Fort McMurray - Canada's "Oildorado" Dynapac Compaction Technology on the World's Largest Construction Site

Sepp Rixner, Dynapac Construction Equipment


Until very recently, the huge Athabasca Oil Sands deposit surrounding Fort McMurray was viewed only as a potential resource. Extracting oil from oil sand was deemed too expensive when compared with traditional oil production. But now, what was once a small fur trading post in North East Alberta has metamorphosed into a boomtown, becoming one of the largest construction sites in the world. Unsurprisingly, this has made it a prime location for all large construction machinery rental companies.

The Athabasca Oil Sands are the largest known oil sands in the world. Experts estimate that they contain approximately 1,7-2,5 billion barrels of oil (with one barrel equating to 159 l of crude oil). The only drawback is that it is much more problematic to extract oil here than it is to extract it from the oil fields in the Middle East. At the sands, it is more common to have to open up new deposits by means of expensive seismological investigations or test drills and to perform open cast mining. Once vegetation has been cleared, huge amounts of earth have to be moved and a complex processing procedure is carried out, at the end of which approximately one barrel of crude oil is produced from one cubic meter of sand and loam. Around one million barrels are currently produced in the Fort McMurray region every day. Provided that extraction and processing technologies continue to improve, the Canadian Energy Research Institute (CERI) proposes that three million barrels a day by 2015 is a realistic target. This would make Canada the world's second largest oil exporter after Saudi Arabia.

When entering Fort McMurray, visitors are greeted by a modern museum that tells the story of oil extraction at Fort McMurray, from the first large-scale attempts in the 1920s to the complicated process that is carried out today. Photographs and a few vintage showpieces give the visitor a good idea of the sheer scale of the mining equipment used here.

"Of course, we can't offer such huge machines to our customers", says Paul Stannard with an apologetic smile, pointing to the yard behind his office building, "but we can provide them with a wide range of construction machinery and equipment". Mr. Stannard has been the Fort McMurray branch manager for United Rentals of Canada Inc. (a rental company with over 700 branches in North America and Canada) for 212 years. Like all well-known construction machinery rental companies, United Rentals has a branch in Fort McMurray, currently employing 37 people. During the short summer period, the yard contains a great deal more oil-fired heating equipment than anything else, whilst the stocks of pumps, compressors, generators and aerial lift devices have dwindled somewhat.

"Dynapac vibrating plates are our Number One"
This is also true of the vibrating plates on offer, as only four or five reversible LG series Dynapac plates are currently on a flying visit to the yard. "From a total of 40 or 50 Dynapac machines, around 25 are reversible diesel plates, all with an electric starter. Over the years we've tested vibrating plates from all the major manufacturers; Dynapac are far and away the best and provide just what we need here. They are extremely reliable, they provide sound advice and their after-sales service is good. The LG 500 (operational weight 500 kg) is the most frequently used machine because of its high compaction power and excellent quality", explains Paul Stannard.

Almost 90% of his customers prefer long-term rentals with the possibility of later purchase. Mr. Stannard names some other important details which, besides quality and power, are crucial for his customers: Forward/return motion is controlled via a joystick rather than a bow-type handle and the steel base plates are much more stable than the cast-iron ones used by other suppliers. Dynapac base plates are made from Hardox 400, an extremely wear-resistant steel with a Brinell hardness of 400. He says: "Sand is extremely aggressive. Over the years I've seen many cast-iron base plates that have been completely ground off. With Dynapac, we don't have that problem."

100 t power shovels look like little models
At Albian Sands Energy Inc., massive off-highway trucks and Bucyrus power shovels with a loading capacity of 100 t look like little scale models. Powerful CAT 797B Caterpillar trucks with a capacity of over 380 t transport the material a relatively short distance to a huge conveyor belt, which is the gateway to the actual treatment process. Large crushing plants crush up to 14 000 t of oil sand chunks every hour. The material then moves on to a surge bin, and subsequently to an "oil washing machine". Here the oil sand is crushed into even smaller pieces, then filtered and liquefied using hot water in order to separate the oil from the sand. Another plant extracts the bitumen from the resulting slurry and pumps it into the refinery via a pipeline. The bitumen is then separated into its constituent parts, such as kerosene, benzene, diesel, heavy oil and naphtha. In these modern plants up to 80% of the water used is recycled. The washed sand is used to recultivate the mines.

