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How to future-proof excavators

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A Family Affair: more exclusive extracts from the interview with Sir Anthony Bamford


JCB has a couple of mantras about simplicity.  Where is there most scope for simplification in off-highway vehicles?

Sir Anthony: My father had a saying, ‘Don’t complicate, simplicate,’ and I think that’s a very good one. He was great friends with Colin Chapman, a brilliant Formula 1 racing car designer who ran Lotus, and his motto was, ‘Just add lightness!’ He probably wouldn’t have thought it applied to our sort of products; they need to be fairly heavy – but it actually does apply to us as well.

Tim Leverton: I think the ease of use of the equipment is something that we are constantly concerned with – we always try and simplify the user interface across the range. I think there are risks around being too radical in a way.

Sir Anthony: But you still need an operator – we’ve actually made excavators that will operate automatically, but there are problems particularly about the variety of the material you’re dealing with, such as rocks and things, as well as legislation.

Tim: One of the areas that we recognise as a trend is that the level of training and skill of the operators is not as high as it used to be. There is a place for some support of the operator in terms of whether it’s some level of automation or whatever, but an operator’s judgement still quite an effective way of operating the machine.


In off-highway machinery in general, are there any operator needs that aren’t being properly filled? 

Sir Anthony: Well, an operator is in a machine a lot longer than he is in a car each day, so comfort is terribly important. Could they be more comfortable? I think they could; things like sound systems, being able to telephone in and out, etc.
The actual glass area is bigger than it is on a car, so air-conditioning is vital and the seat has become more and more important. We’ve worked on prototypes with heated seats, massage seats and ventilated seats, so I think that will come in and make sense.

Tim: Standards have become more demanding because customers are used to having air-conditioning in their car so now they know they want the same temperature and feeling in the cab.

Sir Anthony: Speed from job to job is important – with the new lock-up torque converter, our backhoes will be capable of reaching 40km/h. That’s all through tweaks and evolutions, like how we had the Fastrac up from 45mph to 75mph at Bonneville. But I don’t think we’re missing anything completely.


Will there be another diesel world land-speed record attempt?

Sir Anthony: We haven’t totally closed our files on it – Tim has kept up to date particularly on the tyres which were a problem but we now think we’ve solved. So it’s not a dead project, but when you get a record by such a large amount, why go back and fiddle away at it again?

It has had a very positive effect for our company – it put what would otherwise have just been a ‘digger engine’ into an area that it wouldn’t have been otherwise. Now, it’s a very advanced diesel engine that just happens to be in a digger, but could be in lots of other products as well, and it’s certainly helped us sell to other manufacturers, even those not in construction machinery. 
So it was a great team thing, a fabulous exercise. It would be nice to do something like that every year, but you can’t!


What impact has the record had for you in the USA?

Sir Anthony: It’s difficult to be specific. We got fabulous coverage in the USA, and worldwide, but memories are very short.

Tim: We got an enormous amount of network news coverage, Discovery Channel documentaries and National Geographic are continually showing it. So it helps – it’s in the background, but it’s still on their radar.

Sir Anthony: I definitely think it helps sell our machines though. It’s a plus that we have an engine that is fuel efficient, quieter, and with good torque.


How has the Indian market been affected?

Sir Anthony: Unlike China, which exports about 39% of its GDP, that figure is only 20% for India, so it’s far less affected by the downturn in orders. So India is quite strong at the moment – it had a problem with inflation, but that’s now under control.  Tim was there a couple of weeks ago…

Tim: Yes, there was a much more optimistic view – even though they’ve had a slowdown, they don’t see it as quite as desperately as we do in Europe. They’ve still got 6% GDP growth, whereas it was around 9% before.


Do you have any plans to enter construction machinery sectors where you’re not yet involved?

Sir Anthony: I’m not sure where they’d be actually. I mean, gen-sets is a new venture for us, and where there is great potential. Cranes and dozers, we’re not too bothered about because the volume is tiny – we’re not very good at making just 10 a year of something.

So, no, we’re not really looking at going out of our area, but that doesn’t mean to say there won’t be new products. Each of our product companies has its own R&D people working on new derivatives or even new machines within their sector all the time.

Tim: I think one of the things we’ve done is over the last 10 years is we’ve filled out the range, providing more coverage in terms of the bigger excavators, wheeled loaders and dump trucks etc, so for the time being it’s more a case of innovating in those.

Sir Anthony: But just think – in how many other industries would you have 260 basic products? Sure we’ve got lots of derivatives or a lot of options, but our products range from £2,000 to £250,000; from a few kilos up to 60 tonnes. Car manufacturers have four or five models!

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