The SAIMM is a professional institute with local and international links aimed at assisting members source information about technological developments in the mining, metallurgical and related sectors.
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‘The difference between foolishness and wisdom is time and the prevailing norms. In real terms, human beings are unable to distinguish between wisdom and foolishness.This helps to show us that there are many ways to kill a cat’ Ancient African Wisdom for the Current and Future global Solutions. Jabulani—August 2008

This seems to be a strange title for a comment on a Journal issue dealing with base metals.

I should explain that the English phrase quoted was frequently used by me more than two decades ago when I was heading a project contracting company and involved in critical path planning, PERT diagrams and risk analysis. It referred to the successful completion of a challenging activity, such as a research and development (R&D) project or a plant construction contract, (CAT).

In this sense, the title is very appropriate to the papers in this Journal as my comments deal with successfully achieving challenging assignments.

There is a suite of excellent papers, many of which could be the subject of my Comment. For example, the paper on the Nkomati nickel deposit is typical of the way the low grade base metals are going to have to be developed in future: a large-scale operation using low cost methods of which autogenous comminution is an example. Although low grade, Nkomati could represent one of the largest nickel deposits in the world and as innovative work evolves, it could become an important national asset.

However, the paper that I put in the ‘compulsory reading’ category is that by R.M.Whyte, ‘Necessity the Mother of Invention’. It contains, in the form of four case studies, much wisdom for those involved in R&D in the widest context. He emphasizes management challenges and support and the importance of team effort, brainstorming and interaction with other experts as the catalyst for innovative solutions. This paper provides insight for successful innovation that I believe extends well beyond extraction metallurgy and applies to the
wide spectrum of research from strategic national R&D activities to fundamental advancements at the forefront of knowledge.

The teams in the four projects described comprise professional technicians, scientists and engineers who belong to a group of associates with whom interaction can take place on a wide front of new technology. This interaction can and should extend internationally. And it is the role of a professional body such as the SAIMM to promote such interaction. It is such a group of scientists and engineers that represents the innovative strength of an industry. It is these scientists, the mineralogists, analysts, chemists, physicists and engineers of all
disciplines, including those in the contracting companies, that are the task forces of new mineral development undertakings.

The opposite implication of this is that the most effective way to kill innovative thinking is to smother R&D under a confidentiality blanket. This is not uncommon as a dictate of the legal fraternity intent on protecting intellectual property. This kills innovation which is rarely, if ever, the work of an individual genius working under great secrecy but rather from interactive inspiration from other colleagues.

The second perspective I wish to mention is the importance of the ability to undertake, relatively complex economic evaluation of a problem and a multiplicity of potential solutions.

Whyte makes the point that mining and metallurgy, in dealing with the highly variable characteristics of orebodies, offer the most exciting challenges in this spectrum R&D.

‘For millions of years the corrosive impact of the geological process has served to combine and confound the basic elements of matter into a sweeping spectrum of chemical and physical forms.’

It is this variability that precludes standardized routines in mineral resource exploitation and introduces the necessity of a number of alternative concepts that have to be evaluated.

The mining and metallurgical engineers have lived with this problem for centuries. In the last few decades there have been great advances in the use of statistical mathematical models to predict highly random behaviour of minerals and processes. This computer-based methodology is becoming well known among the professional engineers and scientists. This enables the researchers to select more carefully the critical information that has to be determined experimentally to decide on the economic feasibility of the different concepts.

This observation seems to apply to the whole spectrum of R&D activities from large national programmes, to even the most fundamental forefront activity of university postgraduates.

It is my thesis in this Journal Comment that the forefront position in professionalism in R&D held by the mining and metallurgical industry is an important strength in pursuit of national challenges over a wide spectrum of development objectives. This industry can certainly play a leadership role

Let me illustrate with one example.

By far the most urgent and important ‘CAT’ challenge is to create around 5 million employment opportunities for unskilled, impoverished and increasingly desperate people with ever increasing tendencies to violent demonstrations. Transformed into order of magnitude monetary terms of GDP/ added value/employment opportunities/goods/services or labour, we arrive at a figure of R f(X) billions per annum where f(X) is a statistical distribution function somewhere between 100 and 500 billion rand.

Very interesting to me is that one of the ‘CATS’ being promoted by the Anglo American Corporation, which was the moving force in the examples quoted by Whyte, is to produce prefabricated housing units for assembly by easily trained labour. Materials from low cost ‘zero waste’ by-products help to create affordable final products and the ultimate market value could well run into billions if the concept were to be innovatively expanded to meet the demand for houses in Southern Africa alone. Simultaneously, a meaningful number and appropriate employment opportunities will be created.

My contention is that this initiative has to be rapidly expanded into a national strategic risk venture capital portfolio including support from state organizations from the Department of Science and Technology to Treasury and Cabinet.

Even more thought provoking I believe is that there are many more ‘CATS’ to be killed of a similar magnitude and that they do not demand ‘rocket science’ requiring long pay-back periods and high skills levels.

The effluent water ‘CAT’ is probably the next most urgent with potential added values also running into billions.

There are plenty more as indicated in our Journal over the last year, and still more to come.

They can be located across the country in tribal homelands, in mining areas and even in semi-desert areas in the form of sustainable clusters.

I believe there is no shortage of many ways to kill many ‘CATS’ but unemployment statistics continue to increase.

Do we have the executive management capability to coordinate our national professional R&D manpower into a higher level of ‘CAT’ killing activity?.