Heavy gear in the Pilbara

Running a truck workshop in a mining area like Karratha brings up different issues to those faced by workshops on the east coast, Tim Giles discovered.

Based on the outskirts of Karratah in the north of WA, Karratha Earthmoving specialises in earthworks, road works and civil construction services on various scales in Australia’s rugged northwest. As such, the company can boast a highly diverse portfolio of machinery that reflects the diversity of the business itself.

Apart from typical earthmoving equipment, for example, there are quite a few heavy trucks sitting in the giant red dirt yard that are used to haul tippers for a variety of customers. After all, the work up here is not just about developing on new sites, but also about servicing existing mine sites with tipper haulage.

Albeit large in scale now, Karratha Earthmoving started out modestly. Established back in 1985 as a family business, it all began with a Mack R600 and a Cat 930 loader – and went from there. Like with so many Australian transport businesses, the four sons in the family grew up helping out in the shop and now work full-time in the business – three of them after studying engineering at university and traveling the world before returning to WA.

With the four young brothers driving modernisation across the business, it was able to grow substantially as economic activity in the Pilbara increased during the mining boom. But when the slowdown came, it still took everyone by surprise – costing almost a third of all staff their jobs.

After a period of downsizing, Karratha Earthmoving today employs around 40 people instead of 60 during its peak – the company has found new growth opportunities through vertical integration and getting involved in some complementary businesses.

Diesel travelled to WA to find out just how that course correction has changed the company’s attitude to maintenance, and found that Karratha Earthmoving has made maintaining the integrity of its fleet a key priority during the downturn instead of saving on it. The company’s diligence during the slump now enables it to exploit new opportunities as the local economy begins to adjust to the new normal.

 

The man in charge of keeping the standards up when it comes to maintenance is Karratha Earthmoving’s Workshop Manager, Luke Priddis. Luke has been with the company for four years now and served his apprenticeship working on Volvo trucks on behalf of WA Truck Centre, the Western Australian Volvo dealership. After ten years at Truck Centre, he started looking for an adventure – and with Karratha Earthmoving owning some 22 Volvo trucks, he proved to be the ideal candidate.

The fleet he is now in charge of is a lot more diverse than that, though, with Hino, Isuzu, Scania and Kenworth trucks also included in the mix. “We have got a lot of Volvos, but for me there’s a lot of opportunities with other brand and in other areas, too, for example with the big machinery,” he explains adding that the complexity of the fleet makes for a working week rich in variety. “Work is always spread out differently, we’ve got our set services for all of the trucks constantly running in Port Hedland, but for the other machines it’s just a matter of when they come round for service. Some of them can be sitting around for a long time.”

Many of the machines are traced on GPS and monitored remotely, with the system working out when a service is due and flagging the event for Luke. The workshop itself handles every job from small repairs to major engine rebuilds – almost everything is done in-house. Repair trucks handle call-outs if a truck or piece of equipment breaks down on site.

Not every task can be handled in-house, though. “We do a lot of the ram work ourselves, but if there is any machining involved, we do send that out to a specialist,” he says – pointing to the range of talents available throughout the team, which is dominated by a younger demographic than the kind we typically expect to see in a truck workshop. Luke, for example is only 29 himself.

“There are six working in the workshop, with one person dedicated to tyres and one who does the trailers. Then we have Technical Assistants who float between the tasks,” says Luke. “We have two guys, Shannon and Rob, who came from CJD, a Volvo Construction Vehicles dealer, and look after the machines.”

One of the areas into which the company has diversified over the years is the haulage of materials for resources companies. The biggest Volvos in the fleet are rated to pull GCMs of 175 tonnes on quad or triple side tipper work. Five of the biggest are running out of Port Hedland and are rated at 700hp, using hub reduction to handle the high masses. These trucks do 20,000km every fortnight, running 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Luke says the intensity of work sees these prime movers make regular trips back to the company workshop in Karratha for essential maintenance to keep them performing at the productivity levels required to make the task economically viable.

“Those trucks come with a good GPS monitoring system from the factory,” says Luke. “So we can see whether they’re driving with the gear stick or in auto, what fuel they are using, how hard they are braking. Because they are on the heavy work we keep them well serviced. We have to do a lot more checks than on normal trucks, as there are things which are under a lot more strain than they would be on many trucks.”

He adds, “Things like engine mounts break a lot more often than they do on the other trucks. We need to run full synthetic oils instead of mineral. Where the major service goes out to 100,000km on the other Volvos, for these trucks we bring them in for the big service after 60,000km. We have to do valve adjustments a lot more regularly on these trucks as well.”

The equipment used in the workshop itself could be found in any operation – it just gets to be used more often. Any specialist tools the team may need for fixing the trucks are often made by the technicians themselves. The workshop has enough specialist machines like lathes to be able to construct custom built equipment.

One of the unique WA challenges Luke and his team encounter are the ever-present dust and the unremitting heat. “The dusty conditions require us to have the air filters changed out on every service,” says Luke. “The dust contributes to early wear and tear on a lot of components, which we have to keep an eye on,” he says. “Because of the heat we get a lot of stuff like air conditioner problems, the systems fail. Tyres don’t last as long, too, and you also get a lot of coolant leaks and popped hoses from swelling up.”

Luke adds, “A lot of the bigger trucks pulling the triples and quads are serviced before the summer comes around. We pull the radiators out and clean them out so they are ready for the heat – or they just won’t make it.

“Sometimes people from Volvo come here and do a download of the truck to see how it’s handling the job. We also run a couple of trucks with test oil for another company. We put the brand-new oil in and then it just stays in the truck until they want it pulled out. That oil gets sent overseas for analysis.”

Luke says the ups and downs – as well as the massive pay checks – of the mining boom have led to a much more itinerant workforce in the Pilbara. During the mining heyday, there have been regular ‘grass is greener’ moves as technicians picked and chose the best pay and conditions on offer – causing a viable skill shortage in some areas as many now moved on the east coast.

“There’s not too many people about,” says Luke. “Trying to get the right people with the right skills is hard. Some think they can do the job, but it’s a step too far for them. We simply need to make sure a service is done properly out here: If it fails out on the Port Hedland job it’s a 1,000km drive there and back to fix a small problem. We haven’t had our own apprentices here, but it is something we have been talking about.”

The company itself is facing issues too, though. Work can vary quite a lot for the workshop, for example, making personnel planning a tough job. At the time of Diesel’s visit, the workshop’s opening hours have just been cut back. Then again, when the business is going flat out, it can get to the point where no one gets a day off for a while.

Once Luke finds the right people to handle the task at hand, he finds they do stay for the long haul and don’t keep flitting like they have in the past, though. “We have people who stick around in the workshop now. I guess it’s because Karratha Earthmovers are good people to work for.”

 


 

Measuring wear: While all of the trucks are serviced at intervals determined by mileage travelled and the type of task handled, a few like the water trucks needed on site are calculated by hours worked, as the trucks spend a lot of time idling with the PTO engaged. Of course, the big machines themselves are all monitored for hours worked and maintained accordingly. 

 

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Author: Tim Giles

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