The monster machines that keep our world moving
BIG MACHINES RULE THE EARTH. There are about 6,7 billion people on our planet, and they all need to be fed, housed, moved and supplied with power. These herculean tasks require either an army of small machines working independently or a handful of really, really big ones. And the bigger the scale of the job, the more efficient it is to go large.
These aren’t megasize toys built to make adults feel like kids again, but serious tools to get serious work done in the quickest and most cost-effective way. You won’t see these machines every day – or any day – unless your shift on the job involves processing hundreds of tons of ore, preparing for unthinkably huge disasters, assembling jet airliners or staring through space and time into the beginnings of the universe. But they are all machines that support and inform your life. Someday, they may even save it.
Over the past six months, PM has travelled in search of the biggest and baddest machines. The scale of these monsters goes so far beyond our conception of large that you can’t stand next to any of them and not feel completely overwhelmed.
But once we learned that these mechanical mastodons accomplish their megajobs with relative ease, they became surprisingly approachable. In some cases, we climbed up into the cab and learned first-hand from the guys who drive these vehicles how they operate and what training is required to earn that privilege. And on a few occasions, we were allowed to take command of the controls. Let’s just say we’ll never look at puny 18-wheelers or dinky backhoe loaders in quite the same way again. We’ve been supersized.
ASARCO’S OPENPIT Ray Mine in Arizona is so rich in copper that water sprayed on its dirt roads to keep down the dust instantly turns green as the ore oxidises. If you stand at the bottom of the mine, which covers more than 20 000 hectares, and look up at its high, tiered walls, you travel back in time to the top shelf, where the first cuts were made a generation ago by men with picks and shovels. Here at the bottom, though, the world’s largest wheel loader – the LeTourneau L-2350 – gulps 68 tons in a single bite.
The L-2350 is a 1 700 kW monster: After tearing into the desert dirt a few hundred times, the steel teeth welded to the bottom edge of its bucket shine like silver. The machine’s gaping maw is designed to dump rock and ore loosened by explosives into a seemingly endless line of huge trucks that haul it away for processing. Like most wheel loaders, the LeTourneau is articulated in the middle with massive hydraulic rams that pivot the huge hinge with 234 bar. The Detroit diesel V16 is the size of a small truck. At a governed 8 km/h, the L-2350 burns through 4 000 litres of fuel in 24 hours.
This R76 million machine is so freakishly enormous that it was assembled on-site, and when its useful life is over, it will be scrapped on-site, too. It will never have left the mine – from cradle to grave. Only veteran operators are allowed to handle the L-2350, and Ruben Rosalez looks the part. Rosalez, who started out working in underground mines and whose burly build, greying ponytail and weathered work clothes would look perfect atop a Harley, jokingly says his greatest qualification for operating the L-2350 is his “depth perception”.
But seeing him drive the monster using two joysticks – the left one controls the machine’s movements, the right controls the bucket – is to see professional expertise become a mechanical ballet. My perch, a small jumpseat next to his chair, gives me a view of the 4 m chainwrapped tyres from high above. “The chains aren’t for traction,” Rosalez says.
“The tyres just last longer this way.” The whole machine is covered with the mine’s dust – washing the L-2350 would itself probably yield a couple of kilograms of copper. But we’re here today to get that L-2350 a little dirtier.
“The name of the game is to fill those trucks,” Rosalez explains as he settles in and points to the line of tip trucks. With that, the massive torque plunges the bucket’s teeth forward, deep into the dirt. After scooping up the load, the LeTourneau rocks back on its haunches, all the while bouncing on squishy sidewalls like a coast guard cutter in constant 6 m waves. And when Rosalez lines the bucket up to one of the trucks, it seems to exhale as it dumps the load. “I guess I’m used to the motion,” Rosalez says, never losing his rhythm as he fills a truck in three scoops, then blows his horn to signal the next one over. “I don’t even feel it. In fact, maybe I love it.”
“SURE, THEY LOOK GLAMOROUS,” says airport firefighter Pete Hallenius as his department’s new “Slime Lime” Oshkosh Striker 4500 emerges from the fire station, “until you have to wash them.” The R10 million Striker 4500 is Portland (Oregon) airport’s newest firefighting vehicle – a 50-ton colossus that can cross tarmacs at 110 km/h to reach a burning aircraft and can fight that fire longer than any other aircraft rescue firefighting apparatus. “We always know where we’re going,” firefighter Ken Edwards says as he moves into the centre driver’s seat. “Each of the trucks has its assigned spot if there’s a crash. We don’t leave anything to chance.”
I take a seat to Edwards’s right, feeling the breathing apparatus in the backrest on my spine – it’s there for a real firefighter in a real emergency, not for me. When Edwards fires up the Striker, the sound of the 709 kW diesel is muted; it rides back behind the 17 000-litre water tank. On the roof is a high-reach turret for spraying a fire from at least 70 m away. In front is another turret – both are aimed and operated from the cab using a joystick.
Under acceleration, the Striker feels quick. But what’s most surprising is how it changes direction so effortlessly. If Porsche built a firetruck, it would have moves like this. Approaching the petrol-fuelled flames licking the fuselage of an aircraft mockup, the Striker brakes with uncanny stability despite all that water sloshing around. With a joystick controller in my sweaty palm, I aim the front turret and begin dousing the fire. When the pumps come on, the big diesel revs, and it’s as if the Striker becomes one fiercely clenched muscle – the whole truck seems to be squeezing out water. And if water isn’t enough, there’s also an onboard dry chemical system, Halotron I, and a foam system. “We train every day,” Edwards tells me.
