Debbie Swival, Robbins Field Service Support, is no stranger to tunnel sites. Over her last 12 years at The Robbins Company she has worked on TBMs around the world, from the San Francisco Central Subway to the Moglicë Headrace Tunnel in a remote area of Albania to Turkey’s Bahce-Nurdag High Speed Railway and more. But her longest stay was in Newburgh, NY, USA for the Delaware Aqueduct Repair tunnel.
Swival remained on the jobsite from November 2017 until the TBM’s breakthrough in August 2019—a duration of 21 months. Her role in assisting the crew and troubleshooting issues was integral to the project’s success.
Boring Below the Hudson
The 6.8 m (22.3 ft) diameter Robbins Single Shield TBM for JV contractor Kiewit-Shea Constructors (KSC) bored a total of 3,794 m (12,448 ft) over 582 days with instantaneous penetration rates of 6 m (20 ft) per hour. The unique machine was designed to statically hold up to 20 bar pressure as it bored below the Hudson River to repair a section of the Delaware Aqueduct, the world’s longest continuous tunnel (137 km/85 mi long).
The New York City Department of Environmental Protection (NYCDEP), project owner, discovered that a section of the aqueduct below the Hudson River was leaking up to 75 million liters (20 million gallons) of water per day. On average the aqueduct—built in the 1930s and 1940s—supplies about 50 percent of the water consumed by 8.6 million residents of New York City and an additional 1 million residents in four counties north of the City. A swift repair of the tunnel section was essential.
The tunnel depth—ranging from nearly 270 m (900 ft) deep where the TBM was launched in Newburgh, New York to over 180 m (600 ft) deep at the exit shaft—the water volume, and pressure were all challenges. Probe drilling was mandatory ahead of the TBM and required the use of down-the-hole water hammers for accurate boring under pressure.
What was it like to be at the jobsite for 21 months?
Swival: Being on site for that long was a fantastic experience. I typically stay on a jobsite for 6 to 8 weeks so I do not see the machine in full production. Staying for the boring of the length of tunnel allowed me to see the way that the machine is actually used, as opposed to the theoretical understanding of how different operations should be done. This has given me new insight for programming the machines to better meet the customer’s needs.
Being there for that long also gave the opportunity to create a strong working relationship with the customer. I was part of the team, with everyone working together to get the job done safely and successfully.
What were your main roles at the jobsite?
Swival: Initially I worked with the crew on the machine’s electrical systems and PLC (Programmable Logic Controller) programming changes. Other members of Robbins Field Service conducted training on hydraulics and machine operation. We had three operators at the jobsite who needed training, so I also spent time afterwards reinforcing that training they received. Much of it was on-the-job style training.
As the job continued my role shifted to supporting the machine for any issues that came up. I assisted with troubleshooting hydraulic and mechanical issues as well as continuing to work with the electricians for any problems that arose there. I worked with the customer to implement changes that they requested to the PLC program and to the HMI (Human Machine Interface) screens. I also assisted the customer with interfacing with Robbins engineering to obtain information that they needed.
What was a typical day at the jobsite like for you?
Swival: My typical day started with a 7:30 am meeting with the engineers and supervisors to go over the plan for the day and address any technical issues that had occurred since the previous day. At 8:00 am, a quick safety meeting with the crew, then head to the cage where we all got to be up close and personal during the 6-1/2 minute ride down the shaft. Once at the bottom we got on the mantrip to ride in to the machine. Near the end of the drive it took around 20 minutes to get to the TBM.
Once in the machine, it was time to tie in with the night shift for information on what had happened during the night and where they were in the mining process. At that point it was time to start troubleshooting any problems that had occurred. If all was well I went through and checked the machine for any signs of something getting ready to fail such as wear marks on hoses or cables, low tank levels, loose mounting on sensors and other things that could be fixed before they broke and caused an issue. I spoke with the mechanics and operators to see if there was anything they needed assistance with and also got feedback from them on what they liked as well as what could have been done differently to make their job more efficient.
Conditions in the tunnel were as you would expect – loud and dirty, although there were only a few times when dust was an issue and respirators needed to be worn. The crew often said it was hot in the tunnel, but I love the heat so I didn’t really notice it. We ate lunch on the machine. Since we did not leave the tunnel until the next shift came in, something that is normally overlooked is the need for the crew to relieve themselves. On this machine there was a really nice toilet that was kept cleaned, which made life there so much better! Around 4:30 pm “Mantrip coming in!” was announced over the mine phones as the next shift started their way in to relieve us. We got back to the surface a little after 5 pm and it was so nice to be back in the fresh air!
How important are knowledgeable field service personnel for the success of a project?
Swival: It’s absolutely imperative to have knowledgeable personnel. At the Delaware Aqueduct site they had me there because I knew the equipment well and could solve problems quickly. For example, it’s beneficial to have a PLC person on site because it’s a specialized piece of equipment. Although after commissioning there are not many problems with the PLC, when there is an issue it requires the code to be changed. Some PLC hardware failures or changes can also require that the program is modified. When an electrical or hydraulic issue occurs on the machine, I can use the program as a troubleshooting tool, find out what physical device isn’t working then describe the problem to the crew and educate them on how to fix it. This shortens downtime from 12 hours for a crew without PLC personnel on site, to around two hours.
