With the opening of Berco’s new R&D facility in Copparo, Italy, the manufacturer and supplier of undercarriage systems and components has cemented a growth plan that could see it gain further market share in both its OEM and aftermarket segments and expand its product range for mining applications.
Covering 2,000 sq.m, the new department is located beside the entrance of the company’s main plant, a building that captures 101 years of company history and is being updated with a new vision backed by parent company thyssenkrupp.
The new R&D hub is home to the T&I (technology and innovation) team, which will be divided into two subgroups: the metallurgical laboratory and product engineering.
Officially opened on November 17 – IM and other trade press members received a sneak peek a day earlier – the facility houses state-of-the-art machinery, specifically developed to advance the company’s strategic plans for the future.
These strategic plans date back to early 2018 when, as part of the Forged Technologies business unit, Berco developed a strategy that encompassed “lean manufacturing” and the company’s unique know-how, according to Berco CEO, Piero Bruno.
“We have a unique know-how of metallurgy within Berco,” he said during last week’s press event. “We, as part of Forged Technologies, represent a strategic pillar for thyssenkrupp. We are a core business within the group (thyssenkrupp Industrial Components).”
The latter is an important point considering the divestments thyssenkrupp has been making in recent years – which includes plans to offload its mining business to FLSmidth. Berco has been safeguarded from this corporate activity, evidenced by the recent investment in its facilities.
Berco is a rarity in the mining sector; a company able to deliver the full undercarriage (chains, rollers, drive sprockets, track adjusters, track chains or idlers) for large dozers and excavators, for both aftermarket applications and equipment manufacturers. Mining and construction represent more than 30% of its sales currently, with on-highway trucks and passenger vehicles taking up around 60% of the remaining share.
There are other undercarriage suppliers on the market, but few of them have 32,000 t and 16,000 t screw presses capable of forging the scale of products needed in heavy-duty mining applications. Even fewer have the expertise to take an industry-standard product and tailor it for longer life and increased uptime in such applications.
This puts Berco in an interesting position where, in some instances, it is producing components or complete systems that compete directly with the equipment manufacturers.
In the instance of the Cat 6020B hydraulic mining shovel, Berco has built a complete undercarriage system as an alternative to the OEM equivalent on the market.
Outside of dozers and excavators, the Berco name has also been seen on components fitted on apron feeders and bucketwheel excavators. It may also soon find its way into conveyors (on the aftermarket side) and drill rigs (for equipment manufacturers), in addition to new excavator and dozer models.
When it comes to mining equipment innovation from Berco, one only need look at the Platinum line of products, which are focused solely on performance in the field and operating costs.
The new Cat 6020B undercarriage (below, right) is the most recent addition to this line, also representing the first “non-captive” range available to purchase, according to the company.
With this product, Berco becomes the only company – aside from Cat – currently capable of providing what it says is a full and significantly more affordable variety of undercarriage replacement components for this particular machine.
Launched in 2014, the Cat 6020B is a 230 ton (224 t) excavator at the high end of the mining range. Depending on the abrasiveness of the soil, undercarriage components need to be replaced every four-to-five years, according to Berco, meaning there are significant numbers of this model currently due undercarriage maintenance.
For the Cat 6020B hydraulic mining shovel range, Berco used a “reverse engineering” process to deconstruct the original equipment components. Three-dimensional material scanning was carried out to gain a complete understanding of the initial design criteria, while laboratory analysis determined the materials used as well as the heat treatments and microstructures.
Berco-originated innovations that feature on this non-captive undercarriage system include the BPR2™ (Berco Positive Pin Retention2™ system) to improves the working lifetime of the components through mechanical locking of the link to the pin; a newly designed track link for the track chain with a 350 mm pitch produced using the “drop forged” process made from mild carbon steel with boron and chromium additives; and track bushings with 60 HRC hardness steel that have a high resistance to wear.
Additionally, the track roller can, because of its lubrication and seal features, adopt an “all-weather” configuration ranging from -40°C to 50°C.
The first of these new undercarriages is due to be dispatched from Copparo by the end of the year, destined for a customer in Africa.
This type of aftermarket strategy – where the company identifies a product area and develops an improved industry solution in line with expected maintenance intervals – could end up being used for future products if proven successful, Francesco Grenzi, Executive Director of R&D Department, told IM.
Grenzi and his new T&I team are integral to making this happen.
Having in the past four years added five new patents to the Berco offering, the R&D head is keen to develop products that outperform the industry standard and are tailored to the application at hand.
He can already point to several success stories in the dozer and excavator categories even before the first 6020B goes out the door.
For example, one of the company’s Platinum line undercarriage systems for dozers is outperforming the OEM equivalent by up to 25-35%. It performs in an extremely consistent manner for applications used in different conditions such as hard rock, coal or copper mines. Platinum line products are available along the complete mining dozer range, from 350 hp (261 kW) to 1,000 hp crawler dozers.
