverage the value of technologies, SRK has its own in-house data science unit to support its innovations in the consulting engineer space
VIS REDDY Innovations include automated vibrating wire piezometers, which gather and communicate real-time data on tailings facilities

Consulting engineers have tended to welcome technology, owing to its multiple benefits, including the gathering and analysing of large amounts of data, which can inform responses to industry challenges and assist in finding more sustainable solutions, says engineering consultancy SRK director and principal consultant Andrew van Zyl.

“To fully leverage the value of these technologies, SRK has its own in-house data science unit to support our innovations in this space. Big Data and remote monitoring, for instance, provide the mining sector with added opportunities to improve efficiencies and further enhance safety levels,” he explains.

SRK MD Vis Reddy says innovations include automated vibrating wire piezometers, which gather and communicate real-time data on tailings facilities.

SRK is also developing visualisation capability and interpretive tools to make this data meaningful for engineering decisions.

The integration of remote data, such as satellite data that can monitor changes at an operation as well as air pollution, has enabled SRK to acquire large amounts of data during a short period, thereby increasing the speed at which its specialists interpret the data.

Reddy explains that the technology is complemented by data scientists and coding specialists who can develop predictive tools customised for individual sites and projects.

Further, the use of satellite imagery to generate data to support geotechnical investigations at a regional level has been a “major success”.

Using drones to collect photogrammetric information in remote or dangerous areas of a pit has improved the collection and interpretation of geotechnical data in areas that would have otherwise been impossible to inspect, he adds.

Reddy says consulting engineers will continue to be relevant, particularly for the future of mining, especially as digital technology becomes more prominent in the industry.

“Beyond our contribution of specialised experience, we also bring cross-cutting skills sets that integrate mining skills with digital expertise and data science. These fields are evolving so quickly that many companies find it difficult to develop this expertise in-house”.

The growing importance of environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) in mining also requires specialities and innovations that consulting engineers and scientists are often well equipped to provide, Reddy adds.

Challenges

Van Zyl says that social licence to operate is a recognised risk and it has resulted in mines no longer relying only on contractual permissions to operate, but also the support of host communities, which can be achieved through engagement with stakeholders and a shared-value approach.

Hence, the insights of consulting engineers have been valuable in informing the mining industry’s response to these changes.

He adds that SRK Consulting was one of the first consultancies to engage with social scientists for the mining industry and one of the pioneers of strategies and processes for its clients to address ESG concerns.

Industry bodies, including the Southern African Institute of Mining and Metallurgy (SAIMM), now have their own ESG subcommittees for practitioners in member companies, owing to ESG’s growing relevance in the mining industry.

“This work demands highly specialised skills and innovative techniques, which have become part of our portfolio of expertise.”

Van Zyl explains that challenges arise when mixed messages create unrealistic expectations among local communities regarding a mines’ provision of skills and life opportunities.

Hence, community expectations need to be managed through collaboration and inclusivity. 

Mode of Operation

SRK has operated for about 47 years and Reddy says the consultancy is based on independent and objective analysis and advice, consequently enabling the company to provide technical support in complex and specialised fields.

The consultancy’s independence and objective technical work includes involvement in various industry bodies, where it has contributed to the development of major mining codes and reporting standards.

SRK is involved in the South African Code for the Reporting of Mineral Asset Valuation and the South African Code for the Reporting of Exploration Results, Mineral Resources and Mineral Reserves, as well as in international bodies such as the International Mineral and Valuation Code.

SRK is also actively involved in SAIMM, with staff members having been part of the institute and as past presidents.

“We believe it is essential that mining continues to develop into an industry that acts responsibly and is perceived as responsible. SRK remains focused on providing independent and objective advice of a high technical standard for the industry and we remain committed to contributing to the further development and refinement of relevant reporting codes.

“Our advice and reporting are in accordance with codes that we help develop and that we believe contribute to a more responsible industry that is increasingly sustainable and recognised to contribute positively to all stakeholders,” concludes Van Zyl.