An earthmoving giant celebrates its centenary – with a keen eye on the next 100 years. Damian Christie reports.
On 13 May, 2021, multinational earthmoving plant and equipment manufacturer and supplier Komatsu marked a century of business.
Over the past 100 years, Komatsu has become an industry-leading manufacturer and supplier of equipment, technologies and services for the mining, quarrying, construction, forklift, industrial and forestry markets. Its equipment and services have been used by companies worldwide to develop modern infrastructure, extract fundamental minerals, maintain forests and create technology and consumer products. The company’s global service and distributor networks support customer operations, especially by exploiting data and technology to enhance safety and productivity and optimise performance.
The Komatsu company draws its name from the coastal city of Komatsu, Japan, located in the Ishikawa prefecture, about 500km northwest of Tokyo and about 280km north-northeast of Osaka. The city and the surrounding agricultural regions in the early 20th century were reliant on copper mining activities and the Komatsu Iron Works, established in 1917 by Meitaro Takeuchi, manufactured mining machines for the Yusenji copper mine. When the mine closed in 1921, Takeuchi formed Komatsu Ltd to sustain and employ the surrounding community. This included acquiring the Komatsu Electric Steel Mills in 1922, which helped to give Takeuchi’s new company the foundation for integrated production from steel castings to machining and assembly, which is still a core strength of Komatsu today.1
Takeuchi’s four guiding principles – for quality first and foremost, technological innovation, employee development and global expansion – have all been realised in the past century. As Komatsu Australia’s CEO and managing director Sean Taylor told Quarry, Takeuchi’s founding philosophy is very much alive today.
“Komatsu was founded 100 years ago on the basis of customer centricity – and this is a philosophy that we continue to place at the centre of our business,” Taylor said.
“The extraction of resources, such as commodities and aggregates, is critical for civil infrastructure and contributes to societal well-being in general. Komatsu is creating value through manufacturing and technology innovation to empower a sustainable future where people, businesses and our planet thrive together.”
After expanding into Japan’s domestic industry in its first 40 years (beginning with the production of tractors for the agricultural market), Komatsu eventually began to export its products in the late 1950s and opened new distribution channels in the international market in the 1960s and 1970s. It opened its first overseas subsidiary in Belgium in 1967 and its first offshore manufacturing facility in Brazil in 1975. The entrance of another OEM into the Japanese market in the early 1960s prompted a major overhaul in Komatsu’s quality control methods and mass production manufacturing processes, putting it leagues ahead of many other earthmoving companies in Europe, North America and South America.
“In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Komatsu determined that a focus on total quality management would be a key element in its future,” Taylor elaborated. “We achieved global recognition for the quality of our products and processes in the mid-1960s, which we have continued to build upon since.”
He added that approach to quality assurance has been similarly and successfully applied in other areas of the business, particularly in “technology and innovation, which has resulted in products and systems that lead the industry, such as the first hybrid excavators, the first autonomous haulage vehicles, our industry-leading electric drive dump trucks, our Smart Construction offering including intelligent machine control excavators and dozers, and of course our KOMTRAX remote monitoring platform.
“In particular, Komatsu has focused significant R&D efforts into emissions reductions, with our Tier 4 program, which is delivering up to 80 per cent reductions in particulate matter,” Taylor added. “Tier 4 emission technology is only a small part of Komatsu’s overall emission reduction strategy. We are continuing to actively invest in research and development projects that focus on reducing customers’ emissions and using alternate energy sources.”
In the 1980s, Komatsu established production and sales bases in the United States, the United Kingdom, Indonesia and Europe, permanently establishing its European HQ in Belgium. In the 1990s, the company continued its expansion into the US and Chinese markets, establishing manufacturing facilities in those regions for its engines, castings and hydraulic excavator products.
Since the turn of the 20th century, Komatsu has also developed new products in utility/compact equipment and full-scale forest machinery and acquired the Joy Global mining equipment business, all while expanding its manufacturing operations in China, India, the USA and Russia. These manufacturing bases would have seemed improbable, if not unthinkable, at the start of the post-war, second half of the 20th century.
KOMATSU IN AUSTRALIA
Komatsu began selling its earthmoving and forestry plant and equipment to Australia in 1965, with the sale of a D60-1 dozer to construction company AE & BA Leer in Sydney. Bruce Leer told the Komatsu Australia website in 2015 that he and his father Alfred received a letter from distributor Wabco at the time, “congratulating us on buying this first Komatsu dozer in the country … As it turned out, not only were we the first D60-1 buyer in Australia, we were also the first D60-6 dozer buyer and that was a fantastic machine and also the first buyer of the D55 track loader”.2
The Leer company, which continues to operate today, would go on to buy and operate other “firsts” in the Komatsu line in Australia and at one time had the largest fleet of Komatsu vehicles in the Sydney metropolitan area. “In the early 1970s, two of us drove two 40-tonne dump trucks all the way down the highway from Sydney to Melbourne!” Leer recalled.
More formally, in 1991, Komatsu established a joint venture – NS Komatsu – to further promote the sales of its construction plant and equipment in the eastern part of Australia. In this region, while Komatsu’s official distributor had been selling Komatsu products for several decades, Komatsu decided to participate directly in retail sales with the establishment of the new company.
Komatsu Australia has grown from strength to strength and the company’s Asia-Pacific base has continued to grow into New Zealand and New Caledonia. In April 2012, the company, whose headquarters are in Sydney, opened a multi-purpose services facility in Wacol, Queensland.
