HAMBURG, Germany—Phoenix Conveyor Belt Systems Inc. expects to continue to grow after increasing demand across the mining industry in 2017, according to Bret Hall, head of Phoenix and NBS Service-NAFTA.
The heavy duty mining segment, which is Phoenix's focus as a business under Continental A.G.'s ContiTech, grew quickly in 2017 in North America.
"With the recovery and growth of the GDP, it really got the mining segments growing very rapidly," Hall said. "There was some pent-up demand, too. The mining segment had been under pressure prior to 2017, and all those things came together, and we had a tremendous year as far as growth goes."
The 2018 forecast looks slightly more moderate, but still a high level of demand on par with 2017.
"Our biggest challenge from 2017 and going into 2018 is being able to ramp up our production to meet that increasing demand," Hall said. "That's something we've been really focused on throughout the year."
The continued demand doesn't come from any single part of the mining industry, as the overall fundamental mining segment remains strong, he said.
"It is not just coal. It's not just gold, it's not just copper. It's really, truly across the board in all of our mining industries," Hall said.
Phoenix has three production facilities in North America: in Marysville, Ohio, in Halstead, Kan., and in San Luis Potosi, Mexico. About 95 percent of what Phoenix sells to customers is produced from those plants, and all three plants are seeing a significant increase in demand, he said.
While Phoenix pushes to keep up with demand, it's also making strides to break into a new side of the market by offering systems and services, Hall said.
"We're trying to be not just a conveyor belt manufacturer, but also to be able to provide products, services and solutions to go along with the conveyor belt to solve our customers' needs," he said.
"Unplanned downtime is the enemy of our customers. They know they need to do maintenance, and they need to have downtime, but they want to be able to plan that well in advance."
The initial goal was to develop a system that could protect the belt from catastrophic destruction, which notices if something gets stuck or rips the belt, causing heavy damage. For that application, it means monitoring the belt at all times, which is where the Phoenocare Sensor Guard or Phoenocare Cord Guard XD system comes into play, he said.
"There are sensors that are built into the belt at the time of manufacture, and along with that, externally mounted sensors that read those components within the belt to make sure that everything is still performing correctly," Hall said. "It's permanently mounted on the system, and guards against and proactively shuts down a conveyor when it detects a catastrophic destructive event."
After developing those systems, the company moved on to more predictive services, looking both at wear predictions and service predictions, he said. Phoenix offers both permanently mounted and portable systems that can check the current status of a belt.
"By doing it periodically, every quarter or every month depending on the belt, we're able to put together a pattern on how the belt is performing," he said. "It helps us to then say, 'Based on what we're seeing here, here's a prediction for the life of the belt.' We've found that it's very important for the customer, because they get the most life out of the belt and they're able to predict when they need to schedule a replacement."
Phoenix is looking to enhance the program, having started with mostly steel cable belts. But the company is increasing its ability to also monitor fabric belts, he said.
"One of the things we've learned over the years is that these systems are not just a one-time sale," he said. "We have service people throughout North America, who can go out and help the customer maintain systems and make sure they're working correctly."
Phoenix is getting into other value-added services, such as repair or cleaning solutions, he said. The company's makeup is about 75 percent focused on products, and 25 percent on providing customer services.
Currently, the company has 10 service locations in the U.S., and in 2018 almost all will be adding new employees. In 2017, those locations added about 15-20 percent in 2017. Hiring goals for this year will be in line with those, he said.
"On the services side, we found that, if you look at the mining industry, the demand will increase and decrease for products over time," Hall said. "On the service side, we do see a little bit of fluctuation based on how heavy the demand is. But unless industries are completely going away, the services business remains relatively steady. Demand doesn't fluctuate as high as it does on the product side."