What are some other examples of challenges that you were able to overcome at the site?
Swival: I helped to optimize the boring parameters, such as reducing thrust pressure, adjusting ring build procedures, and fine-tuning articulation cylinder pressure to avoid downtime and keep the machine moving. There was a section of the tunnel where the rock transitioned from shale to granite, and the difference in rock strength meant we had to set new limits for the thrust pressure to extend the life of the disc cutters.
There was an issue with the segment unloaders where the forward unloader was in the lowered position and the rear unloader was raised. The setup didn’t provide any clearance for when the train moved out. Typical sensors were not able to be mounted in the location. I worked with the mechanical team to find a solution for sensing the positions of the unloaders and prevent this from happening in the future. Lights were added to give a visual indication to the operator of the fully raised and lowered positions, and I changed the logic to incorporate the modifications. Those are just a few examples of what I helped with.
What is your favorite memory from the project?
Swival: It was amazing to be able to climb through the hole in the cutterhead and stand in front of the machine when it broke through. The support from everybody throughout the project was incredible. Everyone worked together, and the level of community on the job was exceptional. It was simply a great place to work.
Video courtesy of NYCDEP (www.nyc.gov/dep).
For more on the unique tunneling operation at the Delaware Aqueduct Repair, check out these resources:
3 Ways to Bore More Efficiently in Extremely Hard Rock: Maximize your TBM Advance through Minimized Downtime
When the rock seems unbreakable, stresses are multiplied: The cutters must be stronger, the TBM more durable, and the operation optimized to keep equipment running smoothly. Once rock hardness rises beyond 180 to 200 MPa UCS, the limits of cutting tools are put to the test.
Given the clear risks of excavating massive, hard rock, how can tunnellers set themselves up for the best possible chance of success? The combination of knowledgeable personnel, properly designed equipment, and rigorous TBM operation and maintenance are making excavation of hard rock—even extremely hard rock strengths of 300 MPa UCS or more—possible.
1: Consider your Cutting Tools
Cutters are a significant factor for efficient excavation when rock is extremely hard. To that end, Robbins has developed Extra Heavy Duty (XHD) rings for projects where Heavy Duty (HD) rings are close to their design limit in terms of the thrust force required to break the rock. The XHD rings resist chipping, mushrooming, and other damage that can occur in very hard rock conditions. Enhanced heat treatment gives the discs increased hardness and strength without the normally-associated reduction in fracture toughness.
The rings have a proven track record: they’ve been put to the test at several jobsites, including Norway’s Røssåga headrace tunnel bored in rock from 200 to 280 MPa UCS. Initially, HD cutters mounted on the Main Beam TBM’s cutterhead experienced low cutter life in the range of 100 to 150 cubic meters bored per cutter. XHD rings were gradually introduced onto the cutterhead to determine what, if any improvement in cutter life could be obtained. It is likely that the performance in the very hard sections was improved by a minimum of 25%. The benefits of the XHD are also likely to explain the superior cutter life for the remainder of the project, even in the relatively softer ground.
2: Optimize Penetration Rate
Harder rock requires equipment that can stand up to high stresses. Penetration rate and thrust are exponential functions. The first rule is: Push as hard as you can. The more thrust the better. A machine with a robust steel structure is needed to take the higher loads without damage.
But penetration rate is trickier: The overall goal in hard rock should be to operate TBMs as efficiently as possible to maximize production. This means increasing penetration per revolution as much as possible. Consumption of cutterhead wear parts is related to the number of revolutions of the cutterhead, so it follows that increased penetration per revolution will result in fewer total revolutions of the cutterhead, reduced consumption of wear parts and fewer cutter changes for the duration of the tunnel.
The TBM Operator should therefore be looking for the best advance at the lowest RPM, because lower RPM reduces wear on the outer cutters and periphery of the cutterhead. Robbins has conducted site tests at multiple sites over several years showing that a lower RPM achieves the same and often better penetration rates than a higher RPM in hard rock. This can be clearly seen in the data: For example, on an 8 m diameter cutterhead, the circumference is 25.12 m. At 10 RPM during TBM operation, this would mean 251.2 m of travel in one minute. If the speed is reduced to 8 RPM, the distance would be 200.9 m of rotation—a full 50 m less in one minute. That is 3000 m less per hour, reducing wear substantially.
Malaysia’s Pahang Selangor Water Tunnel was a good example of this phenomenon. What is now the longest tunnel in Southeast Asia, at 44.6 km, required excavation using three 5.2 m diameter Main Beam TBMs mounted with 19-inch disc cutters. The machines operated in abrasive granitic rock exceeding 200 MPa UCS, up to 1,200 m below the Titiwangsa Mountain Range. RPM trials were conducted on the three TBMs, showing that an increase in penetration rate per revolution of 15 to 20 percent could be achieved by decreasing the RPM from between 11.5 and 12 to just 9.5. While the overall advance rate was lower because of fewer revolutions, downtime was decreased and cutter changes were reduced by as much as 19%. The overall time savings more than made up for the decreased advance rate.
3: Your Crew is the Key
Knowledgeable operators are key in hard rock: there needs to be a balance between cutterhead speed and thrust force. An experienced TBM Operator will be able to identify when ground conditions change and react accordingly. In addition, knowledgeable operators know how to react if varying rock strengths are present in the excavation face. The most effective way to prevent impact loading in such conditions is to reduce cutterhead speed and penetration rate per revolution.
