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Thu 24 Sep 2009 04:00 AM

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House of the rising sun

The 1970s brought a change in where the West sourced machines, and what it expected from them.

House of the rising sun

The 1970s brought a change in where the West sourced machines, and what it expected from them.We've talked about the rise of the modern bulldozer before, but it was in the 1970's that things really began to change for the established, and by and large, American brands in the marketplace.

The Japanese firm Komatsu had started building tractors back in the 1930s, but it wasn't until 40 years later that US importers began to sell significant volumes.

At first, it seemed that the brand would fair badly in the US marketplace, given that most contractors by then had long-established relationships with the domestic manufacturers. In any case, operators in the US were very patriotic and the last war was still in memory. Nobody had a lot of time for machinery they saw as cheap imported junk.

Clearly, Komatsu faced an uphill struggle, though it was not put off. The company began by adopting the rather sinister mantra ‘encircle Caterpillar' which apparently was inspired from a Japanese puzzle where you have to literally beat the opponent at their own game. Firstly, the products had to offer buyers a clear advantage over those made by rivals - for example, the 1974 D155S crawler loader with a 5.9 yard bucket was way larger than anything else in its class.

Next, the firm had to provide good parts availability and service back up. This was obviously a challenge, but the bigger struggle was convincing buyers, particularly in America, that parts and service were as good or better than anything provided by the various domestic manufacturers.

There were other innovative products as well, the firm's bulldozer line-up by 1977 comprised of 31 models, with a special low ground pressure ‘swamp ‘dozer' and a radio-controlled model. These sold well, and the fortunes of the company were buoyed by the industrial problems that rocked the rest of the industry in the late 1970s. At one point, Komatsu's big rival Caterpillar was said to be losing US $1 million dollars per day, largely as a result of strikes.

While bulldozers were big sellers, it was the hydraulic excavator market where the company really took ground. As we know, the majority of construction excavators are in the 20-tonne class and so the firm ensured that it offered a complete line up.

A complex deal with Dresser Industries in 1988 saw the two firms embark on a joint venture to produce mining equipment.

Later, part of this firm became Haulpack, though the Komatsu name is seen on machines such as the D575A, the largest bulldozer currently in production.

Today, the firm is the second largest construction machine maker worldwide and continues to innovate with products such as the PC200-8 excavator - a special hybrid excavator with electrical discharge capacitors  which is claimed to drop fuel consumption by as much as a third.

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