Editor's Comment: Keeping it simple

By Chris Sleight15 April 2010

Chris Sleight, editor of International Construction.

Chris Sleight, editor of International Construction.

The last few years have seen construction machines get more and more advanced, with computer-controlled engines, machine control systems and a wealth of on-board electronics. This has had its benefits - machines are more efficient and more environmentally friendly, and there have also become safer with the addition of things like rear-view cameras.

But one of the problems has been that manufacturers have tended to pursue a 'one size fits all' policy, supplying these machines designed with highly regulated regions like Europe, Japan and the US to every country in the world, regardless of whether that level of technology is appropriate or affordable.

It is a bit different in countries like India and Brazil, where there is a big enough local market to justify manufacturers setting up a factory to cater for local needs, but there are only a handful of countries and regions where this is commercially feasible. For other parts of the world, customers have had little choice apart from the expensive, all singing, all dancing machines from global headquarters.

It is perhaps this technology overkill by the developed world manufacturers that has handed such an advantage to China's equipment industry. It has made huge inroads into emerging economies with machines that are (Chinese manufacturers admit) of a lower quality than the equivalent from a developed world manufacturer, but which are good enough. They are also cheaper machines, partly because Chinese manufacturing costs are lower, but also because they don't have all the costly on-board electronics.

But maybe the industry giants in the US and Europe are starting to understand this. iC's April equipment pages this month feature two manufacturers that have just launched new machines featuring not the latest in on-board gizmos, but simple controls and mechanisms.

Perhaps the most striking example is Sandvik's new 'Basic' breaker range - attachments that are designed to be durable, easy to service, are based on simple technology and come with a very short options list. As one of the company's executives told iC, "Our customers in some parts of the world don't want a lot of sophistication, they just want an on/off switch."

Similar customer demands drove the development of Caterpillar's all-mechanical 434 E backhoe loader, which is designed for Africa, the CIS and Middle East. Again the need is for a reliable machine with simple controls and on-board systems, which is also easy to service.

Sandvik and Caterpillar are by no means the only companies to adopt this way of thinking. Look at this April's business pages and you will see that Hitachi has increased its stake in its Indian joint venture, Telcon, with a view to using it to develop products for the emerging markets. On the same page you will see news of Volvo's new dedicated design and research centre for emerging market products in China.

One of the reasons for these developments is that years of robust growth means many emerging economies now represent much more meaningful markets. This is amplified by the fact that Europe and the US have sunk to such lows in the recession. Another reason is maybe that developed world manufacturers have seen the success the Chinese have had in emerging markets and adapted their own approaches to be more competitive.

Whatever the reasons, I expect more companies to start taking a similar 'back to basics' approach in the future.

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Andy Brown Editor, International Construction Tel: +44 (0) 1892 786 224 E-mail: andy.brown@khl.com
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