THE NEXT 100 YEARS
For its next century of operation, Komatsu is vowing to support mining, construction, forestry, industrial and agricultural producers in transformations to the digital workplace of the future – one that encompasses equipment and people, connected through smart technologies on an open platform, and driving towards zero harm, zero waste and zero emissions. By helping to “digitalise” jobsites worldwide, Komatsu is optimistic its customers can optimise their on-site operations towards a carbon-neutral environment.
Part of that drive starts with “digitalising” its own workforce. “Over the past several years we have transitioned our service teams into digital technicians, which allows a safer, more efficient service process, and by harnessing the power of data and communications technology we can minimise machine downtime,” Taylor said.
This transformation in the skillset of Komatsu’s workforce, he explained, is also important in tackling many of the other global, social, technological and innovation challenges that Komatsu anticipates will occur in the next 100 years.
“Climate change and moving towards a global zero-emissions economy is obviously the big challenge for our generation,” Taylor said. “Over the next few years, Komatsu is investing in electrification and alternative power sources that will help in addressing this challenge. Increasing inclusion and diversity across all levels of society is another huge challenge, but it’s something we need to achieve if we are to ensure equitable outcomes for as many people as possible. Automation is another major development that will change the way the industry operates, allowing societies to extract resources and build and maintain infrastructure in the most efficient, cost-effective and productive ways possible – to the benefit of the whole community.”
Komatsu is very committed to engaging its workforce in these global and social challenges. To that end, it has launched “One World One Komatsu”, an online platform that challenges and inspires Komatsu employees to participate in sustainability-focused campaigns and competitions, to share ideas and engage with colleagues. The company believes that through this initiative, simple individual employee actions will amplify Komatsu’s core business activities to create a collective global movement toward a more sustainable future.
CREATING VALUE TOGETHER
Komatsu is organising numerous activities over the next year that will be underpinned by its new brand promise to minerals and extractive producers: “Creating Value Together”. Taylor describes this as “a goal that our customers in the extractive sector readily appreciate. We have formed deep and long-lasting partnerships in the cement, aggregate and mining sectors because we ensure that our approach is aligned to helping our customers achieve their goals. This kind of partnership starts with our application engineers who can help ensure the right machines are selected for a site, our service and engineering teams who can help maintain the machine at peak performance, our remote monitoring teams who can help track and improve performance, and our training teams who can help ensure the operators get the most out of the machine”.
Taylor said the Australian extractive industry is already taking advantage of many of the technologies and innovations that will be central to Komatsu’s success in the years ahead.
“Products such as Smart Construction, particularly our drone technology, are already being widely and successfully used in extractive industries for stockpile measurement and management. Likewise, our KOMTRAX remote monitoring technology allows fleet owners unprecedented insights into their fleet performance and productivity. The Autonomous Haulage System (AHS) technology ensures higher levels of safety and productivity with Komatsu autonomous mining operations around the world reporting positive improvements in safety through fewer incidents, accidents and ‘near misses’. We are continuing to develop and expand the capabilities of these technologies to further extend their benefits to our customers. Indeed, Smart Construction and AHS are designed to allow more efficient and effective operation of machines and provide significant value to our customers upstream and downstream of the actual machine itself.
“Safety is paramount at Komatsu, so we are continually working towards a goal of zero harm, while also focusing on making our machines cleaner and more efficient,” Taylor said. “While our Hybrid excavators originally went to work in civil applications, we are seeing more applications in cement and aggregates, especially as our Hybrid range expands.”
“Over the past year we have also been rolling out our iSite offering in the quarry segment, which provides unparalleled opportunity to monitor and optimise an entire quarry fleet’s operation.”
LOW KEY CELEBRATIONS
Komatsu’s anniversary celebrations in Australia and the Asia-Pacific region will be held over the next 12 months, to May 2022. “Celebrations will be held in individual branches, subject to any local COVID-safe requirements in place at the time,” Taylor said.
“Later this year we are also marking our centenary with the opening of our new parts distribution centre at our Wacol facility in Brisbane,” he added. “This facility will support our customers well into the future, and will include the latest technologies in warehousing and logistics as well as featuring our innovation hub, where we will showcase our latest technologies to customers, staff, suppliers and the community.”
Taylor said Komatsu Australia’s activities will be very much business as usual. “While we are extremely proud of our centenary, we haven’t planned any major celebrations. Our approach instead is to reflect on our journey so far, and to look at how we can continue to grow into the future. We have learnt a lot over the past 100 years and we are looking forward to the future, where we will create value together with our customers, our team members and the communities around us.
“Commitment to sustainable communities and a brighter future for the world is part of our DNA at Komatsu. Just as we focus on safety, law, quality, delivery and costs for our customers and society, we want to help prioritise sustainability as well. Together we can make a major impact if we all take small actions that add up to a significant effort globally. This strengthens our commitment to each other and our future, and makes us a stronger business partner for our customers and communities.”
A centennial anniversary video can be viewed on the Komatsu website.3
This article appeared in the June edition of Quarry Magazine
REFERENCES & FURTHER READING
1 Komatsu History: Continuous footprints of 100 years with customers and society. komatsu-100th.com/en/history.html
2 Komatsu commemorating 50 years in Australia – Bruce Leer. komatsu.com.au/company/news-media/news/komatsu-commemorating-50-years-in-australia-bruce
3Komatsu 100 years of “creating value together”. komatsu.com.au/company/news-media/videos