Maintenance is another key point and is especially important for extremely hard rock conditions. At the start of a project it is recommended to set a maintenance period for each day, say four hours out of each 24-hour period, which enables the crews to become familiar with the maintenance regime. This equates to approximately 24 hours of maintenance in a 6-day working week. Cutter change time can take up substantially more than four hours per day in hard rock tunnels, so once the crews are familiar with the maintenance tasks they are best carried out concurrently with cutter change operations.
Cutterhead inspections should be carried out on a regular basis to enable worn, damaged or blocked cutters to be replaced as soon as possible. Boring with even one blocked cutter can result in a cascading type wipe-out, which will progress rapidly in a chain reaction effect through multiple cutters if not immediately recognized. In hard rock this can also result in damage to the cutterhead over the course of just a couple of boring strokes. The same applies to the inspection of the bucket lips—these should be performed regularly and the bucket lips kept in good condition.
Overall, ensuring success in some of the most difficult rock in the world requires pre-planning with proper machine design, good cooperation by all parties involved, a knowledgeable crew, and dedicated maintenance. More than that, it also takes some experimentation on the part of the contractor or those overseeing the TBM operation. Contractors can look at different cutter types and test the parameters of TBM operation, do regular penetration tests, vary the RPM, and vary the thrust to see what gets the best cutter life and the best TBM performance. Taking the time to do such testing can make all the difference between a successful project and an unsuccessful one.
Lastly, new and innovative cutter designs and housing designs exist for extremely hard rock. Consider XHD cutter rings, cutter mountings with hardened replaceable seats, and other designs that may be in development or available for testing.
Dozens of Robbins TBMs are normally in operation at any given time in countries around the world, but this month’s breakthrough extravaganza is exceptional. No less than six breakthroughs occurred during April 2019, and more are on the way. We take a look at these epic completions in pictures below.
Galerie des Janots, France
On April 3, 2019, a Robbins 3.5 m diameter Main Beam TBM broke through into open space, completing its 2.8 km long water tunnel. It was not the first time the machine had encountered open space: twice during tunneling, the machine hit uncharted caverns, the largest of which measured a staggering 8,000 cubic meters in size.
On April 8, 2019, the first of two 6.5 m diameter Robbins Double Shield TBMs completed its bore for Austria’s Gemeinschaftskraftwerk Inn (GKI) project. A second Double Shield TBM will break through later this year. The 22 km long headrace tunnel near the alpine town of Pfunds was bored under high cover (maximum of 1,200 m) in schist rock.
DigIndy Tunnel System, USA
On April 10, 2019, a Robbins TBM completed the White River and Lower Pogues Run Tunnels, part of the DigIndy project in Indianapolis, Indiana, USA. The 36-year-old, refurbished 6.2 m diameter Robbins Main Beam machine was launched in 2013 in Indianapolis, and has done exceedingly well. Multiple world records in the 6 to 7 m diameter range were broken on the job, including “Most Feet Mined in One Day” (124.9 m), “Most Feet Mined in One Week” (515.1 m), and “Most Feet Mined in One Month” (1,754 m). Over the course of the project the TBM will bore more than 40 km of tunnels.
Bheri Babai Diversion Multipurpose Project, Nepal
On April 16, 2019, the Prime Minister of Nepal and other government officials, contractor COVEC and Robbins gathered to celebrate the breakthrough of the first ever TBM in Nepal. The machine holed through months ahead of schedule after excavating in excess of 1,000 m per month.
Mumbai Metro Line 3, India
On April 18, 2019, the first of two 6.65 m Robbins Crossover XRE TBMs made its first intermediate breakthrough at the Mumbai Metro Line 3. The TBM completed its 1.2 km long tunnel drive from Cuffe Parade to Vidhan Bhawan station, and will now be readied for its second section on the 2.8 km lot.
Los Condores HEPP, Chile
On April 25, 2019, a 4.56 m Robbins Double Shield TBM completed tunneling a 12 km intake tunnel for the Los Condores HEPP in Region del Maule, Chile. Contractor Ferrovial Agroman overcame challenging mixed face conditions and high water inflows to break through into an underground chamber. A second machine—a 4.56 m Crossover XRE TBM—will be launched to bore another section of tunnel later this year.
Rapid Excavation: It’s a term bandied about throughout our industry, but what does it mean? It’s considered by many to be the ultimate goal in TBM tunneling—machines that reliably complete projects on time (or early) with faster rates of excavation, regardless of conditions. However, speeding up a project schedule is not as straightforward as pushing a machine harder, working longer hours, or increasing your crew size. The issue is complex, and we’ve put together 7 key points to help you navigate it.
1. Consider the Entire Project Schedule
First of all, consider that increasing the excavation rate may not be the only way—and indeed may not be the best way—to speed up a project schedule. The generalized graphic below illustrates my point: TBM excavation often makes up around 25% or less of the total time to complete a public works tunnel. In fact this is a conservative value as by many estimations the total project time is often 15 years. Even if we were to increase the excavation rate by several times what TBMs are currently capable of, it wouldn’t significantly speed up project delivery.
Shortening the decision-making process or the design and consulting process is much more feasible than creating a “super-fast TBM” and would have a bigger impact on the project schedule as well.
