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Mobile trends: Looking to the past as a guide to the future

 

As we near the end of a turbulent year, what does the future hold for the quarrying industry and the broader mobile crushing and screening solutions segment? Precisionscreen general manager Paul Kerr tells Damian Christie why we need to look back on the past to be inspired for the future.

You might think that mobile crushing, screening and conveying is a relatively “young” subset of the greater quarrying field. In some respects, it is, in other respects, it isn’t.

Mankind has, throughout its long history, explored and perfected ways and means of making fixed or static plant, equipment and instruments more portable – from siege engines to toilets to the telephone. 

Indeed, one of the earliest examples of a portable or mobile crusher today is on display at the Buskerud Vegvesens Museum in Kongsberg, Norway. The Dravn 3B pendulum crusher first came to the Norwegian Public Roads Administration from England in 1900. The 3.6-tonne crusher, which was mounted on a wagon-style chassis, had a power consumption of 11kW, a jaw opening of 1800mm x 3000mm, and an output of up to 3m3 per hour. Despite its simplicity by modern day standards, the ingenuity behind it inspired Buskerud’s iron foundry to start production of its own crushing plant 15 years later and founded a local manufacturing industry that prospered until the beginning of the Second World War.

Paul Kerr, the general manager of national mobile crushing and screening plant manufacturer and distributor Precisionscreen, has a keen interest in the history of mobile crushers and screens. He credits industrialisation and legislative changes around the world – particularly in Ireland, where farmers and landholders opened borrow pits in the late 19th century – for ushering in the first machines and methods that would evolve into today’s mobile crushing and screening market.

“People could move equipment around and avoid restrictions of tariffs,” Paul explained. “With large places now, you have big royalties and a lot of regulation, but back then, you could find a hole, dig some dirt up and move on. It wasn’t viable to have a fixed plant in the area but it was viable to do what we call campaign crushing now, which was to move a plant around, crush and screen, use internal screens which were the first things that were mobile. Once you found somewhere with a bit of gravel, you’d screen it into sizes and then you’d move on. It meant that one person didn’t have to have all the capital, and lots of smaller players, whether they were farmers and landholders, could get an extra return on their property.”

He added the story behind the origins of the mobile market continues today. “A huge part of the success of mobile crushers and screens has been the legislative drive which has created easy access to capital. It’s made it easier to get in, get going and get a production run happening. It means people don’t need to invest for as long a term. A mobile plant allows some people to get a pilot project off the ground or a new site developed without the impost of having to comply with lots of regulation, and that’s always given the mobiles something of an edge. And some people, once they’re in production and making money, then have to decide whether to change that and heavily invest in capital for a static plant. It’s the flexibility of the mobile plant that has kept it advantageous. It’s not so much the technical development but more the flexibility of the capital.”

The Dravn 3B pendulum crusher on display at the Buskerud Vegvesens Museum in Kongsberg, Norway.

LUCK OF THE IRISH

Paul, who is Irish-Australian, credits Ireland with being the “heart” of the global mobile crushing and screening segment. Today, County Tyrone in Northern Ireland is a major bastion of mobile crushing and screening plant manufacturing – being home to a range of respected homegrown and international brands, including Finlay, Powerscreen, Evoquip, Tesab, Sandvik, and McCloskey.

“Mobile screening and crushing is a big world market but it’s really a niche in every country,” Paul said. “Ireland was the only country that got ahead far enough in its day to day whole supply stream to manufacture equipment over there.

“For Ireland, and particularly Northern Ireland, mobile crushing and screening is actually a major industry. The technical schools and training institutions are dedicated to creating the systems that allow people to come from that pastoral background and move into sales, distribution, services and support, to a certain extent.”

Paul agrees with the inference that the modern age of mobile crushing and screening began with the inception of the Finlay brand in 1958. That year, John Finlay, a veteran operator of aggregate, sand and gravel operations in County Tyrone,
designed and launched the world’s first hydraulic screen, featuring a single-shaft screenbox. Finlay Hydrascreens would eventually be bought by Terex in 1999 – but Terex retained the Finlay brand name, such was its global reputation.

“Finlay was the first to really do it in a production-orientated scenario, that is, get the production line right for the equipment and turn it into a production machine,” Paul said. “Powerscreen [also now owned by Terex] was the one that probably led the way on marketing and made a lot of the growth and in-roads into the overseas markets. It excelled in the distribution and marketing.”

Paul added that while innovations in the mobile crushing and screening market have come out of America and Australia, “no one nowhere else has had that same success” as the Irish.

