To deliver fully assembled Cat 797s to their oil sands clients, Mammoet and Finning had to figure out solutions to two nagging problems: how to load the massive haul trucks onto a trailer bed and manage its weight in transit. Courtesy of Finning

Alberta oil sands operations rely on the largest haul trucks on the market. When these trucks need to be transported, they usually have to be partly disassembled and transferred in multiple loads. But the Finning Cat dealership in Fort McKay and its transportation partner Mammoet have been successfully hauling fully assembled Cat 797s between the Finning Fort McKay shop and several oil sands mines since October 2015. In doing so, they have saved mining customers several days of downtime per shipment.

“It came from a conversation about how we could provide better service for the customer,” said Kellie Brannan, project manager at Finning. “Previously we had to disassemble a truck after we’d just rebuilt it to transport it back to site. We wanted to give it back to the customer and have it go to work [immediately] instead of having them wait while it was assembled again on site.”

Typically, a Caterpillar 797 is shipped in three separate loads. The dump body of the truck is lifted off with cranes, two rear tires are removed, and the remainder of the truck makes up the third load.

That removal and reassembly can take several days on each end and involve the labour of crane operators and mechanics. To the staff at Finning and Mammoet, it also seemed perverse. “We would have a working truck being assembled in a shop somewhere,” said Niek De Winter, account manager at Mammoet. “It has to be transported somewhere else. And you have to take the perfectly working truck apart, which takes two days. Then you have to transfer it in three loads. And then you have to put it back together.”

The idea of hauling whole trucks had arisen in the past, but it presented two difficulties: at about 300 tonnes, the Cat 797 is too heavy to legally haul on a single trailer, and it is also too heavy to load onto the trailer using normal methods. Mammoet had to come up with workarounds for both problems.

To address the trailer weight, Mammoet took two standard trailers, put them side-by-side, and bolted them together. “By doing that, you spread your weight over way more axles, and therefore your allowable weight goes up,” said De Winter.

The second problem required more ingenuity. To load a smaller truck, transporters would normally build a ramp and drive it onto the trailer. Other equipment can be lifted with a crane. “But a truck of this size, it’s too big to use a ramp,” said De Winter. “It’s too big to load it on with cranes. So people were just unable to load it.”

Mammoet invented a lifting platform: a large steel plate fitted with hydraulic jacks. “We drive [the truck] onto this plate, then this whole plate lifts itself up using the lifting devices,” explained De Winter. “And after it’s been lifted to a certain height, we can drive our trailer underneath and then the steel plate lowers itself back onto the trailer, and then it is loaded.”

The entire solution involved more than just engineering know-how: it took buy-in from many people and organizations. This idea was already under discussion between the two companies when De Winter joined Mammoet in the region three years ago, but the first fully assembled truck did not ship until October 2015. “The thing is, it’s not just us coming up with a solution,” said De Winter. “You have to make sure you talk to Alberta Infrastructure and Alberta Transportation, making sure that you have the right permits to do this. Then you have to have the mine owners who want to go ahead.”

De Winter’s role was to show customers that the solution’s benefits outweighed its significant costs. Such elaborate moves drive up costs. With the new solution, four pilot cars, four tractor units and a crew of at least 10 people have to accompany one delivery. The three separate loads used earlier might require a similar total number of people, but not all at once.

But Finning’s oil sands clients ultimately agreed that shaving off assembly time would be worth it. Moving the trucks fully assembled is now a standard approach for the Mammoet-Finning partnership. Multiple trucks have been delivered this way; for each move, Brannan estimated that the mine saves five to seven days of downtime. A typical delivery from Finning to site would have taken two days to disassemble, then five to reassemble and inspect. Now, the mine can do its incoming inspection in a day, then send the truck out to work.

“Our mining customers have been very happy with the service,” said Brannan. She said the implementation had gone surprisingly smoothly, with no trouble on Finning’s end.

There is one logistical downside to moving an extra-wide load: scheduling becomes more challenging. The steel lifting frame, the widest part of the shipment, runs 32 feet across. Because it takes up the entire road, Mammoet’s permits are limited to relatively untrafficked times of day. Finding the right schedule is a matter of working with Alberta Transportation and with multiple departments at the mine. “You have to make sure that the mining guys are involved, and you also have to have their infrastructure group and maybe talk to their scheduling group so that you know when you can travel,” said De Winter.

Working around rush-hour traffic and the mine’s schedule means a delivery to a location only an hour’s drive away can take two full days. “Sometimes we load it in the morning, and then we transfer it at night to get to the mine site, but by the time we are offloaded it’s already early in the morning and we cannot travel back,” explained De Winter, “so then we have to wait the entire day until the next night to travel back to base.”

There are also some locations that the fully assembled truck shipment simply cannot reach. The allowable weight on the Peter Lougheed Bridge across the Athabasca River prevents large deliveries to more southerly sites. “We are currently working with Alberta Transportation, the mine owners, Finning and our in-house engineering group to find a solution,” said De Winter.

The two companies have neighbouring offices in Fort McKay, where oil sands operations are within close reach and almost every road has already seen wide, heavy loads of this kind.

While other manufacturers produce 362-tonne capacity haulers, only the transport of Cat 797s has been done up to this point. “We really committed to Finning to transport their trucks,” said De Winter. “Never to be said that we won’t be doing this with someone else, but there’s nothing in the making. For now we’re just focused on Finning and what we can do for them.”