Interest in oil sand did not really take off until the 1990s, when the world market price of oil was rising constantly, thus justifying the comparatively expensive process of mining oil sand.

From carpet knives to power shovels
On Highway 63 north of Fort McMurray you will find the Cat Rental Store, managed by Bill Brooks. He has been on the rental scene since 1974, first with EBCO, then more recently with Cat. "We provide our customers with everything they need, from carpet knives to power shovels and dumpers. Our range of vibrating plates only extends to Dynapac. I can offer my customers between 80 and 90 LG 500 reversible plates and 25 LH 700 machines. What do I and my customers think of them? They're great! The machines are designed in such a way that they can deliver exactly what conditions on the site demand. There are some manufacturers who equip their plates with all kinds of special features that are prone to break down. We have no need for all that here. For us, quality and power are the decisive factors. For example, Dynapac steel base plates last much longer in these extreme conditions than cast-iron base plates. This is also true of the bearings on the exciter shafts, which are put under a lot of strain. Replacing them costs time and money, but because the bearings on our plates are large, they very rarely have to be replaced. In the time that it would take for bearings on other machines to be replaced around three times, ours would only have to be replaced once. As long as we carry out basic maintenance out on the site, this equipment gives us no trouble at all."

Still working at -35°C
The region is only snow-free from around May to October. But vibrating plates are still used, even when the temperature sinks to -35°C. Mr. Brooks has around 120 customers, many of them big name construction companies from Canada and the United States. They rent from him for periods from one day up to two years. He says: "Our customers do their job and we do ours. We carry out on-site checks on all our equipment according to a specific schedule. When my colleagues from the workshop tell me about their experiences with the machines and the maintenance engineers come back from the construction site with their own and customers' feedback and say, 'In the future, only order these machines, don't order those ones any more', it's not a difficult decision for me to make. The result is that we have used Dynapac machines only for quite some time now". There are specific regulations regarding the materials to be used and the compaction power required, not only when carrying out road and civil engineering works, but also when laying building foundations. According to him: "Dynapac vibrating plates meet these regulations perfectly, making them the number one choice for our customers."

Bill Brooks goes on to say that in winter -20°C is still quite pleasant, but the difference between -20°C and -40°C is huge and puts great demands on both man and machine. Many of his customers have issued regulations stating that work may not continue at temperatures below -35°C. His many years of experience have taught him that diesel engines are the best option for driving construction machinery and equipment: "Diesel engines meet the strict safety regulations in force on construction sites. Diesel is not as flammable as petrol and thus meets customers' needs and expectations much better. There is one basic rule that applies to all the machines used in and around Fort McMurray: safety first. The working environment is home to all sorts of hidden dangers, which is why all machinery has to be as safe as possible."

Hertz puts Dynapac at the top of their list, too
Larry Klatt, Hertz service manager for Western Canada, looks satisfied as he sits in his office in Edmonton and surveys the huge, practically empty yard: "Hertz is the largest rental provider in Western Canada. At the moment we have over 20 fully equipped rental centers with affiliated workshops in the region. Around three months ago we ordered our first Dynapac vibrating plates. Now we have around 90 reversible plates available to our customers. In the early days we were often asked why we only offered Dynapac and the answer was quite simple: Our customers are very happy with them. They know the brand from their heavy machinery and now they've been similarly won over by the light equipment."

Mr. Klatt points to the screen on his desk and explains that each rental center records all data relevant to the machines that have been hired out. This data includes work hours, usage, warranty, repair costs and times, how helpful the manufacturer is, etc. "Only in this way are our records meaningful and we have a complete history of every machine. If we have a component that has failed many times and the manufacturer uses the well-worn phrase, 'You're the first one that this has happened to, we've never had this problem before', that to us is no basis for a close, long-term working relationship."

"In this region, Dynapac has grown enormously across all product segments in the last three or four years", confirms Walt Dudnick, Dynapac sales adviser for the region. "Vibrating plates are playing their part in this growth, too. Over 150 machines are in use in Fort McMurray alone. My customers, the rental stores, use machines for three years on average, before replacing them."

Oil sand once used by Native Americans to seal their canoes, has now turned Alberta into one of the most prosperous provinces in Canada.

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