“And with any luck, we’ll wear this truck out in training. Because the last thing you want is to actually need what this truck can do.”
BOEING’S WIDEBODY airliner assembly plant in Everett, Washington state, is the largest building on Earth by volume – 13 376 039 m3. Big things here are almost pedestrian. Even so, the 36-metre 32-wheel TLD DBL-110 cargo loader stands out. Way out. “That’s DBL,” chief operator Chris Dailey says, “as in Darn Big Loader.” Actually, darn big is an understatement: This is the largest aircraft loader, period. The DBL-110 is the ground link in the supply chain for production of Boeing’s new 787 Dreamliner. The manufacturing of 787s is global, so the challenge was to orchestrate final assembly in Everett. Suppliers fly in parts on a fleet of three modified 747-400s called Dreamlifters. The DBL-110 is then used to offload wings, fuselage sections and tailpieces through the swing-away tails of the 747s.
The DBL’s cargo deck is identical to the deck of the 747 – whatever fits inside the aircraft fits on the loader. Its cab is stuffed with monitors, hydraulic deck controls and a laser sensor that aligns the loader with the plane. However, it’s the operator who guides the loader up to the aircraft, not a computer. And the two vehicles never make contact. Freight moves from the plane’s belly across an inch-wide gap and on to the loader’s rails. With 32 wheels, 16 axles and six programmable steering modes, the DBL-110 is, yes, fun to drive.
We very carefully drove it along Everett’s runway aprons, and it’s surprisingly simple to operate – pick the right steering mode, and it’s nearly capable of rotating around its own centre axis. Pick another mode, and the loader crabwalks. “Here, let’s put you in the air,” Dailey says as he raises the loader to its full 11 m-high extension.
The engines are now 10 m below me, but the unladen DBL-110 remains stable and steerable. When you’re hauling tens of millions of rands of parts along busy taxiways, it pays to be manoeuvrable.
IN THE WORLD OF MINING trucks, there’s an ongoing dispute about exactly which one is the largest. Many of these beasts are equipped with electromechanical drivetrains, like a locomotive.But not this massive Cat. The 797B uses the same kind of direct mechanical drive as your average pickup. So in terms of conventional powertrains, this is the largest. “It’s just a big yellow truck,” says Mark Richards, marketing supervisor for Caterpillar’s large mining trucks division. A big yellow truck powered by a V24 diesel that generates 2 514 kW and a mind-boggling 16 490 N.m of torque. Driving the 797B is easy – once I get up the ladder that crosses in front of a radiator so massive it could double as a barbecue grill for Godzilla. Inside the steel-fortifi ed cockpit, I sit on a fl at, squishy hydraulic seat facing a conventional steering wheel. My foot hits an accelerator pedal of normal proportions, and most of the instrumentation is familiar except for a digital readout that tells me how much tonnage is in the bed behind me. The engine’s air starter screams until the immense V24 rumbles to life. Put the seven-speed automatic into gear, and the truck initially lurches forward before lumbering off the line. It’s then I realise that I’m 6 m in the air, and what’s behind me is three times bigger than any house I’ve ever lived in. The hydraulic steering has no feel, but it reacts quickly, and the 50 oil-cooled, 1,07 m disc brakes could stop a runaway continental shelf. In fact, it’s so confi dence-inspiring that I’m tempted to become overconfi dent – not good when a mistake could mean picking the remains of my own pickup out of the 797B’s undercarriage. After thorough and thoughtful consideration, I think I’ll keep my day job.
“THIS ISN’T LAB-COAT science,” says one of the crew moving giant radio telescopes around New Mexico’s remote Plains of San Agustin high desert. “This is blue-collar science – we’re outer space’s plumbers.” Here, at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory's Very Large Array (VLA), astronomers look into the deepest parts of the universe using interconnected 25 m-wide radio-telescope dishes. Arranged in a giant Y, the 27 dishes can be reconfi gured using 72 different mounting pads along the lengths of the 21 km-long legs. When it’s time to reposition the array, the VLA’s jeans-andboots- wearing crews and two specially built movers swing into action as though they’re switching lenses on a giant camera. Built in the 1970s as the VLA itself was being constructed, the two movers – known as the High Plains Lifter and Jack of Diamonds – ride atop two parallel sets of standard-gauge railroad tracks. The diesel engines turn hydraulic pumps that send pressurised fluid to four-wheel “trucks” that in turn propel the movers. The 208-ton telescopes are bolted atop the backs of the movers. At each mounting pad, a set of tracks runs perpendicular to the Y’s leg. When a mover reaches that intersection, it stops and the crew goes to work ensuring it’s perfectly positioned to change direction. Hydraulic pistons raise and turn the mover 90 degrees so that the crew can crawl underneath and align the truck to the tracks leading to the next mounting pad. Since the movers top out at about 5 km/h, even a short trip takes hours; travelling the length of the Y can consume an entire day. While the mover’s engine drones, the hydraulic system emits a low-grade hiss, and the steel wheels creak on the rails. But no matter how undignifi ed the sound, the sight of a telescope moving through desert is simply, well, majestic.