Liebherr Group is a Swiss heavy equipment manufacturing and service company. In Africa, the company plays a vital role keeping the region’s industry and mines moving.
Liebherr’s name is a familiar sight on construction sites and industrial areas across Africa, with its construction equipment frequently across in the continent’s growing cities, while its cranes unload ships at various ports and its vast short-haul trucks support a wide range of mining projects.
The company’s African division is heavily focused on sales and service too, supplying mining, construction and material handling machines as well as mobile, crawler and maritime cranes and commercial and domestic refrigeration and freezing units. It also operates sales and services facilities in Brits, Cape Town, Durban, Kathu, Middelburg, Richards Bay and Springs.
Like many companies with a strong focus on mining and commodity-based industries, Liebherr has been affected by the recent crash in commodities prices and the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. It hasn’t been all bad, however, as Dieter Schmid, Liebherr Africa’s managing director, explains.
“Liebherr’s global-minded corporate activities, together with our broadly-diversified product range mean that we are not as heavily dependent on the changing situations in individual markets.
“Particularly in South Africa, faltering commodity prices have forced our mining and, to some extent, earthmoving customers to review capital expenditure against return, operational productivity and to reassess the margins of various projects. This has been directly impacting Liebherr-Africa over the past few years as our customers cut back on purchasing new equipment and postponed expensive overhauls on existing plants.”
Although this cut into the company’s operations and margins, there were upsides to the sustained downturn. Liebherr’s rental vehicle fleet has been ideally positioned to become a stopgap to mining and industrial customers unable to afford to purchase equipment directly, and the company’s reputation for efficiency made them the first choice for those trying to run their operations to the same standard on a tighter budget.
Thanks to the Liebherr brand’s reputation for fuel and loading efficiency, many companies have selected its machines as a good long-term investment.
With recovery continuing from the financial crisis and commodity prices beginning to stabilise, however, key sectors also begun to show cautious optimism. Recent World Bank forecasts suggest that commodity prices will increase by as much as 26% in the energy sector in 2017, with a corresponding shift in the investment backlog which build up during the recession. Liebherr are now looking set to receive a glut of new purchase orders and pending machine overhauls.
Innovation and design
While its African branch is largely focused on sales and operations, Liebherr uses data and information passed back from its experience working with companies and contractors across the continent to improve and modify its products. Through various service sectors, it can identify and collate data on issues and problems faced in the sometimes harsh environments of mining and industrial sites across southern and South Africa.
“As a high-tech company, Liebherr aims to contribute and shape technological progress in various divisions within the group, investing substantial amounts in research and development, the bulk of which is used for product development,” Schmid continues. “The principle issues we’ve focused on across the wide range of products and services include, as they have done for many years, increasing energy efficiency, networking, automation and lightweight product design.”
One significant project in 2016 was the trial of 3D-printing production technology in the aerospace and transportation systems division, while related trials of individual components have been taking place since the end of 2016.
“3D-printed aerospace and industrial components is of particular interest to African clients as it holds the potential for much more seamless component and spare part acquisition processes than have been previously possible. As the African aviation, manufacturing, energy and mining industries expand further and further into underdeveloped areas, having the capacity to manufacture components on-site poses a significant advantage.”
Despite this broadening of focus, Liebherr’s principle business is still the sale and service of heavy equipment, and it has recently released a number of new products into the African markets. African customers, of course, often have similar concerns to those elsewhere – fuel efficiency, ease of use and servicing and economical running costs, but at the same time conditions can be particularly challenging.
“Recently, the Liebherr-Africa Earthmoving Division has launched two new products into the South African market to address these needs more fully – the PR776 bulldozer and the R920 excavator,” says Schmid. “The PR776 is the world’s largest hydrostatic-driven bulldozer. Specially designed to operate under the toughest mining and quarrying applications, it is powered by a 12-cylinder diesel engine and can be equipped with blades of up to 22m³. This has recently completed a 12 month on-the-job testing period in which it performed exceptionally well.”
The smaller R920 excavator, on the other hand, is aimed at plant hire companies, an entirely different market. It carries a much larger bucket, reducing fuel costs and increasing productivity, and has a reduced tail swing radius when turning that makes it suitable in cramped areas like inner cities.
The much larger R9200 is a world-class truck loading platform with much safer machine positioning than its competitors, available with backhoe and face shovel configurations. Like all Liebherr machines, it was designed to complement the broader Liebherr mining product range and work with other machines supplied by the company.
This interoperability both encourages companies to purchase exclusively from Liebherr and helps improve operational efficiency. The R9200 uses its 12.5m3 bucket (the largest in its class) to perform sustainably with peak fuel burn efficiency in even the most challenging conditions (another reason why it’s suitable for Africa). It’s designed to match trucks with a capacity of up to 140 tonnes, but can work with much larger vehicles such as Liebherr’s 383-tonne capacity T282B mining truck.