In turn, Paul said that, much like members of his own family in Australia, Irish-born emigrants have helped to further mobile crushing and screening solutions in overseas markets. “I would say a lot of it is the community grown from Ireland to all around the world. There is a commonality among many people in the supply chain which means the connection between family and friendship groups stays strong, and that makes it easier for people with those connections to get the right information, so it gives them a leg-up. If you know people from four or five factories or manufacturers, and you’ve dealt and worked with them, it gives you more influence in terms of market knowledge. Knowing the right person and the right factories is always important, and coming from that Irish background gives you a leg-up, the advantage of knowing where to get that knowledge.”

Paul added that he sees the merits, based on the Irish experience, of Australia moving back towards manufacturing, and particularly bespoke manufacturing in the light of COVID-19, but that “the supply chain and the value proposition in Ireland is going to be hard to beat for a while.

“For me the biggest part of my business is what we build locally, so it’s important that gets reflected, but the historical knowledge of Ireland, it’s a very strong place to come from. Again, it’s the knowledge and contacts of a niche mobile industry around the world.”

The Roadmasta 48’ x 10’ is a combined crushing and screening unit on a towable tri-axle chassis that is suitable for making roadbase materials.

AUSTRALIAN INDUSTRIOUSNESS

Precisionscreen itself is an archetype of Australian industriousness. The company was started by Paul’s father Harold, an engineer who spent 11 years working on mobile plant and equipment in Ireland for the likes of Terex, Svedala (now Sandvik) and Tesab before he migrated to Brisbane with his family in the early 1980s to start his own mobile crushing and screening business.

For more than three decades (established in 1986), Precisionscreen has been an influential supplier of plant and equipment to the Australian quarrying, recycling, extractive, mining and bulk materials handling industries.

From an operation of just two people,
the company comprises more than 40 personnel today. It manufactures more than 30 crushing, screening and washing plants, and more than 50 ancillary products. Outside of Australia, its equipment can be found in more than 15 countries.

Harold Kerr told Quarry that his passion for the mobile market just ran in his blood. “It’s more of a desire to take on a challenge and meet it,” he said. “It’s also trying to look at what the problem is and get the customer what they need to meet it. You do that whether there’s profit there or not.”

Paul said one of his father’s drivers was “machinery that was designed to be easy to work in remote environments. When he came out to Australia in the early 1980s, there were a lot of remote sites and the supply chain wasn’t as reliable or as sturdy as it is now. His impetus from day one was to design machinery that the person on-site can maintain as easily and as reliably as possible, without relying on externalities”.

One of the first machines that Harold Kerr developed for the Australian market was the Scout, a two-metre by one-metre (6’ x 3’) mobile screenbox with a belt feeder.

“The Scout was the first screener built in Australia to fit the smaller operator,” Harold recalled. “It was a bulletproof little machine you could actually start with, and it was well priced at the beginning. We even had cases where people bought them for more than the price they were worth as new.”

Another machine Precisionscreen manufactured was the Ultimate, the first of the larger Australian-manufactured mobile plants. Harold also described it as “a bulletproof machine, beyond anything else available in the world at the time. At the time we joked that it was the biggest machine in the world”.

“The Ultimate was a wheeled machine that was suitable for pulling on the road around Australia and it was a precursor to the models that became the Roadmasta and the Super Reclaimer,” Paul elaborated. “It was fairly unique at the time in that it was designed in Australia for Australian conditions, and it was designed to be easily transportable. The first tracked machine we built was the Trackmasta and as far as I know, it was the largest tracked mobile machine built for its time. We built it very early in Australia before tracked machines were common around the world.”

Precisionscreen has manufactured and sold numerous tracked and wheeled plant over the past three decades, including homegrown mobile crushers, screens, stockpilers, conveyors, washing plants, pugmills, pre-coaters, silos and hoppers, and trommels. These include the Scorpion range of mobile precoaters and pugmills, tracked screens such as the Super Reclaimer and the Pitbull twin-decks and the triple-deck Trackmasta 2053. Its portable crushing units include the Trackcrush vertical shaft impact crusher and the Roadmasta 48” x 10”.

In 2016, the company joined the Australian Made campaign as a licensee and all of its homegrown products now carry the familiar kangaroo logo. “There is an intimate understanding of the moniker ‘Made in Australia’, and that is very important to us,” Paul said. “Whenever we’re part of a program, the one thing we always want to do is ensure that we know what is homegrown, what is made locally and try to help explain the values of that program both upstream and downstream.”

The portable Scorpion pugmill has been designed to work with various applications for mixing.

FUTURE CHALLENGES

Over the journey, Precisionscreen has also been a distributor and dry hire rental service for a variety of international brands. It is currently the distributor for Tesab and Trackstack mobile products in all states and territories (bar Western Australia). In turn, the company has benefitted from a large warehouse of spare parts and components, particularly in critical and hydraulic componentry, for its imported and homegrown plant and equipment.

