Fenner Dunlop goes beyond the belt

Fenner Dunlop has enjoyed a strong 18 months, buoyed by resurgent commodity prices — particularly coal and iron ore — following a period of industry-wide downturn.

Never afraid to take on new challenges, the company has risen to meet the needs of an increasingly sophisticated market over the last decade, emerging as a full conveyor design, supply and servicing company offering head-to-tail solutions.

“By 2010, we’d finished our service expansion and started acquiring engineering capability, such as Australian Conveyor Engineering and Belle Banne” explained Steve Abbott, COO of Fenner Dunlop Australia, “and the reason we did that was to continue to move the business model towards a total conveyor solution”.

The move, Abbott said, was spurred on by two primary reasons.

“First of all we recognised that most of our customers aren’t really interested in conveyor components, they’re interested in moving material from one place to another,” Abbott explained. “Many of them aren’t really interested in conveyors, they’re interested in  the total operation of their businesses, of which conveyors is a small but critical part.

“With conveyor expertise within the customer base diminishing, we were happy for us take on a greater role to help improve asset performance and reliability. The customers drove us in the engineered conveyor solutions (ECS) direction.”

“The second reason is that as a quality-focused OEM we have to be able to support our products, so servicing was always going to be a big part of what we did and as we did that more, we realised that we were creating a point of difference between what we provide and what our competitors provide.”

It turned out there was a burgeoning market for a conveyor company to make work easier for the miners. Fenner Dunlop now offers a full range of professional services, including field service, engineering and design, overhauls and refurbishment with 19 established service centres across Australia and two more in New Zealand.

Historically formed from two separate belting companies, Fenner (est. 1861) and Apex (est. 1952), Apex-Fenner emerged in 2001 and took the name Fenner Dunlop Australia in 2005.

It is this storied history that has allowed the company to establish itself as a full conveyor solutions company, a process requiring a long time and a lot of experience to get right, according to Abbott. Fenner Dunlop has taken advantage of this vision to enter markets without much room for additional providers.

“Definitely, we’ve seen other companies try to do it, but to be successful requires long gestation periods,” said Abbott. “I think we were fortunate in that we got in first and we had first mover advantage.”

The company hasn’t just expanded over the last few years in terms of customer service options, but research and development too.

Abbott identified four primary technological and engineering advances for conveyors over the last few years; making conveyors more dynamic; reducing energy costs; the implementation of application-specific belting; and conveyor monitoring systems.

Fenner Dunlop has carried out studies to compare light weight, dynamic conveyors with trucks for new and expanding mines, particularly at operations with shorter resource life and lower margins.

“What we’ve tried to do is adopt the concepts of longwall mining, where the conveyor is moving and actually adapt that to provide lower-cost dynamic conveyor solutions to make them competitive with trucks,” said Abbott.

The Fenner Dunlop philosophy is about designing products that reduce downtime and increase belt life, which is what the customers ultimately want.

As such, the company has not adopted all new technologies with equal fervour, carefully picking and choosing its developments in line with its customer-focused values.

Abbott cites the recent trend for monitoring systems at mine sites as a particular example, as collated data has to go through a filter in order to discern whether the information is actually useful in a mining environment.

“We don’t see how putting a $15 monitoring device on a $50 idler is going to work in the market as customers are not going to pay the extra money for the monitoring device,” he explained.

“Particularly when you understand the way idlers are actually maintained onsite, you understand that mines are not going to stop just because an idler has failed.

“We start with a customer problem and look for right technology solution, whether it be developing it inhouse (like our recently launched On Line Belt Thickness Tester) or work with technology developers. We tend to try and work with our customers on technology solutions that are practical and cost effective as opposed to just investing in technology for technology’s sake.”

This article also appears in the May edition of Australian Mining. 

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