Increased commodity demand, post-Covid-19 stimulus packages, as well as expanded infrastructure spending in several markets, have all combined to drive up demand for Bell’s articulated dump trucks (ADTs), says Bell CEO Leon Goosen.
The JSE-listed Bell Equipment is a global manufacturer, distributor and exporter of a range of heavy equipment for the construction, mining, quarrying, sugar and forestry industries. The company released its financial results for the year ended December 31 late last week.
“The conflict between Russia and Ukraine [has] caused ongoing supply-chain constraints following the lingering effects of Covid-19, resulting in us having to cut back on production,” notes Goosen.
“While we mitigated these challenges by closely managing high-risk suppliers and putting supply continuity interventions in place, it did prevent us from fully capitalising on market conditions.”
Goosen adds that an improvement in the supply chain in the last quarter of the financial year meant that Bell was able to catch up on production, and that sales could be invoiced and delivered to customers by the end of the year.
“This ensured that we closed the second half of the year much stronger than we did the first half.”
In addition to supply-chain constraints, 2022 was marred by soaring fuel prices, unprecedented high inflation and interest rates, as well as floods in KwaZulu-Natal that caused numerous logistical challenges.
Reduced vessel frequency at the ports also increased the need to use air freight, which is significantly more expensive. Eskom’s long-term implementation of extended loadshedding during 2022 also had far-reaching effects on Bell’s plant in KwaZulu-Natal, its local suppliers and customers.
“Besides the disruptive impact on business, the mitigation action of running generators significantly increases the cost of doing business in South Africa, while it also erodes international competitiveness,” says Goosen.
“Power interruptions and changeovers also increase the risk of equipment being damaged, especially electrical switching and electronic equipment.” In order to further mitigate loadshedding, Bell is increasing production at its factory in Germany, says Goosen.
The group is also investigating the feasibility of sourcing fabrications from outside of South Africa, as well as installing a grid-tied solar system for the Richards Bay factory. The group has already installed generators at its Richards Bay plant and at its branches throughout the country.
“The cumulative effect of the challenges that local businesses must grapple with needs to be weighed up when considering strategies for long-term sustainability,” says Goosen.
“These challenges include exchange rate volatility, fuel prices, rising inflation and interest rates, escalating electricity tariffs, a severely encumbered national electricity provider, growing structural challenges around water and sanitation, and road infrastructure and port inefficiencies that frustrate logistics.”
Autonomous Trucks; New Motor Grader
Four years after the start of extensive testing, Bell’s autonomous technology has reached the adoption stage, with customers in the UK, South America and Australia set to introduce autonomous Bell ADTs on their worksites during 2023. “We currently have two approved service providers, xtonomy, based in Europe, and Pronto AI in the US, both of which can work with Bell customers from anywhere in the world. A third supplier has also recently been engaged, says Goosen.
“The autonomous trucks are best suited to markets where operator costs are typically high,” he adds. Goosen also notes that Bell has ventured into the global motorised grader market.
Final testing and refinement on its first generation of motor graders are underway, with production set to begin in the fourth quarter, next year. Twenty units are currently being tested worldwide.
“Motor graders complement the group’s flagship ADT product as a core earthmoving product,” says Goosen.
“The global motor grader market is the same size as the ADT market, so this product is really key in our diversification strategy. This new product holds significant potential for Bell as we slowly, but surely, build our position in this market.”
Three base machines will initially be offered, each with the option of a four- or six-wheel-drive configuration.
The G140 will cater for maintenance and light construction tasks, while the G160, with its increased power and performance, is designed to handle heavy construction applications.
The G200 is positioned as an entry-level machine for the mining industry. The motor grader adds to the two ADT models and a rock scaler already launched for the underground mining market, also part of Bell’s diversification strategy. The group’s underground mining range will also be expanded to include a six-ton low-profile load-haul-dump loader.
Goosen indicates that Bell’s overall order book is being maintained at record levels, and that the group is already taking orders for 2024. Bell last week reported significant improvement on its numbers compared with 2021, with profit after tax increasing by 63% to R478.9-million.
Group sales were up 28% on 2021, owing largely to the improvement in the supply chain in the last quarter. Total revenue was up from R8-billion in 2021, to R10.3-billion in 2022.