JOHANNESBURG—South Africa’s gold-mining companies are facing a question of life or death - and the answer is likely robots.

With more than half of the country’s gold mines currently unprofitable, companies are looking for ways to stay in business long enough to mine what is left of the world’s largest gold deposit. That means miners have to figure out how to dig up more gold less expensively from deeper underground than ever before.

The proposed solution: echo the auto and diamond mining industries by replacing as many people as possible with machines.

Johannesburg-based AngloGold Ashanti Ltd. , the world’s No. 3 gold producer, has already begun to operate prototype construction sites to mine in a super-mechanized manner to boost output and productivity, as well as cut costs. The technologies include powerful machines that break rock without explosives, and a patented liquid material that helps support the mine roof—which means miners don’t have to leave some gold behind for safety reasons.

The stakes are high for South Africa’s gold miners at a time of upheaval in the nation’s commodity-dependent economy. If the technology transformation fails, AngloGold estimates that essentially all of its 29,000 South African employees will be out of work by 2045. If the company can make mechanical mining work, it expects to retain employment for about 7,500 people through 2060 and beyond.

Source: The Wall Street Journal - see full article