There is no need to cower in the corner when considering the future of manufacturing. Artificial intelligence (AI) and three-dimensional (3D) printing can open up a multitude of opportunities for South African manufacturers, says Bell Equipment CEO Gary Bell.
Bell Equipment is, in fact, readying itself to produce self-driving dump trucks.
“Everything is going to look very different very soon.”
This includes the JSE-listed Bell Equipment group.
For the first time in its 64-year existence, there will be no one with the Bell surname at the helm of the Richards Bay-based equipment manufacturer and distributor.
After 34 years of steering the company as CEO, Bell retired at the end of May, taking over the position of nonexecutive chairperson. Long-time COO Leon Goosen has taken over as CEO from Bell.
But ‘retire’ is the wrong word, says Bell.
“Usually ‘retire’ means you are going to hang up your gloves, and I’m not ready to do that just yet. I’m going to be a very active chairperson of the company. I’m going to be on the road a lot, keeping in touch with customers and dealers.”
Bell got his feet wet at the company in 1970 as an apprentice, moving on to qualify from Durban Technikon with a diploma in mechanical engineering.
He returned to work full time at the company, and was appointed CEO in April of 1984.
His father, Irvine Bell, registered Bell & Company in 1954. It operated mainly as an engineering job shop. Irvine was, however, also known for his inventions. These included, among others, the Tri-Wheeler loading machine for the sugar cane industry.
The three Bell brothers – Gary, Paul and Pete – as well as two cousins, Mike Campbell and Dave Campbell, worked from 1975 to change the company into a manufacturing business focused on heavy equipment.
Today a number of Bell family members remain on the payroll – about “ten or twelve”, says Gary Bell.
“My youngest son is in the business, as well as a couple of cousins, daughters- in-law and my nephew.”
Highs and Lows
“I can’t claim responsibility for any of our achievements, as I always had a good team of people around me,” notes Bell.
However, he does acknowledge that what pleases him most about his long career at Bell Equipment is that the company has grown from a diminutive operation in KwaZulu-Natal to a company with a global sales footprint and a plant in Germany and another in Richards Bay.
“It is a big thrill to travel down the highways in Europe and the US and see our product going the other way on a low-bed truck, to be delivered to a customer.
“Another achievement is to have grown from 8 employees in 1975 to 3 500 people worldwide.
“Creating opportunities for people to grow and develop has always given me pleasure,” says Bell.
“On the minus side, I don’t think we have done as well as some of our global competitors, and maybe that has something to do with our location in the world.”
Any disappointment that lingers?
“Not really. We’ve had a helluva lot of fun doing what we’ve been doing.
“But, that said, my most difficult period was during the world economic crisis, when we had to lay off 200 to 300 people. We’ve never done that before. That was tough.
“Fortunately, most of them are back on the job.”
Bell adds that the biggest lesson he learned along the way was that any business is all “about the people”.
“We sell hardware and machinery, but it’s about a lot more than that. It’s about the trust people have in us. About us delivering on our promise of building strong, reliable machines and supporting these machines. It really is all about people and trust and getting the team to go that extra mile.”
Education Is Key
Bell has been known to speak his mind on the challenges of manufacturing big machines for the construction, mining and agriculture industries in South Africa.
When considering the bigger picture, he views the most significant challenge to competitive manufacturing in South Africa as the distance to the lucrative markets of the northern hemisphere, such as Europe and the US, and the logistical costs associated with this distance.
The rest of Africa has not yet delivered on the promise of becoming a booming market for South African goods.
“If you want real scale, you need to become global. Africa represents 5% to 6% of equipment demand and South Africa half of that.”
Another challenge is education and its “poor track record” in South Africa, says Bell.
Should government want to tackle the problem of manufacturing in South Africa, it should start “with education”, he adds.
Also, government is a “bit out of touch” with what needs to be done to stimulate manufacturing activities in South Africa.
“A 22% duty on steel imports protects one industry and penalises all the other thousands of manufacturers that use that steel as their primary input – and then our competitors’ goods come in duty-free.
“Our authorities need to be responsive. To react and to react quicker. To understand and support. A lot of things can be made easier for manufacturers in South Africa.”
Manufacturing Wish List
If Bell could open three new plants in South Africa, it would be a modern steel mill, an earthmoving tyre manufacturing plant and a modern foundry.
“A modern steel mill does not require the investment seen 30 years ago. We need competitive, good-quality product here,” he explains. “We definitely should make steel, but only if we can make it competitively. We can’t produce quality products from an old and obsolete plant.”
Tyres are the most expensive components on a Bell machine, which explains why he would have liked to open the tyre manufacturing plant, while Bell’s call for a foundry is based on the premise that there has been “no investment in foundries in South Africa in a long time, with the quality of what is produced no longer acceptable in terms of what is available globally for our business”.
AI and 3D Printing
Looking to the future of manufacturing, there are a number of buzzwords currently making headlines, such as AI and 3D printing, mostly falling under the “Fourth Industrial Revolution”.
Opponents of this digital revolution argue that it would lead to massive job shedding as machines replace humans on a large scale.
“I think it is absolutely essential that we embrace this revolution. This is the future. South Africa can’t stay in the dark ages,” says Bell.
“It will more than likely lead to massive job losses for certain types of work,” he acknowledges. “But a lot of people don’t understand the concept of productivity. In mechanisation of this nature, one shouldn’t approach it on the basis of reducing jobs, but on the basis of reducing costs.
“As a nation, we can become more cost effective in what we produce for our domestic and export markets. And, in doing that, we can then create jobs.
“We have to embrace new technologies. It is the only way in which we are going to pull ourselves out from where we are. New technologies provide us with the opportunity to industrialise further.”
Bell says 3D printing is, for example, changing a lot of decisions traditionally made around whether “something is available locally, or not”.
If it is not available in South Africa, can it not be produced locally using 3D printing?
“The playing field has changed over the past 15 years in terms of what we can make and what we can’t make. Manufacturing systems are so much more flexible. Previously, you required huge investment and huge volumes, whereas now a 3D printer can print 1, or 10, or 200.”
Bell Equipment has 120 full-time employees involved in research and development.
“Our strategy has been to be a leading full-line supplier of yellow equipment to the African market. We are in the number two or three spot, and we’d like to be number one.
We would also like to be the global market leader and manufacturer of the world’s best dump trucks.”
This means Bell Equipment has to stay on top of a number of transport innovations sweeping the globe, including autonomous, or self-driving, construction and mining vehicles.
“In ten years, most of our vehicles may be autonomous drive vehicles, with no driver behind the wheel,” says Bell.
“We would like to lead that development. We are actively working on it as we speak.
“We have even built the capability for autonomous drive into the electronics and control systems of our current production models to enable these vehicles to become autonomous vehicles, should it become necessary.”
On the Bike
As Gary Bell moves to become nonexecutive chairperson of the company his father started, he hopes to spend a bit more time on his mountain bike.
“I can’t go more than a couple of days without going for a spin. I enjoy that.”
He’ll also continue to gather together the history of the company, as he started doing over the last five to ten years.
“Not that I know if anyone would be interested in this.”
Bell says he remains positive about South Africa.
“We’ll certainly do what we can to create jobs in the country.
“Government needs to play its part in dealing with the backlog in education and . . . [encouraging] Team South Africa to work together a lot better than we have done in the past.”