2. Know the Facts about TBMs
TBMs are fast, and they’ve been fast for decades. In fact, 50% of all known TBM world records were set more than two decades ago. Much of the seeming lack of progress is illusory–it has to do with the fact that modern tunnels are being built in ever more difficult geology, while more stringent health and safety standards put necessary limits on the excavation process, among other things. Today’s TBMs are capable of boring in harder rock, in higher water pressures, in mixed ground conditions and a host of other environments that would have been impossible in the 1970s and 1980s. And they do it while performing well; indeed, at much higher rates than conventional excavation. The below chart is a good illustration of just how far TBMs have come in recent years.
3. Know That Productivity Has Vastly Improved
There have been some recent articles looking at decreasing productivity in the construction industry overall, such as this article in The Economist. While the productivity of the overall construction industry is up for debate, productivity is not decreasing in the tunneling industry. Moreover, productivity is incredibly reliant on each project’s limitations and requirements. When considering productivity, think about logistics, geology, and data.
Based on decades of field data, we’ve found that a typical TBM heading is two to three times faster than a drill & blast heading. This effect is more pronounced the longer the tunnel drive, and more than makes up for the typically longer lead time to acquire and mobilize a TBM.
So it’s safe to say that TBMs are the way to go for more productive tunneling in all but the shortest tunnels. Logistics is the other key: scheduling of crew and materials, particularly in long tunnels, is so important. This is doubly so if using muck cars. For this reason, using continuous conveyors for muck removal is more efficient, as the removal process does not need to stop for personnel and material movements. In fact at least 75% of all TBM world records were set while using a continuous conveyor for muck removal.
Lastly, consider geology when planning the construction schedule. Even a customized machine with streamlined logistics will bore more slowly in fractured volcanic rock with significant fault zones than in competent sandstone. Setting the excavation schedule requires a close look at geology and the excavation rates of recent projects in those conditions.
4. Identify the Bottlenecks
The bottlenecks must be identified and alleviated if productivity is to be increased. Think about the operations that can be done simultaneous with boring that are now done separately:
- Applying a Concrete Lining: Continuous concrete lining can be done concurrent with boring in many cases. This type of lining eliminates the separate operation of lining a tunnel with segments. Waterproofing membrane can be applied with a membrane gantry if needed
- Increasing Automation: Processes such as cutter changes and segment erection can and are being fully automated on research projects in the industry. Full automation could significantly reduce downtime
- Eliminate re-grip time: When setting segments and thrusting off rings, elimination of re-grip time could be key to increasing advance rates. New innovations such as helical segments are promising to do this through a simple change in segment architecture
5. Understand the Limitations
There has been talk in our industry of making TBMs excavate up to ten times faster. While this is all well and good to aim for, in many cases it may not be realistic. For example, when boring in soft ground using EPB TBMs the penetration rate is limited by material flow and additive permeation. Boring at faster rates could cause heave in front of the TBM followed by subsidence at the surface.
So how could we bore faster in softer ground? It would require a change in the mechanism of excavation—no short order. It would require a better way of holding pressure than the screw conveyor can currently achieve. This is just one of many examples where physical limitations are the barrier to speed, not efficiency.
6. Think Outside the Circle
The possibilities for tunnel construction in the future are intriguing. Consider non-circular tunneling machines, of rectangular, square or other shapes. How much efficiency could be gained by creating a tunnel that requires no back-filling or invert segments to create a flat tunnel invert? Robbins has been exploring these types of machines for decades, with machines such as the Mobile Miner, seen here.
7. Promote Industry R&D
Lastly, there are things all of us in the industry can do to advance technology towards faster and safer tunneling. R&D in our industry is necessarily incremental as technology must be tested for safety and efficacy. But the rate of advancements could be sped up with better funding and closer cooperation between owners, consultants, contractors and TBM suppliers.
In Nepal, the greeting ‘Namaste’, while pressing both palms together in front of the chest, signifies both ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’. It implies a circular concept of time that I rather like—I certainly think I will be coming back to this country of high mountains, valley forests, and yes, tunnels.
The Adventure Begins
When I first learned that I would be visiting Nepal to see a swift-moving tunnel project making an impact in a local community, I was pretty jazzed. I also took it upon myself to overpack. The Bheri Babai Diversion Multipurpose Project (or BBDMP for short) is a 12 km long tunnel that travels below protected forest considered part of the Bardia National Wildlife Reserve. This is an area home to tigers, rhinos, Asian elephants, leopards, and more. And, most worryingly for me, mosquitoes.
Mosquitoes love me. I’m not entirely sure why they love me so much, but let’s just say that if there’s a mosquito within a 2 km radius it will find me. Thus, I decided to be prudent and go all out when packing. I purchased a whole new set of safari clothes, the most potent bug spray I could find in copious amounts, and much, much more. I stuffed everything into two suitcases and set off on my journey.
A full 24 hours of traveling later (the journey from Seattle, USA to Kathmandu is no joke, folks), and I arrived in the Kathmandu airport…with no checked luggage. Through a gross miscalculation (what a way to learn a lesson!) I also had not packed hardly anything in my carry-on bag. I had no clothing with me, and more importantly, no bug spray. What was I to do?
