Construction Plant News visits the Derbyshire manufacturing facility of one of the most iconic brands in the building industry.
There is one piece of equipment that almost every contractor would have encountered in the course of their working life and it’s manufactured by Belle. The ubiquitous orange tip up Minimix has become as synonymous with the construction industry as the shovel and cement that feeds its insatiable appetite, but there’s far more to a company whose substantial headquarters nestles unexpectedly amongst the hills of the Peak District National Park.
Belle is number one supplier to the tool hire sector for compaction equipment and plate compactors, for instance, whilst its vast range also encompasses generators, power washers, breakers, and much more.
Legend has it that the company’s founder, Doug Blackhurst was building an extension to his Derbyshire small holding, but the only mixer he could source was a site model far too big for his requirements. Not to be deterred, Doug set about designing a more compact and manoeuvrable solution that could easily be operated by one man, and the Minimix was born.
With interest piqued amongst his neighbours, soon he was supplying the machine locally, but it was the product’s entry into the tool hire business that elevated Belle to the status of a major manufacturing business.
A multitude of products would join the Minimix in the Belle family and, despite their acquisition by Altrad in 2009, the company is rightly proud of its British manufacturing roots. At the time of the sale the parent group’s annual turnover sat at €300 million but thanks to exponential growth, that figure now stands at €3.2 billion, but it’s not just a question of acquiring existing concerns to engineer expansion.
A continually increasing catalogue of Belle branded products is a testament to the significant levels of investment Altrad Belle has made, both in research and development and also at its production facility, not to mention an ever increasing demand for its solutions in the construction sector.
That’s why the company’s Sheen assembly lines demonstrate world class engineering at work with robotic welders, and laser cutters fashioning a finished product of a consistently high quality. “We have machines that will take the steel from the racks, measure the gauge, cut it and put it in the skips,” explains Bob Williams, UK & Eire Sales Manager.
“They work twenty four hours a day, even with the lights out and no heating on, and if it breaks down it will text the operator. It’s a question of removing as much of the manual intervention as we can so there’s less margin for error.”
That doesn’t mean that the human element has been eliminated entirely, of course, because machinery is subject to a regime of quality checks and tests. “Every gearbox in our mixers is assembled and run at the factory,” declares Bob. “We also ensure that we are in charge of as much of the manufacturing process as possible by fabricating our own electric motors to a Belle spec, for example, and every single forward and reverse plate is fuelled and run – with the fuel then extracted before delivery to a customer.
“We’re also very conscious that we are in the middle of the Peak District National Park and working in harmony with our environment is a key ambition. We have a zero to landfill policy, for instance, and everything within reason is recycled.”
Belle is Honda’s largest user of construction engines in Europe, units which power everything from its compaction plates, to pressure washers and generators, whilst in the latter Yanmar diesel options are available.
In plates the company has recently launched electric models to that range, as Bob outlines: “Not only is our PCLX12/40E Electric Plate Compactor inherently more environmentally friendly, it also eliminates a number of inherent issues with petrol counterparts.
“There’s no need to source petrol, there are fewer parts, like the pull cord, to go wrong, and you’re removing issues with dirty fuel. For hire firms that means less servicing and maintenance issues, and for contractors, if you’re involved in the still lucrative basement building business, then an electric model is the ideal solution, whilst noise levels are also significantly reduced.
The hire market is an unforgiving environment for tools and Belle is keen to emphasise that everything it produces is ‘rental-proof’ with designs that are built to be simple, reliable and sustainable. Significant progress has been made on HAVS (Hand/Arm Vibration Syndrome) with up to eight hours of safe usage on some plates, and it is these kind of developments that can only be achieved thanks to a significant investment in R&D and extensive in-house testing facilities.
The company’s PCX range of single direction plate compactors, for example, feature vibration reducing frames, and handle isolators. When it comes to the newly launched RPX range of Reversible Plate Compactors end user comfort and convenience are afforded with fully integrated wheels for ease of manoeuvrability.
In machinery, of course, there is always the opportunity to enhance performance but there are some products that are so simple in design, and have been with us for so long, that they would appear to be impervious to improvement, and so it might seem for the humble wheelbarrow.
For further information on Altrad Belle click here.