For Sibongile Ntsoelengoe mining means technology

Mining technology manager Sibongile Ntsoelengoe loves her job.
Mining technology manager Sibongile Ntsoelengoe loves her job.

The mining industry is popularly thought of as an industry of men in overalls who sweat blood in the belly of the earth re-emerge with a valuable mineral of some sort.

However, for Sibongile Ntsoelengoe the mining industry is about being at the forefront of identifying the latest technology that can improve productivity levels at her company.

So sophisticated is her department that she even uses drones in some of her operations.

Ntsoelengoe, who has 14 years experience in the industry, has been technology manager at Kumba Iron Ore since 2014.

Her business unit has also deployed fixed-wing and multirotor drones for surveying and inspecting mining operations.

"If you have a four-storey building you would like to do an inspection on, it is a high risk operation because a person would be required to climb ladders," she said.

"However, using a drone you just have to fly it around the building and capture the images you want."

Ntsoelengoe said her path to being the company's technology manager began in 2013 when she was given an opportunity to develop Kumba's technology road map.

"The road map is about identifying disruptive technologies we can adopt to improve safety, get our efficiencies and productivity [levels up] and drive down our costs," she said.

The Wits University BSc in metallurgy and material engineering graduate enjoys her job because it is challenging and forces her to be innovative. "My job gives one a space to become a pathfinder. We create ways and opportunities where there were none before.

"The adoption of digital technology into our industry looks at what's happening in our industry and keeping your thumb on the pulse in terms of what's happening with technology in general."

When she completed her degree in 2004 she was appointed a metallurgist in training, a two-year training programme where she learnt what happens within a production environment.

"When I started I was fortunate enough to join a project, which today produces 30 million tonnes of iron ore. It was a feasibility study that I joined as a senior metallurgist and spent about two years at Sishen in Northern Cape.

"Once the project was finished I went into the mainstream production and assisted operations in doing business improvements within the processing plant.

"When I left Sishen I joined Zincor Base Metals, which was owned by Exxaro in Springs, east of Johannesburg. My focus was business optimisation and projects. I then moved back to Kumba as a senior process engineer in 2008 and focused on projects.

"As a process engineer, I got given a process and my role was to optimise it. For example, you'd be given ore that you need to process in order to remove unwanted gang minerals from it to sell it. We then do the samples and send them to laboratories. You even do your own test work to find out what is the recipe you can apply to the ore for you to extract as much as possible from it. We look at the best processes that will give you the best possible ore products that you want."

"I kept on doing that in the processing field of engineering, but looking at technology we would use to get the best possible products we want."

Ntsoelengoe, who hails from Mamelodi, Tshwane, is studying towards her MBA and is married with two daughters. She said her husband was also a process engineer and was supportive of her career.

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