Paul Kerr said that there is a higher awareness of the Tesab brand around Australia now than when Precisionscreen took up the licence. “I think the branding has definitely strengthened, and people are really confident in the brand, particularly in light of the way the world now is with COVID-19,” he said. “Convincing people to put their support behind the brand is a big part of building the strategy. It’s been a very hard year to take on a new brand and try to come up with internal competencies, as we’ve had to put aside plans, in terms of internal staff training.

“The advantage of us manufacturing our own gear is that during COVID-19 we’ve not been relying on factories that were closed down or staff who are unavailable, and technical expertise that we can’t fly in to the country. That is similar for everyone and every brand that’s imported but different from what’s done locally.”

While there has long been the view that Industry 4.0 (aka the Internet of Things) would play a great role in connecting plant and equipment to more efficient processes and systems, Paul believes that with the intervention of COVID-19, there will not be dramatic changes in the Australian mobile market.

“My biggest feeling is that there is going to be a bigger push for local supply, and with the fears and experiences of COVID-19, the biggest change will be that people will want to know that long volume componentry can be manufactured locally,” he said. “Downtime is going to be critical and people can’t afford to wait for weeks. The supply chain is going to take a long time to come back to the same speed. So I think over the next five to eight years, what the market is going to be demanding is that partnerships strengthen to the point where a larger percentage of the sub-component/emergency parts are produced locally. That will be a big change and will mean that when people are designing new machines, they will need to take advantage of existing spares, high volume components and redundancies. People will want equipment to have that mixture of reliability and when there is an issue, the ability to support it quickly and timely will become more important. I think the designs will be focused on that over the next few years, rather than dramatic technological changes at this stage.”

The Kerrs – both father and son – do not foresee Australia being able to take on the mantle of Ireland’s niche in mobile crushing and screening manufacturing.

Harold said Precisionscreen’s strength over the decades has been in catering for the Australian market. “The advantage that we have is the difference in the freight costs covers some of the other costs that we would have. However, it’s much cheaper to build in Ireland – for instance, the wages and all the other factors that add to the cost of employing people are lower.

“In the past, generally what’s come from overseas was the stock. The big strength we’ve always had is that we’ve been able to customise but it’s also our weakness because it costs us. It’s not a take or leave it situation. We do what we always set out to do which is give the customer what they need.”

However, Paul said even if manufacturing cannot take off in Australia, the country has capable technical people and could still be a centre for technical development within the global crushing and screening market. “I think the difference will be in terms of the supply chain, there will be a lot more collaboration between dealers and buyers, and in that context I think Australia will play a very big part. I’m finding that people in Europe or the States, where traditionally we’d have very little collaboration, are reaching out now as they’re struggling to get information from the centralised factories. They’re reaching out to people that might have the expertise on sidelines ways of communication. From that perspective, I think Australia can be a big contributor and obviously as people realise that knowledge comes from Australia, it will help Australia’s kudos when it comes to machine design. At the very least, machinery may be designed in Australia or field trialled in Australia or Australia becomes a reference point for product suitability innovation for crushing and screening plants around the world.”

In turn, if Australia was to move into technical expertise, then that would have benefits for the domestic quarrying market. “I think it would create better reliability, better stability of products, and definitely some performance increases,” Paul said. “If machines are better designed for the environment and more robust, then you end up with higher reliability and higher production for similar investment costs. If investment costs per tonne are up on the initial investment, the overall outcome is a better return on capital.”

With COVID-19 having in the past year devastated world markets and also impacted on the availability of components and spare parts in the supply chain, Paul Kerr believes observing the history and past successes of mobile screening and crushing, both globally and at home, plays into the importance of Australian manufacture and support.

“With COVID, I think the historical narrative lays the way for the future, which is that all countries need to be more self-reliant on their own production, their own ability to be managed, to repair and to continue with equipment, no matter where it came from originally,” Paul said. 

“I think people are going to want machines with an extended life span, and that means for some of the traditional manufacturers like ourselves, people may want a plant that they can invest in and they know can keep running for an extended period of time. If changes like what’s happened rock us again, you don’t want a machine that you know is going to fail in 18 months, you want something that’s still going to be functional in two years, five years, 10 years – with minimal investment.”

As the Dravn 3B once inspired the Norwegians to manufacture their own crushers, perhaps Australia, spearheaded by local firms like Precisionscreen, can play a significant role in furthering innovations that will make mobile crushing and screening plant even more competitive for quarry producers the world over.