Building blocks. Quarries & aggregates and materials handling are important industrial sectors for construction equipment. Fiona McLelland reports.

The multi-billion dollar construction industry uses rocks, sand, gravel, clay and limestone as the building blocks of global infrastructure and Volvo Construction Equipment is a major player when it comes to extracting these materials from the earth. Demand for rocks and sand and their aggregates is still growing, despite a cooling in North America's construction industry, as global projects to build homes, hospitals, factories, bridges and roads are growing at record rates.

The tough demands of a quarry require high-quality, safe machines - which is one reason that the quarries and aggregates sector has traditionally been a strong area for Volvo Construction Equipment, who currently supplies around 12% of the sector's equipment, by value. Despite this strong position, Volvo has an ambitious growth strategy, integral to which is its newly formalized approach to segmentation. Since 2006, the company has been studying the quarries and aggregates market in greater detail by analyzing customers' exact needs at each stage of the working process, says Karl-Gunnar Eriksson, Volvo's product and application engineer, loaders.

"We have been working on the segmentation approach in order to find out if Volvo is able to supply suitable products to cover all our customers' needs," he explains. "When it comes to product planning, we need all the information we can get. If there is a gap in our equipment portfolio, we need to consider how to cover that gap. We might also find a gap related to missing machine model sizes or even missing options or attachments. The segmentation knowledge will also be used to present our product portfolio in a way that makes more sense to the customer."

There are many different steps to the work processes in the quarries and aggregates segment and each has to be studied to get a total market understanding.

"When a customer identifies a site for quarrying, they first have to clear the land," explains Karl-Gunnar. "Often the land will be covered in trees so we need to provide special excavators with attachments for logs. Land stripping is the next stage, where haulers are needed to get rid of all the surface material - the overburden."

Step three is drilling and blasting to break into the rock, and although Volvo does not supply machinery for this process, its large range of wheel loaders are utilised at the next stage - face loading. The rock is extracted from the quarry face and transported to the crusher. There are times when the blasting process fails to reduce the rock to blocks small enough for transportation, in which case an excavator with a hydraulic hammer can be used to reduce the size of the blocks further.

Creating the perfect fit

At each stage of the process, the customer has to choose the best machine for a particular site and, equally important, fit it out with the right attachments. With Volvo Construction Equipment supplying an array of machinery, attachments, options and services, the choice can become confusing for a customer trying to choose the right machine configuration for their own particular needs. "This is why the company is investing so much time and effort into segmentation," says Karl-Gunnar. "To make the choice easy for customers."

After the face loading stage, the blasted rocks have to be transported from the quarry face to a crusher to be turned into aggregate. If the crusher is less than 150m away, it is economical to use the wheel loader to transport the material. For longer distances, trucks and articulated haulers are recommended. When the crushing process is completed, Volvo's wheel loaders and articulated haulers are needed once again to load the aggregate onto trucks for distribution to the end user or to be stock piled.

Heavy equipment constantly moves about the quarry site throughout the work process. The heavy loads can play havoc with ground conditions, so motor graders and backhoe loaders are required for haul road maintenance. "If a site owner does not invest in maintenance they will run into a hefty repair bill," says Karl-Gunnar.

Shifting the load

The same type of segmentation project is also ongoing for industrial material handling, another of Volvo Construction Equipment's defined segments. This step-by-step study is focused on what happens to aggregates after they are transported from quarries to mixing plants, where asphalt, concrete and mortar, etc. are produced. Industrial materials take all sorts of forms, such as asphalt, concrete, steel, chemicals, salt and fertilizer, demanding different wheel loaders, excavators, backhoe loaders and attachments.

"Volvo Construction Equipment is attempting to take the hard work away from the customer and give them a tailor-made portfolio of products," says Karl-Gunnar. This is also good for Volvo, as offering a greater variety of machines that are perfectly suited to each other will hopefully mean that customers do not just buy one Volvo, but buy whole fleets of Volvo machines that are designed to work together, with Volvo attachments and Volvo service packages. And the expectation is that because they do work together for the job at hand, the customer is so pleased with his initial purchase that he continues to buy from Volvo.

A virtuous circle for all concerned.