Direct To The Customer
Equipment manufacturer Komatsu’s direct service model – the building block for its underground mining equipment strategy – has proved so successful that its use is applied wherever possible in the company, says director for sales and services Croydon Walters-Gerout.
“Our Komatsu Underground Soft Rock (formally known as Joy Global) strategy is focused around three key areas: innovative products, exceptional service and exceeding expectations,” he says.
“With the slowdown in demand from the commodities sector, following the hard lockdowns of COVID-19, this focus played a crucial role in helping us meet our targets while assisting customers to increase productivity and improve efficiencies by providing them with speedy, predictable and agile interactions based on our expertise.”
The service model is underpinned by customers having direct access to the original equipment manufacturer’s (OEM) entire organisation from factory through to engineering, OEM-trained service technicians and customer training.
“Direct service means that we have a highly skilled team embedded on the customer site that can get the experts involved whenever there is a need, and quickly. Generally the focus is on being proactive in planning and preventing unplanned downtimes.
“Where there are agents and other third parties involved, the customer has to deal with them, and if the third party needs OEM input or response it will cause a huge delay. Working through third parties also increases the risk of miscommunication, where some information is lost during the communication cycle.”
Access to expertise is important for a customer – especially one who is operating in the highly capital-intensive underground mining environment where unplanned downtime can lead to the loss of thousands of rand by the minute.
“Sometimes the conditions require design improvements, and the sooner the OEM understands the requirements and is able to make the required design change, the sooner production is able to resume.
“We have found that mining customers prefer direct contact as often as possible as it reduces time on improvements, downtime and need identification. More time is directly linked to increased production which translates to higher profitability,” says Walters-Gerout.
Advances in digitalisation are also proving to be a boon by assisting equipment manufacturers to deliver on improved turnaround times, especially related to equipment condition assessments.
“The use of tablets on customer sites has dramatically increased in 2021. Previously, a full machine condition assessment coupled with a report would take about four days, but with the use of tablets for inspections, linked to data bases and the running of life expectancy algorithms, we are able to produce a report within an hour after the inspection is done.
“This report is directly linked to the sales team, who can within an hour produce a quote for a customer for the parts they need. Thus the four-day turnaround has been reduced to a two-hour turnaround. This means that our employees are freed up to attend to other customer needs.”
Together with Komatsu’s drive to deliver excellent service, it focuses on creating innovative products to help mining clients access difficult-to-reach ore zones, among others.
“In the underground coal mining market, the easy-to-mine coal has long been depleted. Komatsu’s innovation in battery technology has enabled us to apply this to the system (or process designs) and make it possible to mine the difficult areas.”
With the old lead-acid batteries having specific charging cycles, releasing gases while charging and being difficult to maintain, Komatsu has invested in the development of new battery technology, which it will soon be launching. The new battery technology has already undergone the relevant stress testing and completed the relevant legal approvals for use in a coal mine.
“We have launched the new product and are finalising an order with a local customer. The first machines will be delivered to a coal miner in South Africa in 2022. The product will have a massive impact on our customers’ ability to mine difficult areas,” says Walters-Gerout.
COVID-19 and the direct service model
While the pandemic has delayed the execution of a number of projects, given the low demand for some commodities such as limestone during the hard lockdown last year, Walters-Gerout says the servicing of Komatsu’s underground mining customer base was relatively unaffected.
However it did require the company to rethink the way it planned, manufactured and delivered its service to customers such that it didn’t cause any unnecessary delays.
The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic saw a rapid uptake in and reliance on technology, especially for employees working remotely, as well as with digital tools to ensure employee safety (social distancing).
Subsequently there has been a rapid uptake of video conferencing and the use of digital platforms to help speed up interaction.
“The coal mining sector faces complications related to the use of digital tools like tablets, given that the mines give off dangerous flammable gases. Despite these complications, the technology does exist, and that allows for quick customer support face to face underground in the production face and reduces any unplanned downtime event.”
The digitalisation drive has seen Komatsu develop a number of digitalised training solutions which include mixed reality (augmented reality/virtual reality) and animated interactive training material to help in the training of employees remotely.
“These technology developments don’t take away the direct classroom training, but they enable self-help training in much smaller and shorter modules that can be accessed at any time of the day. If a machine is in production, the technical people are often sitting around in case something goes wrong. This waiting time can now be used to do self-training on the tablets underground.”