5 Things DGS can do for your TBM Operation in Difficult Ground

Difficult Ground Solutions (DGS) is a suite of options that can be added to a shielded hard rock machine or Crossover machine to better enable advance when conditions are unknown or difficult conditions are anticipated. While each of these items is not new, the concept of installing them on a machine from the start, and of using them in concert to provide better visualization and performance in the most challenging ground, is. The uses and advantages of DGS are various and wide-reaching.

Number 1: DGS can act like risk insurance.

Yes, risk insurance.  While one can argue that risk insurance is not needed—and of course if a tunnel were in entirely homogeneous, medium strength, self-supporting rock, under a medium amount of cover, I would tend to agree—there is a problem with this argument. That scenario exists only very rarely.  At Robbins, we are seeing more tunnels being planned in mountainous, remote regions where an accurate GBR cannot be obtained. More tunnels planned through multiple fault zones and mixed face conditions. More tunnels planned in suspected karst conditions and in rock where large water inflows may occur.   It is a trend we’ve observed arcing upward, and with these high-risk projects it seems prudent that an equipment manufacturer should strongly recommend risk insurance. We’ve done that the only way we know how: by calling on our extensive experience to develop, test, and provide various solutions that can be added to a TBM at the beginning of the project. These features mitigate the risk of getting stuck in unforeseen (or foreseen) challenges that might come up in a tunnel drive.

This risk insurance works like any other type of insurance—it must be purchased before the actual event happens.  Waiting until a machine encounters a given challenge—where it may become damaged, stuck, or irretrievable—is not an adequate plan for difficult conditions. Sure, some of these options can be added in the tunnel, but such an operation is far from ideal. Risk insurance is best purchased during the TBM design phase, long before the machine is built and launched.

Number 2: DGS can get your TBM through a fault zone or squeezing ground where it might otherwise become stuck.

If fault zones or squeezing ground are known or suspected, or if there is even a possibility of encountering them, this can greatly affect your TBM operation.  Shielded hard rock machines protect your crew from the surrounding ground, and they can bore and line a tunnel efficiently, but in fault zones and converging material they need some of the features of an EPB machine to keep advancing. Avoiding a stuck machine is paramount to project success. Luckily, DGS uses several ways to avoid the problem of a machine becoming stuck. The first of these is multi-speed cutterhead drives.  These drives effectively give the machine multiple modes of operation—high speed, low torque for hard rock, and low speed, high torque for difficult ground.  Designing a machine with high-torque, continuous boring capabilities allows that machine’s cutterhead to restart with break-out torque in difficult ground. The net effect is that the machine can keep boring in the event of a face collapse and can effectively bore through fault zones and running ground where the potential for cutterhead jamming exists. Going one step further, multi-speed gearboxes give the machine the ideal EPB-type torque if larger sections of soft ground are anticipated.

Secondly, TBMs can get through squeezing ground and faults using Continuous Shield Advance.  This design utilizes a stepped shield configuration—where each successive shield is slightly smaller in diameter—to avoid becoming stuck in converging ground.  External shield lubrication is an added insurance against becoming stuck, using a series of radial ports that can pump Bentonite into the annular space to act as a lubricant in squeezing material.

Hydraulic shield lubrication allows for Bentonite (orange) to be pumped into the annular gap.

As a last effort, if a machine has already become stuck the TBM can utilize augmented, or “super” thrust. Additional thrust jacks can be added to supply an extra boost in a short stroke, generating enough force to break loose a trapped shield.

Number 3: DGS can keep your crew safe and save your TBM in the event of a massive inrush of water.

Water is an ever-present part of tunneling underground, but unexpected large inflows can damage a machine and grind a TBM operation to a halt.

In the event of a large inrush of water, a guillotine gate on the muck chute can effectively seal off the muck chamber of a Single Shield TBM to keep the crew safe as well as keep the machine from becoming flooded out. This system is termed “passive” water protection because the TBM is stopped in place (not actively operating). During that time the crew can then work to grout off water inflows and dewater the chamber to control the flow before they begin boring again. The grouting crew also have the added assistance of back pressure to assist in grouting.

Water Inflow Control can passively seal a Single Shield TBM against water (blue) via a guillotine gate.

Number 4: DGS can improve your visualization of the ground around the TBM.

Probe drilling is an essential part of visualization, and, combined with grouting, it can also fall under the heading of water control. We’ve learned that, in difficult ground, more is better. Multiple probe drills, and more drill ports in a 360-degree radius, are always going to give an advantage. We’ve taken this lesson to heart, and have installed multiple probe drills on many of our new shielded machines, with ports to provide probing patterns in a 360-degree radius. High-pressure grout injection can be done through these same ports to stabilize ground up to 40 m ahead of the face (or more if using specialized drills). The type of grout injected can also be specialized—for example chemical or polymer grout can be used to seal off groundwater. Lastly, a rotary forepole drill can be installed behind the cutterhead support to allow for ground consolidation around the shield periphery. The forepole drill is of particular use in fractured rock and fault zones.  These drills are the mainframe of a visualization plan that can ultimately create an in-tunnel GBR as the machine advances: of particular use when no accurate GBR can be created due to topography, high cover, etc.

But what if you suspect the ground around your TBM is converging? What if you want to get a look at the actual rock face in the safest possible manner? There are DGS options for these types of visualization as well. For squeezing ground detection, a hydraulic cylinder can be mounted on top of the shield and connected to the TBM’s PLC. It measures the shield gap in the tunnel crown, so that if squeezing or collapsing ground is detected the crew can take countermeasures. These measures include using bentonite lubrication, crown or face rock conditioning, or planning ahead to use another system in the area before the machine can become stuck.  For getting a better look at conditions ahead of the machine, a cutterhead inspection camera can be used to remotely inspect the boring cavity without intervention, and to check water levels ahead of the TBM. While these cameras have been used to monitor mixing chambers and perform cutterhead inspections in soft ground TBMs, their use in hard rock machines has been much more limited. In the new ground investigation system, the probe and injection holes in the cutterhead and front shield are specifically designed to accept these cameras.

Number 5: DGS can save you time and money.

The old adage “the best-laid plans can go astray” applies particularly well to tunneling. There are many unknowns, even with an adequate GBR in hand. Making an initial investment on DGS features when your TBM is still in the shop is far less costly than installing them in the tunnel after a major stoppage.  These features can mean the difference between a successful operation and a stuck TBM requiring a bypass tunnel or worse. TBMs with DGS features also produce better advance rates in adverse conditions such as fault zones (see our recent projects Kargi and TEP II as good examples of this). Better advance rates mean your project is more likely to stay on schedule and on budget. And who wouldn’t want that?

Want to find out more about DGS and its successful use in the field?
Check out these white papers:

Difficult Ground Solutions: New TBM Solutions carve a path to Success

Carving a Path through Extreme Conditions: An Integrated Ground Investigation System for Turkey’s Difficult Geology


Desiree Willis