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Komatsu debuts automated dozers

by Masumi Suga and Ichiro Suzuki

Bloomberg

Komatsu Ltd., the world’s second-biggest maker of construction equipment, has begun sales of automated bulldozers in the United States, the home turf of bigger rival Caterpillar Inc., in a bid to keep pace with global competitors.

The firm plans to sell as many as 500 of the new dozers, weighing 15 metric tons each, in the U.S. in three years, Tetsuji Ohashi, president of Tokyo-based Komatsu, said Friday. These “ICT intensive” bulldozers will eventually be driverless, he said.

Komatsu, which also designed the mining industry’s first driverless trucks, started selling the automated bulldozers in the U.S. last month and plans to phase out its standard operator-controlled models.

The machines will probably attract customers in Europe and the U.S., where labor costs for vehicle operators are high, Hirokazu Miyagi, an analyst at Daiwa Securities Co., said in a report released Friday.

“It’s important we offer customers products that overwhelmingly differentiate (themselves) from others,” Ohashi said, adding that when products are similar, customers chose the cheaper ones.

Peoria, Illinois-based Caterpillar’s sales are almost three times those of Komatsu, while Sany Heavy Industry Co., run by Chinese billionaire Liang Wengen, has expanded and become the top excavator supplier by selling cheaper models in China, the world’s biggest market.

During a demonstration of an ICT bulldozer, it took only three hours to train an inexperienced Komatsu worker to complete tasks that would usually need more than three years of training using a conventional model, according to the company.

The new bulldozer features a fully automatic blade control and is able to perform construction work ranging from rough dozing to finished grading, Komatsu said. The new dozer is able to automatically control its blade based on construction-drawing data by making use of three-dimensional GPS data, it said.

The company in 2008 introduced what it called the world’s first hybrid excavators, using technology similar to the system that powers Tokyo Motor Corp.’s Prius car. It signed a deal with Rio Tinto Group in 2011 to build a fleet of at least 150 driverless trucks for use at its Pilbara iron ore mines in Australia.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s economic measures will add to demand already spurred by the nation’s spending to reconstruct areas in the Tohoku region wrecked by the 2011 mega-quake and tsunami, Ohashi said.

“Domestic demand has been rising recently, after the . . . market suffered a long slump after the burst of the bubble economy in 1990,” Ohashi said. “Our orders for May were quite high, (at a) level not seen in the past two decades,” and the domestic surge “will last three or four years,” he said.