Fit for purpose

In one of his last interviews as CEO of JSE listed company Bell Equipment, Gary Bell was asked if he could open three new plants in South Africa, what they would be? “It would be a modern steel mill, an earthmoving tyre manufacturing plant and a modern foundry,” Bell answered.

Products and components made at these three manufacturing entities make up a substantial portion of the final fit for purpose machines for the mining, construction, forestry, agriculture and farming industries that Bell Equipment manufactures at its Richards Bay, KwaZulu-Natal facility. The company is a South African success story and is well known worldwide for all of its heavy equipment products, in particular its articulated dump trucks.

Bell laments about the old technology used at the local steel producers and the duties that steel producers enjoy. He also complains about the cost of the tyres he has to import and the duties that have to be paid to protect the local industry that predominantly manufactures tyres for the car industry, thus his call for a local manufacturer.

However, 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.”

This should ring alarm bells to all concerned, as foundries are the cornerstones of any country’s manufacturing aspirations. His statement is sweeping and very generalising though because I have seen a relative amount of investment in the foundry industry in South Africa over the last five years. Granted some foundries were forced to invest because of the age of the company’s equipment and needed to, but in general many more foundries have invested to accommodate increased production demands.

There has also been a major international investment in our local industry by a US company and there have been a few new foundries starting up this year. This is really positive because conversely I have not heard of any foundries closing this year even though there are still the usual complaints about the lack of skills and the rising costs of input costs such as electricity and consumables. So it is not all doom and gloom.

What is more concerning though is the continued abuse of funds by government linked departments and agencies. I was recently at an exhibition/conference that took place in Sandton that was purportedly held for the manufacturing industry with the aim of the indaba to help manufacturers to innovate, grow their potential, to explore opportunities and to grow their manufacturing operations.

Conference aside – I did not want to attend and listen to the same people talk about the same regurgitated ideas they have been talking about for years – I did have a quick look at the exhibition. I was astounded to see the number of government departments – national and provincial – and other government linked agencies that were exhibiting, including one from our industry. Even the office of the tax ombud was exhibiting. What value they would gain with their presence at such an exhibition, I am still trying to work out. Great for the exhibition organisers, who no doubt would not discourage them from exhibiting at such an expensive venue, but to what benefit?

Additionally, most of the stands were poorly dressed up with little or no information on them for visitors to take away. Noticeably though by 15:30 many of the stand personnel had left for the day. But then I suppose it would take time to get back to Pretoria and they had to beat the peak hour traffic and there were after all very few visitors.