Lifting Australia’s pipe loads

A new user and 15-year veteran of vacuum-lifting technology share their respective experiences with Vacuworx Lifting Systems on the docks in Melbourne, Australia, and in the field.

Vacuum-lifting technology is bolstering efficiencies on the docks and in the field for two Australian companies tasked with handling the coated-steel pipe that is feeding a 28 km stretch of APA Group’s Victorian Northern Interconnect Expansion (VNIE) project.

The product – DN400 2LFBE-coated carbon steel gas pipe – was manufactured by Shanghai-based Baosteel Group, and began landing in March at QUBE Energy’s on-wharf facilities in the Port of Melbourne. Bound for a VNIE staging point managed by McConnell Dowell Constructors Pty Ltd and approximately 27 km north of Melbourne, QUBE Energy had been relying on a third-party crane contractor to lift and help secure the pipe lengths – measuring 16 inches diameter – onto tractor trailers for transport to Wallan in country Victoria.

QUBE Energy – formerly known as Continental Freight Services and a division of port logistics services provider QUBE Ports Pty Ltd – had been relying on a material-handling method to load the trucks that required the use of a crane, a spreader bar, and hooks with straps or chains. In March, the company made a decision to try-out vacuum-lifting technology, subsequently entering into an agreement to lease an MC 5 Series pipe-handling system manufactured by Tulsa, Oklahoma-based Vacuworx.

QUBE Energy is relatively new to the use of vacuum-lifting equipment, while McConnell Dowell, who announced in February that it had been retained by APA Group to construct Loop 1 of the VNIE project from Wollert to the Wandong Offtake in Victoria, has nearly 15 years of experience with heavy-duty material-handling systems. Since March 2014, McConnell Dowell has been running two Vacuworx RC 10 Series pipe-handling systems – in conjunction with Komatsu CP300 excavator host equipment – to unload at a yard in Wallan, and string a stockpile of nearly 1,700 lengths of gas-transmission pipe along the right-of-way.

“We only need an operator and one additional worker to pick up the pipe and load or unload a truck,” said Darren Hayes, the McConnell Dowell plant and logistics manager responsible for ensuring safety and efficiency on the company’s sites in Australia.

“It’s a faster method, which is among the main reasons we continue to use Vacuworx product.”

Ken Colwell, an operations and project manager with QUBE Energy, said that he found the necessity of having to hire a crane was a “repetitive exercise”, and less cost-efficient than using company-owned assets and personnel. That ultimately led QUBE Energy to its trial of the Vacuum Lifting Systems.

“We had the equipment on-site,” he said. “We just needed a way of adapting it to lift pipe. That’s where the Vacuworx product was discovered. Now, instead of dealing with the cost of leasing a crane, we’ve actually improved our ability to perform more precision-lifts, while bolstering safety and lowering our expenses at the same time.”

QUBE Energy was working to boost efficiency by minimising the use of staff on the wharf in Melbourne, yet Mr Colwell noted that the company was most interested in the safety aspect of vacuum-lifting technology, as it poses less risk to workers on the ground in nearly all weather conditions.

“There are no booms overhead or slings and hooks moving in the air,” he said.

“Everyone can see what’s going on, and now our operation can continue, even in wind or rain. It’s a much simpler operation.”

Though cranes have the ability to lift multiple pipe lengths at one time, Mr Colwell said, one advantage QUBE Energy has realised with the Vacuworx system is that it mitigates damage to pipe coatings, while features such as a 360-degree hydraulic rotator and wireless remote control allow for the precise placement of materials into scalloped timber cradles on the awaiting tractor-trailers.

“There are no hooks or collisions,” Mr Colwell said.

“It just doesn’t get damaged. The lifter picks up in the centre of the pipe, crimps down, and gives our operator complete control. Now we can get away with a forklift operator and one spotter or a two-man team, saving on one labour unit while still achieving the results we need.”

In an analysis of the global market for construction equipment, market-intelligence provider Grandview Research said that options to lease construction equipment are expected to drive cost effectiveness and fuel market growth as advances in technology lead to machinery that “offers considerable benefits over mechanical equipment.” Applications that aid in meeting regulatory emission standards, as well as safety issues related to the mishandling of equipment, were each noted as areas of interest or concern.

In total, Mr Colwell confirmed that six ships carrying nearly 9,000 pipes either have been or will be routed from China, and through QUBE Energy’s wharf facilities for use in Loop 1 of the VNIE – as well as the future looping projects as part of APA Group’s construction of the larger Victorian Transmission System. The QUBE Energy team has been averaging the transport of about 90 pipes over the course of an 8 or 10-hour window, with three drivers each making round-trip journeys of approximately 250 km per workday. By late-April, they had delivered about 3,700 pipe lengths, including shipments to McConnell Dowell’s pipe yard in Wallan, as well as a staging area in Tallarook, Victoria and future shipments intended for a site in Benalla, Victoria.

Vacuworx is a US equipment manufacturer that recently opened a dedicated office in Brisbane, Australia, near one of 16 Sargent dealerships in the country that stock, maintain, and service its products. Luis Guevara, Vacuworx Business Development Manager in the Brisbane office, travelled to Melbourne and met with Sargent Product Manager Daron Wintzloff to help train an operator and to commission QUBE Energy’s new MC 5, which boasts a lifting capacity of 5 t. The MC 5 Series vacuum-lifting system is best suited for use in conjunction with compact carrier equipment, such as wheel-loaders or forklifts, according to the manufacturer.

“I watched the operator on QUBE’s wharf place his hands on the MC 5’s wireless remote control for the very first time,” Mr Guevara said.

“That initial lift appeared so natural, and it was satisfying to know the lifts we were performing in Melbourne would be reversed engineered, so to speak, when McConnell Dowell uses an RC 10 to unload these same trucks in Wallan. It’s interesting to see both sides of the vacuum-lifting equation from both an industrial setting and in the field.”

McConnell Dowell is one of Australia’s leading pipeline contractors operating worldwide and to date has delivered more than 200 projects totalling more than 30,000 km across Australia, New Zealand, Asia, and the Middle East. The company has also been using an RC 10 Series lifter to assist with handling 6 inch gas pipe for a 20 km gas pipeline project in the heart of Moomba, South Australia.

The initial stage of the VNIE includes the installation of two main line valves and end-of-line cross ties to existing DN300 pipeline. The project is scheduled for completion in June.

According to Vacuworx, the company has been busy building up a qualified network of distribution points and relationships in oil, gas, and other top energy or utility-oriented industries while stockpiling machines to serve markets in North America, Latin America, Australia, the Netherlands, and elsewhere. The manufacturer’s most recent product launch in May was a lightweight HDD pipe-handling system capable of lifting and positioning drill-stem in a rig via wireless remote control at angles between 0 and 30 degrees.

Australia’s largest natural gas infrastructure business APA Group owns or operates $12 billion of energy assets with gas transmission pipelines spanning every state and territory on the mainland. APA developed a $US187 million proposal to expand its Victorian infrastructure to enable more gas to flow north into northern Victoria and New South Wales from southern supply basins.

Sections of the existing pipeline will be looped, including the Wollert Wodonga West Pipeline, to increase capacity, as well as increasing compression capacity north and south of the VNIE project.

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