Rolling with It
After discovering that my bags were several days away, I decided to forego any hope of reuniting with them during my trip. Instead, I rolled with it. After a one-hour local flight from Kathmandu to Nepalgunj, we arrived at our destination. Nepalgunj is a frenetic, dusty town located around 8 km from the Indian border and one hour from the BBDMP site. The culture is heavily influenced by India, and we had many meals of delicious spicy curry and fried bread. The streets were lined with small shops and marketplace stalls, but to my dismay, no department stores.
After a quick Google search my coworkers and our guests with us for the site visit headed to the nearest approximation, known as Rani Mart (Rani means ‘queen’ in Hindi). To my surprise, I purchased a whole new wardrobe and everything I needed for 1/10th of the price I would have paid for it in the U.S. (though the sizing on the tags was quite a bit larger!) I was feeling very pleased with myself.
A Little Perspective
The next day we were ready to visit the jobsite. I couldn’t help but notice the rolling blackouts that plagued the city and the vast stretches of farmland requiring huge water resources. The people in the surrounding area make do with limited resources in ingenious ways—I was intrigued to see, for example, that every outlet requires you to flip an on-switch before the current becomes available. Perhaps we Americans could save significant energy if we made a setup like this a national standard. Local hotels, including one we stayed at, use solar panels for their power and air conditioning, and harvest rain water in order to reduce their usage.
All of this made me realize how much the BBDMP will impact the surrounding areas. This was confirmed in a meeting we had with Nepal’s Department of Irrigation (DOI), the project’s contractor China Overseas Engineering Group Co. Ltd. (COVEC), and consultant Geodata. The tunnel is sourcing water from the Bheri River to the Babai River, traveling through mountainous Himalayan geology known as the Siwalik Range. The water, as the project’s name suggests, is for multiple purposes. The estimated annual benefit in Nepalese Rupees is $2.9 billion for irrigation, and $4.3 billion for hydropower, making a total of $7.2 billion in benefits once the project becomes active.
The completed tunnel will irrigate 51,000 Ha of land and provide 48 MW annual generating capacity. That’s not to mention the environmental benefits: The Babai River currently swells each monsoon season and then runs extremely low in drier seasons. It is connected directly to the groundwater table, which is being aggressively depleted. With a regulated flow during all seasons, the groundwater table will see less depletion year-round.
The impact, in other words, is huge. Learning all of this made my obsession with my missing luggage seem inconsequential in comparison. I had my bug spray and some clothes. That was all I needed.
The First Nepalese TBM
With such a landmark project for the region, its proponents were willing to look to the latest technology during the planning phase. Our local representatives, MOSH Tunnelling, had been working since the 1990’s to bring a TBM to Nepal, a country known for its Drill & Blast tunneling. While TBMs had been considered multiple times, each time conventional tunneling had been chosen.
When the BBDMP was fast-tracked as one of the country’s “National Pride Projects” feasibility studies showed that Drill & Blast excavation could take as long as 12 years. The DOI needed a faster option, and they found it in TBMs. They began working with MOSH Tunnelling and Robbins to bring what would be the first Nepalese TBM ever into the country—a 5.06 m diameter Robbins Double Shield. The process for the DOI to acquire funding for the project and select a contractor through international competitive bidding took seven years, spanning from 2007 to 2015, when project commencement officially began.
Fast forward to our site visit in November 2018 and the project is far exceeding expectations. Tunneling has topped out at 1,202 m in one month with an average of around 740 m per month. The knowledgeable COVEC team have traversed a major fault zone, the Bheri Thrust, with no problems, and overcome a stuck TBM shield with a bypass tunnel constructed in just five days. Overall, the TBM is far ahead of schedule and the results are of national importance.
The local community, national media, and government are all watching how the TBM excavation plays out at BBDMP. Given the strong performance, they are now considering TBMs for a host of future multipurpose water projects. It’s the kind of result that opens up a whole new marketplace.
Into the Forest
After a great site visit, we chose to relax for one day at a spectacular local lodge that offered jeep safaris into the Bardia Wildlife Reserve. Currently home to nearly 90 tigers (a number that is rapidly increasing through conservation efforts) we were hopeful of perhaps seeing one of the striped cats in the forest. Our guide was knowledgeable, our jeep sturdy and our driver adept as we traversed bumpy roads and forded a few streams on our safari drive. We saw mischievous macaques, tree-dwelling langurs, a host of brightly colored birds, and various deer. We saw several enticing tiger prints…but the tiger itself remained elusive. Obviously, this means that I must go back!
A Lesson Learned
After traversing a tunnel, traipsing through the forest, and some swift sight-seeing in Kathmandu on our last day, I felt I had come full circle. I was ready to head home, but with an eye towards future opportunities to return to Nepal, whether for business or vacation. I will be back. But next time, you can rest assured, I will only bring what I can fit in my carry-on.
Traveling in the tunneling industry is basically a regular commute for some. A lot of us don’t think twice about the destination, we just do it with a mission in mind. My mission as Robbins Marketing Manager was this: a small conference in Ho Chi Minh City. Okay, easy! As the date approached, about a month before, I kept hearing about how well our Main Beam TBM was doing in Vietnam, at the Thuong Kon Tum Hydroelectric project, despite a gauntlet of challenges. I talked to some project engineers and field service personnel who told me it was in a remote location in Kon Tum Province. And then I heard more about traveling to that site: a 6-hour drive from Da Nang, through nauseating windy, narrow roads, climbing elevations with no speed limits to speak of. But that’s cool, I thought, glad I don’t have to go on that ride.
