BORDERED by trees and shrubbery, an excavator stands idle.

With its arm and bucket outstretched, the machine is at rest after years of toil.

Its working life spanned more than 20,000 hours, the majority of which were spent on a Leeds waste management site.

Now, however, it’s parked on a gravel bed, a museum artefact of manufacturing yesteryear.

The machine is a Komatsu PC210-3 and sits in a corner at the business’ sprawling plant in Birtley, near Chester-le-Street.

Made on September 21 1988, the then rusting digger was rescued by the company when its owner abandoned it for a new model.

Komatsu UK’s Birtley factory has made thousands of excavators, of various models and sizes, and its production line is expected to deliver around 1,300 machines over the next 12 months.

But there’s something special about the PC210-3, more specifically its rebirth.

The digger was donated to Komatsu when the economic downturn bit in the late 2000s and forced production volumes lower.

It returned home and became a testing project for 17 apprentices to increase their skill levels ahead of traditional manufacturing numbers returning.

For a company based on the site where armoured vehicles were once made to support the Second World War effort, rallying around for the greater good isn’t a new concept.

As we tour the factory, John Lawson, public relations officer, stops at a trophy cabinet.

Inside, awards are neatly arranged and include references to the organisation’s commitment to quality circle management, which engenders a commitment for officials and production staff to work together and push the business further forward.

Shopfloor workers are not simply assigned a manufacturing role; they are encouraged to learn about other parts of production and the company itself, to acquire further skills and understand different jobs.

The ability of staff also doesn’t go unnoticed; only days ago, workers were taking part in Komatsu’s Technology Olympics.

The competition sees welders, painters, assembly staff and testers display their talents in a bid to secure a place in the Komatsu Technology Olympics finals, in Japan.

Birtley’s best are well versed in tackling the cream of the firm’s international staff, and it is this desire to succeed and determination to be the best that motivates the company.

Apprenticeships and graduates are also integral to that philosophy.

About 20 per cent of Komatsu’s workforce are existing or former apprentices and it has a 20-strong team of science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) ambassadors, who provide schoolchildren with an insight into the firm and subjects to potentially sow the seeds of future careers.

It’s all to do with Dantotsu, says Peter Howe, Komatsu UK managing director, who reveals the word translates from Japanese to mean unique and unrivalled.

He said: “Our aim as a business is to continue growing and I’ve no doubt we will because we have got the skills, a really good and loyal workforce, and a great parent company.

“We take apprentices on every year, which means we have a constant stream, but we train them to keep them.

“It’s an ethos that stands them in good stead and we give them a good start.

“They have a lot of loyalty.

“We have current employees’ children applying for apprenticeships, which says something, and we also take on graduates, who go on a training programme where they work in different areas of the business.

“The Olympics is something very unique for Komatsu; I don’t know of anyone that does something similar.

“We are a company with the right culture.”

It is Dantotsu, says Mr Howe, which means Komatsu can continue its recruitment drive.

The firm’s 400-strong Birtley workforce aren’t just making excavators, he says, they are doing things competitors are not.

Its catalogue ranges from 20-tonne to 80-tonne creations, and includes machines capable of reaching high into the air to tear down buildings.

But the company has taken its design brief further.

Hybrid machines, which help operators reduce fuel costs, are complemented by appliances using what the business calls Intelligent Machine Control.

Deploying satellite navigation to identify a digger’s position on the ground and its bucket movements, bosses say an excavator can take control of projects by digging more precisely to reduce the need for secondary checks.

However, they added it doesn’t render an operative redundant because drivers still need to steer and oversee the machine’s performance.

Komatsu’s Birtley base, which covers 200,000sq metres, was specifically chosen by the Japanese firm’s hierarchy to make the machinery, known as the PC210LCi-10, for the European market.

Once again, says Mr Howe, it is Dantotsu.

He said: “We are not just a screwdriving plant; this is a full manufacturing site and there are high-quality jobs here.

“We are a high-tech company and have products that others don’t have.

“No-one is as successful with the hybrids as we are; we were the first to market with them and the intelligent machines is the next step in the evolution of construction equipment.

“Komatsu is a leading brand in the world, it’s a premium product and its policy is to have production plants close to where the demand is in the market.

“That is important because it helps customer confidence to have a point of reference if there is a problem.

“These machines work in tough conditions and operators need back-up and support.

“The industry is getting more customised and we have to deal with all of these requests.”

Its only when you walk the factory floor that the scale and size of Komatsu’s North-East footprint becomes apparent.

Robots and workers make sparks fly to construct diggers’ track frames and arms.

Mr Lawson says the business has spent millions on new equipment over recent years, pointing to one cutting machine able to make its mark to the very millimetre.

It also prides itself, he says, on making a vast swath of its own parts, which arrive in Birtley from Komatsu plants around the world and complement agreements it has with many local suppliers.

Through another set of doors and parts are painted in Komatsu’s canary yellow livery.

An engine bay fine tunes power units while a production line rolls at 115 millimetres a minute, allowing workers a near 65-minute window to fulfil their duties.

Looking down from a gantry, excavators, in various stages of completion, lead towards the far end of the plant, as workers, some like dots against their giant creations, add further parts.

Closest to the viewing platform, hydraulic hoses emerge from structures like an octopus’ tentacles, while guns bang and whir to fix bolts into place.

Further along and huge sets of tracks appear, waiting to be winched into place, as do counterweights, which are attached to ensure the machinery doesn’t overbalance.

An engine revs and ticks over, the monotonous sound reflective of the firm’s extensive testing programme, as a driver lifts and drops a digger’s arm and swivels the machine.

The fruits of such labours stand outside.

Not far from the 1988 model, a demonstration area houses the breadth of Komatsu’s excavators.

Today they are silent, their arms stooped to touch the ground, though the scarred earth gives evidence of very recent endeavours.

The site was once Birtley Iron Works, making products for mining, locomotive and shipbuilding, and after its Second World War use, was cleared and rebuilt in the 1960s by construction vehicle manufacturer Caterpillar.

That venture ended in 1983 when the factory closed, but it was bought by Komatsu in 1985 and officially opened by Prince Charles in 1987.

As its 30th anniversary approaches, Mr Howe is honest enough to admit the tenure has not been without its challenges, most notably the recession, which gripped the whole industry.

However, he says the environment is stronger now and is forecasting growth at the Birtley plant.

He added: “The market was very buoyant up until 2007 when we had the downturn.

“After that it has been steady and we are expecting about two per cent growth in the next year.

“Our machines go to every country in Europe, with two-thirds in the UK, France and Germany.

“Our growth is based on trying to improve our market position; we have done that in the last year but we need to do more.

“We rely on our marketing side and distributors to sell the machinery and our job in the factory is to give the market what it wants at the right time in the right quality.

“We are trying to grow the brand; we have got some stiff competition who have been there for a long time.

“It will be our 30th anniversary next year and we are proud of that.

“Over those 30 years we have really established ourselves in the North-East and we are most proud of the fact we have got lots of experts in their fields here.

“The market is always tough, but we have a never-give-up attitude.”