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:: Technology R&D Limited in Metals and Minerals Sector
A study on global technology trends, released by South Africa's Department of Trade and Industry (DTI) yesterday, found that the metals and minerals sector worldwide is mature, with little large-scale innovation taking place, while current technology trends are towards incremental improvements in value-chain processes.
The Technology Development Trends study was initiated by the DTI and carried out consultants Access Market International and Bluepeter Management Consulting, mainly to inform government's policies and programmes in regard to technology road-mapping.
While the report found many competitive advantages in South Africa's metals and minerals sector, such as an abundance of mineral resources, world-class primary processing facilities, and the availability of the world's cheapest electricity, it was also noted that a number of weaknesses with this sector exist.
The research found that current research and development in advanced materials is limited, coupled with insufficient focus in areas of research and development, as well as a lack of modern equipment for research and development.
A further weakness is a lack of infrastructure, appropriately skilled people and the country's distance from sales markets. In addition, the report also identified a lack of networking and market information, as well as South Africa's status as a small player in global terms as weak points with the metals and minerals industry.
Inefficiencies within the transport sector - road, rail and air - and difficulty in meeting the human resource requirements of the sector are also seen as disadvantages.
In addition, the study identified threats or barriers to the South African metals and minerals industry as being HIV/Aids, raw-material pricing being dependent on foreign exchange rates, the local skills base not being suitably competitive, the perception of foreign investor friendliness and the perception of Africa. Also, the effect of China's predicted change in the market, from a major importer of heavy metals to a major exporter in the medium term, is perceived as a threat.
Nonetheless, strengths within the South African mining industry were found to be the country's supply of raw materials, the high level of advancement in the sector, a culture of innovation, pockets of excellence in mining capital goods and cheap technology, and a very strong iron and steel industry.
Additionally, the Advanced Metals Initiative, a newly-established government initiative, is seen as positive for the local metals industry. South Africa also produces more than 60% of the world's platinum-group metals, including platinum, rhodium and palladium, which are essential catalysts in automotive converters.
The country also holds more than 70% of the world's chromium - essential for the production of stainless steel - and produces more than 50% of the world's ferrochrome, prompting the establishment of Columbus Steel, which currently supplies more than 30 000 t of stainless steel a year to the local automotive exhaust industry, mostly for export around the world.
While finding that little innovation is currently taking place in the global minerals sector, the study did find that more innovative work is being done in the light metals sector, specifically aluminium, magnesium, titanium and the development of alloys.
"Downstream possibilities of these metals are large enough to warrant significant levels of research and development. One of the major focus areas of this trend is the development of a cheaper, continuous extraction processes for magnesium and titanium," the report said.
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