“Wait, why not just go to the jobsite for a video and photo shoot? We can have it ready for the breakthrough in October,” says Desiree Willis, Robbins PR manager a couple weeks later. What!? A few days after that, it was all planned. Ron, our videographer, Ken, our photographer, and Keri Lin, our marketing manager from Robbins China, set off with me on a last-minute adventure. The 17.4 km long Thuong Kon Tum HEPP tunnel will be the country’s longest once complete. A 4.5 m diameter Robbins Main Beam TBM and continuous conveyor system were supplied to bore a section of the tunnel.
Maybe because I was bracing myself for the worst as far as the drive goes, I didn’t feel like it was that bad. The scenery was jaw dropping with lush jungle, rice paddies and scenic villages, and so many distractions on the sides of the road that I just completely avoided looking ahead. Problem solved! The coolest distractions were the scooters driving on these mountain roads: what they were carrying, how many people were on them, their driving technique. My favorite site was seeing a whole family of people—a 5-year old kid in the front, the dad driving, the mom in the back and a toddler sandwiched in between the parents—on a run-down 125 cc scooter. Then there’s the animals: a litter of stray dogs, adorable black piglets making road crossings that almost made me swear off bacon, herds of cows, goats, etc.
But how the heck did they get the machine, assembled by Onsite First Time Assembly (OFTA), to the site? Apparently, the previous contractor built portions of the roadway to the jobsite while components were staged at the port site. Several bridges, previously built only for light traffic with scooters and carts, were rebuilt or reinforced in order to carry the heavy TBM components. In a road conditions survey report by logistics firm SDV Vietnam Company Ltd., the original bridges were described as “having no shoulder”, and as having “blind corners and sharp curves”. The OFTA process allows a TBM to be assembled on location, saving time and money in terms of shipping costs and project schedule. The machine had successfully made it to the site, as it had launched in 2012.
Upon arriving at the jobsite, I was immediately impressed with the site and the surroundings, especially after hearing about all of the challenges the project had back when the TBM was launched, under a different contractor. The TBM launched into complex rocky conditions that turned out to be quite different than in the original geological study. The machine sat abandoned 2.6 km into the tunnel with equipment sitting idle for months, waiting for a change in circumstances. In 2015, Robbins signed a contract with the project’s new contractor CC47 to supply full refurbishment and to operate the equipment with a full Field Service team. Since then, Robbins Field Service has generally been kicking butt.
The machine was running as expected, so filming interviews and the machine went smoothly. I learned a lot from the interviews, mainly from the Robbins guys we interviewed—PN Madhan, Robbins Engineering Geologist, and Greg Adams, Robbins Field Service Manager. “It’s a workhorse of a machine and still in great condition, considering all of the difficult ground it’s been through,” Greg mentioned. Massive granitic rock wasn’t the only challenge they faced—the team also endured a handful of major fault zones requiring rock bolting and the use of the McNally Roof Support System, as well as some huge water inflows.
Greg did warn our photographer and videographer that they were going to face heat with extremely high humidity. When John McNally, Robbins Field Service Manager-Asia, took over the project site, he managed refurbishment of much of the equipment inside the tunnel along with the camp’s living quarters. This included adding a ventilation tube, keeping the tunnel at a cool 34°C. That’s the temperature AFTER installing the ventilation. Read more about the challenges here.
The crew at the camp quarters, and the jobsite in general, were very welcoming. Greg and Taylor Hwang, Robbins project manager, arranged for a special dinner just for us on the first night—steak and French fries, an American staple! The crew on site mainly consists of English-speaking expats, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, Indian and Philippine guys, so the cuisine varied every day. We hung around that night for a while, listening to stories from some of the field service crew. This is while we were fawning over the pet falcon that one of the field service guys owned. I think the falcon liked living there, because his string wasn’t even tied to the perch at one point. Taylor told us that there were some families and children of the crew living there, who had to find ways to pass the time in this little remote village. He even told us they had pet monkeys at one point. I peeked into a living quarter and saw a drum set made with those Danish butter cookie tins that you get at Christmas. That’s one way to pass the time! Before we were about to leave, some of the Thai people at the site had brought in a bucket with a cover over it. I was curious and went to take a peek, because they started adding salt to the buckets. It was about 30 river snakes (possibly river eels, but they called them snakes) writhing violently because of the sodium touching their skin. Then they started preparing them one-by-one, sticking a nail into their heads and gutting them. It was quite mesmerizing, really.
We only had two full days of shooting video and photos. Before the 6-hour drive back to Danang, all of us got caffeine-drunk on two strong Vietnamese coffees served with condensed milk each. I suspect it’s the perfect combination of the tenaciously strong espresso dripped into a puddle of pure sugar syrup (condensed milk) that singlehandedly causes adult ADHD from the first sip. During the drive down (which was much worse, I didn’t realize how much elevation we climbed going up), we were already reminiscing about the stories and experiences shared at the jobsite. When talking to the field service crew, they were all excited for the coming breakthrough later this year, but it seemed they were just a bit melancholy too. They were at this site for years, in a tiny remote village in the mountains of Vietnam, building friendships and routines. With only a handful of meters left to go on the tunnel, they’ll soon be off to the different parts of the world where they came from. I’m fortunate to have experienced everything I did on this trip and can’t wait to come back to this beautiful country.
