Steelbro’s post-GFC strategy

Located in Sockburn, eight kilometres west of Christchurch’s vibrant city centre, the 133-year-old company escaped the catastrophe by a whisker.  “The Steelbro head office was largely unaffected by the quake,” says General Manager of global sales, Steve James. “Power and communications were quickly restored and minor building damage repaired. Some partner suppliers experienced a greater impact on their operations, though and this had a knock- on effect for Steelbro with some production days lost.”

But, the Christchurch earthquake was only one unexpected challenge the country has faced in recent times. The economy has been just as shaky. “New Zealand's economic recovery lacked traction in 2010 and there were concerns that the impact of the earthquake could slow it down further,” says James. “However, recent data has been encouraging. We have seen a 40 per cent increase in sales in the past 18 months and continue to see sales growth. At the moment, Steelbro holds 70 per cent of the local side loader market and approximately 50 per cent on a global scale.”

It is safe to say that Steelbro is a leading force in the business. But especially in times of trouble, such a position can also mean stepping up efforts to remain ahead of the game. To this end, Steelbro used the quiet post-GFC period to concentrate on research and development and trialling new building materials and components.

As a result, the company was well prepared when demand went up again after the GFC and again, after the 2011 earthquake. “There was a great effort to support the specialist area of the transport industry and we were able to translate this knowledge into serial production,” says James.

In the process, Steelbro achieved a number of improvements regarding material selection and manufacturing technology. The result is a new model, the SB362 Sidelifter. “The new model can offer a 36-tonne lift capacity with a tare weight of less than nine tonnes, ensuring an increased payload and delivering improved fuel consumption,” says Engineering Manager, Greg Muirsmeath. “And, a dual speed proportional control allows the SB362 to safely handle empty containers at fast speed or fully laden containers at low speed. It’s a great safety feature and looking back, not winding down R&D was the key to get to this point.”

The constant investment in R&D was peppered with irrepressible optimism. “We always retained a positive drive,” says Muirsmeath. “And, the SB362 Sidelifter has been designed with a positive future in mind.”

By tradition, new product development at Steelbro is focused on delivering reduced tare weight, increased speed of operation and low manufacturing cost while ensuring that safety in operation, reliability of componentry and modularity of sub-assembly design is maintained. 

The new 36-tonne unit is no different. It has an outreach of over four metres to provide ease of operation. “A superior outreach is crucial to ensure an efficient transfer of shipping containers to and from rail wagons and companion vehicles, thereby increasing the efficiency of the entire operation.”

As a result, says Muirsmeath, the ratio of carrying capacity versus tare weight has been improved, “enhancing the lift-and-carry capacity significantly.” “We have also worked closely with strategic supply partners to choose low tare weight components, integrated printed circuit board controls, high pressure hydraulics and superior paint systems.”

Placing high value on home grown solutions, Steelbro keeps investing in new technology to ensure that the Kiwi design will find a global audience. Examples include control system development projects to improve speed and safety of operation, as well as overall functionality. But home grown design does not exclude international know how. “That’s why we are committed to using high strength steels with superior fatigue toughness from a selection of world class steel producers,” says Global Sales Manager, Steve James.

“We’ve always been internationally focused,” he adds. “We have products being sold and used in over 100 countries and we want to grow our market share around the globe. The Australian and NZ markets, for instance, have already embraced the SB362 and experienced notable benefits. Europe is now also taking the unit to its heart and we are gaining market share from our competitors,” says James.

Apart from the Steelbro main office and manufacturing site in Christchurch, the company also has manufacturing sites in Tianjin, China and Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia. “Those three facilities comprise the company’s primary manufacturing operations, but we also use a global network of service providers,” says James.

In a competitive world market, it is the dedication to detail and unique solutions that is meant to set Steelbro apart from a growing opposition. “We want to offer a light weight, yet robust machine that rivals any other on the market in terms of quality, safety and best value,” says James. “In the end, this will mean higher payload and improved fuel return.

Due to the nature of Steelbro’s products, James believes that the most promising future markets are countries that require the use of containerised freight and don’t have high levels of infrastructure in place for doing so – such as Africa and Southeast Asia.

Yet, one of the most promising targets is in South America. “The developing market of Brazil is currently one of the larger new markets that we have our sights on at the moment,” says James. “We’re putting some resources into growing in that market and we have recently established a sales, marketing and product support office there.”

Currently, Steelbro manufactures its components and partially assembles much of its equipment in New Zealand and China, with final assembly in markets across the globe to ensure maximum efficiencies. “We are continuously looking to improve manufacturing flexibility and efficiency, so lean manufacturing is something that has been embraced heavily through our Christchurch and Tianjin operations,” James says.

“We’ve spent quite a lot of time improving the systems and one of the bigger challenges is managing the network of manufacturing and supply and eliminating unnecessary stock, also refining peoples work stations and processes in the facilities.”

Overcoming challenges like this strengthens the New Zealand base company on its global mission. “We learn as we go,” says James. “But, we always have some good ideas in the drawer.”

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