Mechanisation still far off for South Africa's platinum mines
* Debate stirred over platinum mechanisation
* Geology and cost seen as obstacles
* Rest of mining industry not hampered
By Clara Ferreira-Marques and Sherilee Lakmidas
LONDON/MARIKANA, South Africa, March 14 (Reuters) - Rising wage costs and strikes have revived the arguments in favour of automating South Africa's loss-making platinum mines, but weak prices for the metal and tough conditions underground mean mechanisation remains a distant prospect.
The rest of the mining industry, from copper to coal, has been transformed in recent decades by automation, unmanned trucks and remotely controlled equipment.
That is in large part thanks to geology. In the cramped mines where platinum is found, the rock is still drilled, blasted and cleared by men.
The platinum seams are damp, sweltering and claustrophobic places to work: men often drill in shafts so constricted that it is like mining under a table.
Mines are evacuated for hours a day so blasting can take place - a major inefficiency for operations with the thinnest of profit margins.
But mechanising platinum would be costly and the mining companies need to be convinced it is worth it.
"They would need to believe that any investment in platinum mechanisation would significantly drive them down the cost curve," said analyst Alison Turner at Panmure Gordon.
"I don't think the belief is there - I don't think the evidence is there."
Mechanising the traditional drill-and-blast process would, in theory, improve safety, reduce costs and help resolve some of the social problems associated with a labour-intensive industry that moves tens of thousands of men from distant villages to live in hostels in South Africa's platinum belt.
But the cost and risk of mechanising existing mines is simply too high. Machines built for conventional mining struggle with the narrow shafts, and many simply dig up too much ore for the same amount of platinum metal - increasing costs.
Companies are also alarmed by the example of Lonmin, which pushed mechanisation from 2004 only to abandon its efforts - and its chief executive - four years later largely because of high costs
Lonmin had wanted to mechanise 50 percent of the ore body by 2010, but by 2008 it was already questioning its decision. It has since spent 1.2 billion rand ($131 million) de-mechanising its Saffy shaft - one of two originally equipped to revolutionise the way platinum was mined.
"We still keep very small amounts of mechanised mining in Hossy shaft, but we don't see ourselves as being the leaders in mechanisation at all," Lonmin's acting chief executive Simon Scott said in an interview last month.
"If someone comes up with something that is going to show significant benefits, we will follow, but we have invested a significant amount of money over the years in mechanisation and it has come to nothing."
Anglo American Platinum, the Anglo American unit that is the largest producer of platinum, is overhauling its operations but mechanisation is not on the agenda. The technology is simply too risky and untested.
"When you are talking about mechanisation, I don't think anyone will try that again, not after the failure at Lonmin," said one platinum analyst, who declined to be quoted by name.
"In this environment, when we have a low price and high costs, believing the metal price will bail you out is too risky. From that perspective alone mechanisation is dead in the water."
Most mining companies and analysts agree, though, on the need for change. Mines are deeper and it is no longer possible to throw men at the problem, not least because wages have soared - rock drill operators can earn more than teachers in South Africa.
According to the investment bank CIBC, a real 25 percent wage cut is needed to make platinum viable - something mineworkers' unions would not accept.
Other problems include insufficient training among workers who would have to maintain machines underground, and a lack of equipment that is compact enough to fit in the shafts.
Atlas Copco is one of a handful of equipment makers working with mining companies to develop machines that fit.
"It doesn't sound like much, just knocking a foot off (the height of a machine) but it is a whole new suite of equipment again," said Don King, vice president of marketing and business development at Atlas Copco's Underground Rock Excavation arm.
Given the depth and difficulty of access, machines have to be maintained underground.
That is no problem with the drills already in use. "Nothing you can't fix with a hammer," King said.
Problems would arise if the mineworkers are required to maintain more complicated equipment.
One solution is to concentrate on new mines which can be mechanised from the outset, or to target more spacious mines, such as Ivanplats's Platreef, which is expected to be fully mechanised in a first for the industry.
New mining methods may be another way forward. Instead of replicating the conventional drill-and-blast process, companies such as Anglo are looking at "continuous" mining - using machines much like those used to bore road tunnels.
Anglo's Dave Bentley, group head of technology, says continuous mining is safer and more efficient, but technology needs to be developed to make the giant tunnel borers fit the constrained space of most platinum mines.
"The incentives are there to explore," he said. "But we will only know if they are there to employ once the technology has been developed."