With mining impacted by the coronavirus pandemic, Fenner Dunlop and Flexco emphasise the importance of having Australian-based manufacturers and suppliers during a crisis. Salomae Haselgrove writes.
The coronavirus pandemic has affected Australian jobs, trade and livelihoods since hitting the nation in the early months of 2020.
The Australian Government deemed the mining and resources sectors as essential, meaning work has continued as normal as possible under stringent safety measures, including social distancing, regular health checks and limits to business-related travel.
Having localised services in each Australian state, Fenner Dunlop has been able to keep supplying its clients with conveyor products, including belts, idlers, pulley, drive systems and access to local labour forces to keep their operations running.
Fenner Dunlop Australia chief operating officer Steve Abbott says manufacturing companies with Australian facilities have been critical in keeping the mining industry afloat during this time.
“Being an Australian manufacturer, we are not subject to the shipping constraints that an imported product would be constrained by,” Abbott tells Australian Mining.
“Having a distributed model of Australian localised services enables us to meet our clients’ needs and work within each state, not just within the country, which is important given flight and border restrictions.”
Fenner Dunlop has been endorsed by many clients from the mining and power industries that have recognised the company’s importance in keeping their operations going.
“We’ve had support from large miners, calling us a critical supply, which is really important in our future to continue operating in the event that COVID-19 escalates,” Abbott says.
“This demonstrates how important we are to the continued operating of mining in Australia.”
While the conveyor is only a part of the long-winded process of unearthing materials and transforming them into the valuable exports and infrastructure Australia depends on, it is one of the most important steps in the process.
As Abbott explains, the conveyor is the bridge between the product coming out of the ground and moving it to port, rail or road so producers earn their keep.
This is particularly so for underground coal mining, where the only way for the mined coal to be taken out of the mine is via the conveyor system, or for iron ore operations where the infrastructure is built around the conveyor system.
“If the conveyor stops, it’s like not having access to a road,” Abbott says. “The goods can’t get to market, and miners can’t get paid for their products.
“A conveyor is as critical as a train, road or ship in moving material between points, the criticality of conveyors being fundamental in getting goods to market cannot be underestimated.”
With this in mind, Fenner Dunlop has taken precautionary measures to ensure it remains in action as the virus runs its course, both to prevent the risk of its employees becoming infected and keeping the supply chain updated with regular communication.
The company’s employees are working from home where possible and it has also introduced a number of measures for those still working on site, including daily temperature checks when employees start their day, social distancing, initial personal protective equipment (PPE) including masks and hand sanitiser and strict cleaning procedures.
At the time of writing, these measures have worked, with no Fenner Dunlop employees or contractors being diagnosed with the virus so far.
“We put control measures in place in mid-March to ensure we managed the risk of infection as best we could,” Abbott says.
“If we can get through this process without having an issue in our manufacturing plants or service teams, we’ll be satisfied that we have done the right thing.”
As well as promoting physical health, Fenner Dunlop has ensured its workers are supported mentally with initiatives such as sending hampers to families and colouring competitions for workers’ children during the school holidays.
“These are only little things, but they all add up and are important to us,” Abbott says.
Conveyor solutions company Flexco is another manufacturing business with Australian facilities that is working hard to support its clients and operate as normally as possible.
Like Fenner Dunlop, Flexco’s operations have changed but it is focussed on keeping clients in the loop and highly productive despite the complications associated with coronavirus.
This has included cancelling training sessions with clients and instead introducing an online version. The company has also ramped up production of stock in case Australia moved into a full lockdown.
As Flexco Australia’s managing director Mark Colbourn explains, the pandemic has outlined the importance of a healthy Australian manufacturing industry.
“The day we found out about Australia starting to go into lockdown, we started working overtime that afternoon to ensure we had the stock required for critical mining operations,” Colbourn tells Australian Mining.
“As a business, we prepared for three possible levels of lockdown; our Sydney or Perth warehouse shutting, both of our warehouses shutting or the whole country shutting down.
“By producing more stock each day, within a couple of weeks our available stock was 20 per cent higher than usual and now we have almost double the amount of stock we make locally for critical mine components.”
With shipping times from overseas taking up to 10 weeks normally, let alone during the pandemic, this means that thanks to businesses like Flexco, Australian mines will not be kept waiting for materials during the pandemic.
By manufacturing its conveyors locally, industries including mining, recycling, sewage and food can purchase materials from Flexco without the long waiting period of overseas manufacturers, which has become even longer due to shipping hold-ups because of coronavirus.
If the worst case scenario of an Australia-wide lockdown did occur, in addition to its Sydney and Perth warehouses, Flexco has containers removing materials to remote locations so they could be left on site, ensuring mines are equipped with the essentials they need to keep providing the country with power and other essential materials.
Colbourn believes the pandemic has exposed the threat of what outsourcing manufacturing to overseas businesses means for Australia during the time of a crisis.
“It’s exposed that we need to look after our own manufacturing, if it’s all gone and something like this happens again, we can’t just turn the Australian manufacturing switch back on if the skilled labour force and machinery is all gone,” he says.
“We need to ensure that as a nation we continue to invest in our manufacturing industry, so we have that resource.
“The government needs to be part of the process of trying to get a percentage of our manufacturing shored up in Australia so we can keep investing in it.”
Companies manufacturing goods in Australia are allowing the nation to have control over its materials and stocks, which is the first step in keeping the country running as normal during this time of crisis.
“Labour costs may be cheaper overseas but Australian manufacturing is an investment and it’s worth it to have control of our stocks,” Colbourn concludes.
“It means we have a contingency plan, it’s keeping jobs and manufacturing here in Australia. We have that control of the quality and are able to change quickly to respond to market changes, and it keeps investment and cash here in Australia for our people and our government.”
This article also appears in the June edition of Australian Mining.