The R9200 is also equipped with Liebherr’s unique patented Litronic Plus power management system, enhancing electrical, mechanical and hydraulic power distribution during operation. Combined with a closed-loop hydraulic swing circuit, this class-leading system means the R 9200 cycles faster and consumes less fuel without sacrifice. Efficiency is further enhanced through the use of on-demand cooling control for both water and oil.
As a whole, Liebherr has gained a reputation for consistent technological innovation and advances, and they’ve helped develop a number of new products over the past five years, producing impressive productivity solutions and improvements. The company focuses on adapting and changing according to customer needs – hence their extensive work with African firms.
In March 2017, the company celebrated 20 years of partnerships with African Mining Services, a partnership that first started with their contract to supply the Damang Gold Mine in the 1990s, which involved four R984 excavators. Local support from Liebherr-Ghana allowed AMS to win other projects, with a fleet of more than 40 heavy machines now operating in Ghana, Mali, Guinea and Burkina Faso.
Recently, Liebherr also branched out into new areas of the African market, with new systems specifically designed for low-development, low-technology areas.
“The Mixing Technology Division at Liebherr-Africa successfully launched the new DBP 60-M Mobile Dry Batch Plant at the Totally Concrete Expo held in Johannesburg on 23rd and 24th May 2017, allowing the company to now actively compete in the dry batch market,” says Schmid. “The DBP 60 – M, mounted on a road-legal trailer which requires only one horse for transport, is designed for easy transport too. The plant, which is capable of batching 60³ per hour, has 2-4 aggregate storage bins, electro-pneumatic discharge gates, and four vibration motors to ensure the free-flow of fine material. T
In 2016, the company launched the 5-axle LTM 1250-5.1, a massive mobile crane and one of the most powerful of its kind of the market. Premiering at the Bauma trade fair in Munich, the LTM 1250-5.1 is a single-engine product, a concept unique to Liebherr, with a multi-functional folding jib (a 50m hydraulically adjustable fixed jib is available as well). This system also includes specialist power-management and system balancing features like the Liebherr VarioBase and ECOmode, improving fuel efficiency and safety.
An automated future
Whatever developments Africa’s economy goes through, it’s impossible to deny that automation will play a major part. This presents a potentially serious problem for the continent’s developing economies, but also a major opportunity for its industrial development.
Liebherr is at the forefront of this, working to provide its customers with tailor-made and technologically advanced solutions suitable for any environment or operation.
“For example, our machine tools and automation systems division recently developed an award-winning bin-picking system, a technology for the Industry 4.0 environment which has attracted a great deal of attention,” says Schmid. “This performs all the processes in a fully automated way, from identifying parts in chaotically organised containers through to positioning the workpiece on the machine.”
Digitalisation, networking and electro-mobility are three additional technological megatrends for which Liebherr is developing innovative solutions in a wide variety of product areas.
In June 2016, Liebherr presented a new system for its maritime products at the TOC Europe trade fair: LiDAT smartApp. Customers can use this system to analyse the process and performance data of their equipment in real time. This makes it possible to identify bottlenecks quickly and to make more efficient use of handling equipment.
Development priorities in the company’s earthmoving and mining divisions also include projects in the areas of automation and autonomous machines, automated driving technologies, as well as driver and service assistance systems. The contribution made by Liebherr to the digitisation of construction sites has been another major focus. One example of this is the newly introduced LiPOS system for the precise positioning of Liebherr deep-foundation machines on construction sites. This new software makes it possible to use existing plans and construction site data to produce even more realistic simulations of construction sites and lifting work using crawler cranes.
A service focus
The main branch of Liebherr SA’s business is in service and support for customers and users of their machines. It’s this approach that has allowed it to tailor its products to local issues and stay ahead of the market by working with their customers to find out what they want.
“We aim to build up and maintain close cooperation with its customers and business associates over a period of years or even decades.,” says Schmid. “We try to respond quickly, flexibly and reliably to their needs. This close relationship with our customers and the high value that Liebherr attaches to innovative solutions and user benefits are keys to the our success.”
High quality products are explicitly not the end of the company’s services – it also provides support throughout a piece of equipment’s operational life. Each division of the company provides its clients and potential customers with advisory services to help determine which solutions may be right for their situation. Following a purchase, full after-sales support including inspection, maintenance, advice and repairs are also available.
“Liebherr Africa offers service agreements perfectly adapted to your machines and deployment situations,” Schmid continues. “Wherever your deployment site may be – we’re just a phone call away. Speed and reliability at Liebherr are firmly anchored in our service agreements. Short reaction times mean short downtimes.”
This has been acknowledged outside its customer base, too. In March 2017 Liebherr Africa’s Mining Division was awarded with a Service Excellence – Customer Support – 2 star level with a score of 89%.
The company’s goal remains to deliver exceptional service, while all the time adapting to meet the demands of an ever-shifting marketplace. Based on its recent performance, it is well placed to succeed.