At any given time, Robbins TBMs are operating at dozens of jobsites around the world. Our dedicated Field Service personnel take video and pictures of the TBM progress often, so we’ve decided to offer a periodic roundup of what’s going on in a picture-based blog–from assembly of a massive Slurry TBM in Japan, to machine assembly for India’s Mumbai Metro to extremely hard rock encountered in Vietnam. Read on to found out the latest.
MEGA TBM ASSEMBLY IN HIROSHIMA, JAPAN
Onsite First Time Assembly (OFTA) of a 13.67 m (44.8 ft) diameter Robbins Slurry TBM is underway for Hiroshima, Japan’s Expressway Line 5 project. The geology of the 1.4 km (0.9 mi) long tunnel is predicted to include maximum 190 MPa (28,000 psi) UCS granite with high water pressure of up to 13 bar. The Robbins Field Service crew is nearing assembly completion and will begin testing of the equipment in August.
SIMULTANEOUS BUILDS FOR MUMBAI METRO
Mumbai, India’s massive Metro Line 3 project requires multiple TBMs on various contracts. A total of four Robbins TBMs will bore on two separate contracts–two 6.65 m (21.8 ft) Crossover (XRE) TBMs for contract UGC-01, and two 6.65 m (21.8 ft) Slurry TBMs for contract UGC-03. Assembly of the first Crossover TBM and the first Slurry TBM on each contract are occurring simultaneously, and are being overseen by our experienced Field Service crews.
EXTREME HARD ROCK IN VIETNAM
Robbins Field Service crews operating the Main Beam TBM at Vietnam’s Thuong Kon Tum HEPP have encountered granitic rock exceeding 300 MPa UCS and high water inflows. Despite the challenges the tunnel is more than 85% complete.
AN EPIC PROJECT IN MEXICO
With one of three Robbins lots completed at Mexico City’s massive 62 km (39 mi) Emisor Oriente tunnel, Field Service efforts are focused on completing Lots 4 and 5 in difficult mixed ground conditions. The customized EPB TBMs are boring through some of the most challenging conditions in the world, from abrasive basalt to watery clays and boulders.
A JOB WELL DONE IN ALBANIA
TBM assembly and breakthrough is often discussed, but disassembly can be just as complicated. Following the recent breakthrough of the Crossover (XRE) TBM in Albania (the first machine of its kind in Europe) for the Moglicë Headrace Tunnel, Field Service crews are working to disassemble the machine in an underground launch chamber.
The idea of transparency is one that we most often hear touted in politics and policies. But transparency is a concept that applies to our underground industry as well. Widespread knowledge sharing can and should be the policy in our industry, but all too often jobsite politics, confidentiality agreements, and fear of poor public opinion limit what is ultimately divulged. I argue that transparency in tunneling is a help, not a hindrance, and we can make steps today towards clearer communication.
Why It’s Needed
- Learn from Experiences in the Field: Tunneling professionals deserve full access to the successes and the problems that have been encountered in the field. If we were to employ universal knowledge sharing, tunneling operations themselves could become safer and more efficient and overall project costs could be reduced.
- Improve Tunneling Technology: Knowledge of advance rates, performance in specific ground conditions, wear rates for cutters and other surfaces in contact with the cutting face, performance of ground conditioners and foams, and many other types of info are imperative to improving technology. Tunnel boring could be made faster, safer, and more cost effective with such knowledge. It could also improve willingness to try new and emerging technologies in the industry, which benefits all stakeholders. With a good knowledge of TBM performances in specific ground conditions, TBM specifications could also be written to greater accuracy and result in using the most cost effective solutions.
- Improve Risk Sharing: Risk is often apportioned unfairly on today’s tunneling projects. In many cases the TBM supplier is required to shoulder a larger part of that burden than their potential returns. With a better understanding of the risks through knowledge of past projects, as well as knowledge of past risk sharing strategies, this problem can be resolved.
- Ensure Fair Financial Practices: With transparency in terms of contractual pricing and project spending, payments for work performed, etc. and other unsavory practices can be lessened.
- Reduce Litigiousness: Claims in tunneling projects are on the rise worldwide. Recent projects have resulted in separate and duplicate claims against different parties, such as the equipment manufacturer and the owner, for the same issues and without their mutual knowledge. Such claims are unfair, and through transparency and equal access by all parties to a Dispute Review Board, the frequency and extent of lawsuits in our industry could be reduced.
From the Equipment Supplier Perspective
As equipment suppliers, we strive to share the information that is available to us. We’ve opened up about stuck TBMs, challenging drives, and how we’ve overcome those issues. We’ve also tried to share whenever possible why we think fast advance rates and good efficiency were achieved on various projects.
Unfortunately knowledge is sometimes not shared even within parties on the same project, such as the contractor, project owner, owner’s representative, and equipment supplier. Time and again we see that communication between all parties is key to overcoming challenging conditions. The road to transparency starts here: with clear communication between all coordinating parties on a given project.
