The prolonged coal downturn has not been a restful period for Bearcat Tyres, which has been using the time to refine and improve R&D and work with customers and tyre dealers to undertake the critical testing of products to ensure that when things pick up again, the industry can do so on a safe set of wheels.
Dealing with some of the biggest players in the coal industry from the Hunter Valley in northern New South Wales right through to northern Queensland, Bearcat’s Melbourne-based business development manager Glen Wolfenden told International Coal News that for his industry, downtime is definitely positive.
“The key for us is that it’s given us time to breathe,” Wolfenden said of the coal downturn which, in the case of the thermal market, is expected to drag on through 2017 as opposed to metallurgical coal, in which market balance is expected to tighten from next year.
“When everything is hustle and bustle and moving so quickly, you’re doing things more on a request basis rather than being a period where you can refine and make things better.
“So it’s given us time to take a real fresh look at the things we can do to improve our industry and get better at what we do, which is a positive.”
The coal sector constitutes a big part of Bearcat’s business – in fact, its four biggest product lines in its last financial year (the business runs on the April to April calendar) were all associated with the coal industry, “so it shows you the magnitude of the work we do related to the industry”
As the Australia division of Camoplast Solideal, Bearcat supplies tyres, wheels and rubber tracks to construction and mining applications, and also builds wheels and conducts non-destructive rim testing via its Sydney-based wheel division.
One of its innovations is tyre flat-proofing, where the tyres is inflated with a two-part mixture called Arnco which goes through the valve and cures solid inside the tyre after 48 hours, inflating it to the same pressure as air. So rather than having their air, it’s a polyurethane cure inside, and there are no explosions, flat tyres or punctures.
“We do deal with a lot of the coal mining sector,’ Wolfenden said. “Like everyone, when you stop and get a chance to analyse the business you get a chance to see what products you’ve been supplying and what you might be able to do better through the next run.
“We’ve been able to look at our wheel stocks and rim stocks and see what we can do better for those costumers in the future. Whereas when you’re working in a system where it’s all go, go, go, you’re very reactive to what the customer wants and you’ve got a consistency about what you do.
“So for us, particularly our wheel division, we’ve looked at different ways to strengthen wheels; we’ve been able to do more testing on our products underground, and also for some of the auxiliary equipment.
“So it really has given us a chance to look at some other products that can have benefit for the customer, and then probably implement them for cost savings or better safety, which is something you can’t do when it’s really busy.
“When it’s busy you just do whatever the customer wants you to do, as quick as you can do it.”
The downturn also allows coal mine operators the breathing space to let Bearcat do testing in their actual mines.
“We’ve got great relationships with our major customers, particularly in Queensland and NSW we’ve done a lot of government-approved testing to get our product qualified for use in the coal industry, which is an extensive process,” Wolfenden said.
“If we believe we have a product that’s going to provide better safety or better longevity in the industry, the only way to do that is to improve it, get it tested and our business partners, seeing as it’s a bit quieter at the moment, have the time to put tests in and work with us to get the results, whereas when it’s busy you really don’t get the chance to.”
That’s also done in conjunction with Bearcat’s major tyre dealers.
“We do test at mine sites, but a lot of that work is also done through tyre dealers, who also get a chance to learn with the company and learn what’s important to them as well,” he said.
“For us, you’ve really got to capitalise on these chances to test product.
"It’s been a benefit for us and I know it’s going to be a cost saving for the customer going forward too. Any product you can get that costs less or lasts longer, without any safety issues, will benefit the customer.
“It gives you a chance to be improving rather than reacting.”