The future is not so simple

Volvo Construction Equipment recently unveiled its prototype machines, dubbed machines of the future, pushing boundaries of engineering, automation and electrification.

Not so long ago, the simplicity “gospel” was the buzzword of the yellow metal equipment industry, but sophistication seems to be upstaging that belief.

Simplicity means the need for a basic piece of equipment that comes with no extra bells and whistles that often automatically push the price of the particular unit higher. The need for simplified machines took centre stage, especially last year, with value brands reaping more market gains as the sheer need for this range of equipment intensified. Premium OEMs even weighed in with several new launches of down-specified machines that lost most of the extra bells and whistles often associated with their offerings. Understandably so, in a struggling market, price plays a leading role in influencing buying decisions.

One of the premium equipment makers that stripped its offering to meet the simplicity requirements was Atlas Copco. I vividly recall the launch of its PowerROC T50, a top hammer drill rig which represented simplicity in every aspect of the word. At the launch, officials spoke of Africa’s need for a simple tool that just gets the job done with no form of multifariousness. Based on this approach, the PowerROC T50 rolled off the production line to meet the requirements of a market that grappled with low skills levels and financial pressures on both mines and quarries, as well as their related contractors.

But, a year down the line, there is another school of thought that simplicity may not necessarily be the answer for operations reeling under the current economic burdens. In fact, the opposite is true; sophistication is what these operations need. Volvo Construction Equipment’s recent unveiling of its prototype machines, dubbed machines of the future, pushing boundaries of engineering, automation and electrification, heralds a new thinking altogether. When times are this tough and mines and quarries are under pressure to improve productivity at lower operating costs, the advanced equipment solutions may be just the right answer.

As jobs in the quarries and on the construction sites of the future are likely to be different, technological advances such as improved human-machine interface, autonomous operation, machine-to-machine connectivity or alternative power systems, are already dominating the R&D strategies of OEMs. Research in the fields of automation has vindicated the school of thought that repetitive processes, such as load and haul, are the low hanging fruits for immediate implementation of automated processes. Automation makes sense for all foreseeable situations, and it is encouraging that research also shows that 80% of the processes on sites fall into this category.

After all, skills may not necessarily be a deterrent for the quick uptake of these new ways of working in Africa anymore. We are already starting to see systems that are less dependent on operator skills, ones that support operators with guidance or control primary functions. In the near future, we will definitely see increased machine autonomy and the operator will act more in a supervisory role.

Just a year ago, I was also a firm believer in the simple tool, but today I believe the timing for high-tech offerings that will help shrink costs is now. Forget the low skills outcry. High-tech doesn’t always translate into operational sophistication. If 99% of the local population can operate a smartphone, they can as well operate these sophisticated offerings because they tell you what you need to do at any given point. There is no reason to fear technology anymore.

Despite the high upfront costs that come with these high-tech solutions, the long-term gains are there for all to see and far outweigh the capital outlay. The only way to survive the current economic storm is to be clever about it. I remain biased towards newer technologies and really appreciate what they can do to make our lives better.

Thina Bhebhe

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