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LOOKING BACK 2019: May the Force be with you

Seeking a plant hire company that truly understands the importance of operator training and investing in new equipment, Darren Scully pays a visit to Plantforce to learn more. 

The technology in earthmoving equipment has come on light years over the past two decades. There is now more computing power in an excavator than there was in the Apollo space capsule that put Neil Armstrong on the moon exactly fifty years ago. 

Inside some machines you would need a degree in rocket science to figure out all the buttons and screens. For those who are not tech savvy it could be quite daunting to understand how best to use the machine precision controls or the anti-collision devices. But as they say, knowledge is power. One company that understands this is Plantforce. This expanding plant hire company based in Weston-Super-Mare in the South West has invested heavily in technology, equipment and training. 

The Simulation game

When I walked into their corporate offices, I was greeted by their marketing manager Dale Hawkins. Not only is he their marketing manager he is also their simulator whizz kid. After a coffee and a chat about what is happening in the industry, Dale showed me around their training room. Calling it a training room does not do it justice. We are talking Formula One standard here. 

Two simulators, side by side, that can work together. They are fitted out with the latest systems from Leica, Topcon and Trimble. Also included is the anti-collision and slew restricting technology from GKD. The total investment by Plantforce exceeds six figures. That is a massive statement of intent by the company to ensure their operators are trained to the highest standards. 

Simulators will play a massive part in the future of the industry. They can be used at exhibitions and shows which will encourage people onto the machines and get a feel of the latest that technology has to offer. They can also be used to test potential operators in a very safe environment. As the plant industry goes more digital, there is a lack of proper training on how to use machine control systems, therefore Plantforce has created its own virtual classroom They really understand the huge importance of ensuring their operators are trained to the highest standards. 

The fleet

I get to have a good chat with Plantforce operations director, Sam Mercer. Sam started life as plant fitter and worked his way up the ranks. He has been in his current role with Plantforce for the past eight years. The company was started in 1999 by Claire Trott. She used to work in the car hire business until she decided to cut her teeth in the uber-competitive world of plant hire. 

It started with twenty machines of various sizes including tower cranes and then over the years grew in size. The original business has evolved into a very modern fleet which includes excavators, dozers, loading shovels and dump-trucks. They currently replace machines after only eighteen months ensuring customers have the latest equipment available. They currently have over thirteen hundred machines on their books with ambitious growth plans. 

Sam expands on the fleet range. “We are predominately excavators, from 3 tonne up to 70 tonnes. Our most common brand of digger is Kobelco, but we do run others. We have our largest Kobelco digger currently on the way over from Japan which is the SK850 and that will be the first in the UK. We run Komatsu dozers and ADTs but we also have Hydremas, Bell trucks, Thwaites dumpers and JCB and JLT telehandlers. We cover all the bases for a progressive plant hire firm.”

When the Hawk group recently folded, Plantforce decided not only to buy some of its stock but to also provide jobs for the operators.

“We saw an opportunity to do a good deal which included taking on 106 operators,” explains Sam. “We had to move very fast to ensure a smooth transition and everything was concluded in a week. The team here had to work hard to get everything signed off. One of our main customers, the Hinkley Point project and indeed the operators suffered no downtime and we kept it all running. It was a massive achievement.” 

Plantforce has a very diverse range of customers. They have a lot of business in the housing sector and in large civils contracts. One of their biggest customers is Kier Bam for the Hinkley Point project where they supply over two hundred machines.

Balfour Beatty is also another large client as is Fusion which works on the HS2 project. Plantforce also works with Hansons in the quarry sector and it provides nationwide supply for their customers. The company has a depot that covers the Midlands, but will deliver a machine to any part of the UK. Obviously, iy keeps a keen eye on the HS2 project and works are expected to ramp up towards the end of this year. With its superb operator training and a large fleet of new equipment which is fitted out with the latest machine control, Plantforce is in a prime position to win a good share of the work. 

Taking a closer look

The sun was shining and so were the machines out in the yard. Dale took me on a tour of their workshops to see the guys fitting the latest GPS systems into their diggers and for me to see a new addition to their family, the Kobelco SK500. 

She is powered by the Hino direct injection, water -cooled, 4-cycle diesel engine with intercooler and turbocharger (Stage IV-compliant engine). The expanded cab provides plenty of room for a large door, more headroom and smoother entry and exit. The large air-conditioner has registers on the back pillars that blow from behind and to the right and left of the operator’s seat. They can be adjusted to put a direct flow of cool/warm air on the operator, which means a more comfortable operating environment. 

The front window features one large piece of glass without a centre pillar on the right side for a wide, unobstructed view. In addition to the existing rear-view camera, a camera for the right side is fitted as standard for easy safety checks all around the machine. 

The controls are nicely laid out and the LCD display screen is easily navigated. A simple flick of a switch converts the hydraulic circuit and flow amount to match attachment changes. Icons help the operator to confirm the proper configuration at a glance. 

On the cab mountings, coil springs absorb small vibrations, and high suspension mounts filled with silicone oil reduce heavy vibration. The long stroke achieved by this system provides excellent protection from vibration. There is ample space in the engine compartment for the fitter to do maintenance work inside. The distance between steps is recduced so that entry and exit is easier. And the fitter can work in comfort, without the need to be a Moscow ballet trained performer. 

There is also a digger boom interflow system fitted. When lowering the boom, this system uses the downward force generated by the boom’s weight to push fluid to the dipper arm. This greatly reduces the need to apply power from outside the system. This excavator offers great digging force even as it has lower fuel consumption rates. If you select H-mode, sometimes with an increased torque setting, it delivers about 13% greater digging volume. 

Overall the machine is built very tough. It has a muscle car look about it, squatted down looking for some action. Plantforce is extremely happy with the Kobelco machines and is constantly adding more to the fleet. I am really looking forward to seeing their new 90 tonner when it arrives. It would certainly appear that the force is with them. 

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