Other Platinum line products already on the market include high strength track link, ground engaging tools and its Robustus (ROtating BUShing Track Undercarriage System) solution.
Diego Buffoni, Head of Aftermarket, said these products represent a “niche” for the company when compared with the thousands of components and systems Berco produces on an annual basis, but their development also provides “an open door” for other sales.
“The Platinum line will contribute to growth, but it will not be the main driver,” he said. “It will help with our marketing presence, though…where we are able to show that Berco has a solution for every application worldwide.”
The development of such ‘best of breed’ solutions will have a knock-on impact on all the products that come out of Copparo, according to Bruno.
“If you look at F1, for example, you can see what manufacturers can produce for high-performance sports cars when budgets are not scrutinised or restricted to the same extent as they are in traditional markets,” he told IM.
“We see the Platinum line as potentially uplifting the wider Berco portfolio, which will also have a positive impact on the products going to our OEM customers.”
Automation and digitalisation
Observations like this are now being backed up by an increased focus on digitalisation and remote monitoring of Berco products.
This starts with digital records of tests in the new R&D facility – where there is a benchmark room, a metallurgical lab, a revamped roller test bench, updated rubber testing machines able to perform cryostatic tests for anticipated performance at very low temperatures and a new spectrometer machine, to name a few innovations – through to automated data analysis during the manufacturing process to ensure products are matched to their final applications, and finally 3D geometric scans for product benchmarking against the competition.
The company’s Bopis Life system has now moved onto generation two where undercarriage measurement and wear conditions are monitored remotely using ultrasonic probes. This enables predictive maintenance of critical parts, while supporting fleet management, the company said. Berco currently has 15 licences for this system, backed up by 22 ultrasonic probes that provide such feedback. This is some improvement on the ‘traditional’ monitoring of undercarriage components that normally takes place on mine sites with callipers and clipboards.
Berco is also looking to add in-built sensors to track links to provide real-time wear performance data that customers and company technicians can use to improve machine uptime. These are termed “smart undercarriages”.
The digitalisation and innovation do not end here.
What is perhaps most impressive about the 101-year-old company is its willingness to change with the times.
In 2018, it brought in Mario Andaloni as Chief Operating Officer to steer a €40 million ($44.9 million) project to refurbish and invest in the company’s facilities in Copparo.
This massive job has seen the company de-centralise its energy sources to a much more efficient and modern heating system that will achieve a 13% decrease in gas consumption in the first year alone; re-design the steel yard in line with a ‘lean manufacturing’ methodology; reorient its forging, heat treatment and shoes areas; and significantly reduce the company’s waste footprint. A more strategic and efficient use of robots in the manufacturing process is also coming to the fore.
The principles that Andaloni has instilled are set to pay off when it comes to the output of equipment.
When asked what impact the project was likely to have on product turnaround times when completed in 2023, he said the aim was for products that required no forging or component additions to take five days to manufacture. When forging and components were added on, the target was 10 days.
“Currently we are around 20 days duration for the complete process,” he told IM. “Before we started this new lean manufacturing strategy, we were around 35 days to make products; that was without forging included.”
These durations don’t include the raw material deliveries into Copparo and transport requirements from the facility, but they are a major signal of the company’s intent to make a real impact on the undercarriage supply chain.
The initiation of an e-commerce platform for Berco aftermarket dealers across the globe – due to launch in late January – will make the company “more agile, more flexible, more in line with the needs of today’s global market”, Bruno said. It will inevitably capitalise on the work Andaloni and his team have been doing on optimising the factory workflow, too, allowing customers to see product availability as well as potential lead times.
All these developments are setting Berco up to capitalise on increased demand from both the mining and construction sectors, with it anticipating future sales increases across both its aftermarket and OEM segments into the future.
On the latter, Buffoni said there was potential to address a market worth some €23 billion in the future with key production additions and developments backed up by an aftermarket organisation that is proactive and flexible. He currently saw Berco playing in a €2 billion market, divided 50:50 between mining and construction.
His counterpart on the OEM side, Fedele Salvatore (Head of Sales OEM), said there were many opportunities to grow its own 13% market share in the €2 billion undercarriage global original equipment market through a “funnel” approach that included more engagement with existing and new original equipment customers, entries into new regional markets in key areas such as Asia and further diversification of the product line.
A re-focus on providing complete undercarriage systems, as opposed to components, would also go some way to achieving growth aims.
What is clear is that the Berco name, 101 years after its birth, has a bright future in the mining segment. By the end of 2023, it will have the equipment and infrastructure to serve a market in need of robust solutions for today’s and tomorrow’s mines.