Not Without Precedent
Transparency is not an untested idea in our industry. A great recent example is that of the U.K.’s Crossrail project. The project follows governmental codes of practice for data transparency and the country’s Freedom of Information Act. Details such as project and equipment costs, spending budgets and records, safety records, and more are available for download on their website, and special requests can be made for additional data. Multiple reports have also been up front about TBM performance, advance rates, and other experiences on the project. The Crossrail project was highly successful and, arguably, transparency played a large part in that. Crossrail is also just one example of transparency at work in the U.K.—governmental programs such as Transport for London’s Transparency Strategy aim to give clear and consistent information to the public about all road and public transit spending.
A Call for Clarity
Transparency is possible in the tunneling industry, but it may require things like international regulations, or at the very least certifications that could be provided by an international organization like the ITA. Such a certificate would be highly beneficial to all stakeholders: It could certify corruption-free practices, and guarantee knowledge sharing. Transparency is not an easy thing to achieve, and there are certainly barriers to the process in various areas of the world. But we can start with transparency requirements within projects, and then move outward. To be clear: knowledge sharing is something that can only benefit our industry. It is our recommendation we start today.
In this blog, Robbins and guest blogger Barrie Willis, Manager Tunneling & Civil for iPS, share their experiences rebuilding and relaunching TBMs in the field.
TBM maintenance: it’s one of the most important factors predicting project success, but it is often glossed over. Experience shows, however, that maintenance plays just as much a part in the excavation rates as the proper TBM design. Regular maintenance can keep future rebuild costs low and keep equipment efficiency high while maximizing advance rates.
Conversely, a lack of maintenance, improper operation, and/or severe ground conditions can result in undue wear and slow advance rates. In a worst case scenario, it can even require rescuing and refurbishing a TBM. Such a case occurred at Bangalore, India’s Namma Metro, where several TBMs required recovery and refurbishment after operating in abrasive ground. Teams from both Robbins and iPS were called in to evaluate and rescue TBMs on separate sections of the tunnel.
The Robbins Experience
Two European-manufactured EPB TBMs “Krishna” and “Kaveri” were launched from the South Ramp station at the Namma Metro project in October and November of 2012, and were slated to bore three sections of metro tunnel each, totaling 1,550 m. While the first 400 m long drive from South Ramp to City Market station went well, the TBMs encountered severe ground conditions on the second, 432 m long drive from City Market to Chickpet Station.
The drives took 12 and 22 months, respectively, and were hampered by a mixed face comprising hard granite and soil with high groundwater levels. Tunneling took place near fragile, historic building foundations in some cases hundreds of years old. The TBMs in this section encountered large boulders as well as reinforced blocks of concrete that seriously damaged the TBM cutterheads. These challenges required regular cutterhead interventions but at the same time there was an inability to grout unstable areas from the surface due to congested residential areas.
It was at this point that the contractor, along with owner Bangalore Metro Rail Corporation Ltd. (BMRCL), approached Robbins and asked them to take over the operations of the TBMs—the critical path tunnels needed to be brought back up to speed. The last 750 m drive between Chickpet and Majestic stations was all that stood in the way of opening a substantial section of Namma Metro’s Phase 1.
Robbins Signs On
After obtaining agreement from the project owner and the contractor, Robbins took over the responsibility for all aspects of the underground operations. A team of over 60 staff including TBM operators, TBM technicians, ring builders, a grouting team, and others began work. Robbins was also responsible for running surface installations and equipment such as the grout batching plant, gantry cranes and power supply. The contractor provided a team of people including surveyors, QC engineers, and loco operators who reported directly to the Robbins site management team.
The Robbins crew carried out refurbishment of the two TBMs, keeping the designs of the machines in tact while installing Robbins cutting tools in both cutterheads. In particular TBM “Krishna” underwent 112 days of repairs and testing. The refurbishment, and subsequent assembly and launch of the two machines, was carried out even as the Chickpet station was being constructed in order to mitigate any further delays. The two TBMs were re-launched in 2015 on their last drive—in March for TBM “Kaveri” and in December for TBM “Krishna”.
Challenging Ground Continues
Difficult conditions were encountered during the bore: the initial 160 meters of the drive was found to consist of residual soil, gradually transitioning into a mixed face of soil and highly weathered granite over the following 100 m. The mixed face conditions then gave way to a full face of fresh granite in the last 50 meters of boring.
The zones of transition were particularly difficult, with soil occasionally falling in due to the vibrations during tunneling. The conditions also made it impossible to maintain hyperbaric air pressure during cutterhead interventions. This problem was overcome by pumping a weak-mix grout solution into the ground surrounding the TBM. The solution permeated into existing voids and effectively prevented air from percolating through to the surface. A period of approximately 36 hours was initially required for curing of the grout solution. However, on-site trials with various additives enabled the standing time to be reduced to 12 hours.
A Resounding Success
Despite the challenges, the TBMs were able to achieve advance rates of 50 mm per minute in highly weathered rock and 22 mm per minute in sections of competent hard rock. TBM “Kaveri” completed its final breakthrough in June 2016. The second TBM “Krishna” had the advantage of known geology and completed its excavation in about nine months on September 28, 2016.
The iPS Experience
On another section of the recently completed Namma Metro, iPS rescued and refurbished a stuck TBM from another European manufacturer, and then operated it for owner Bangalore Metro Rail Corporation (BMRC) alongside the project’s original contractor.
iPS found severe wear—the cutterhead was essentially bare, and the cutters, disc boxes, cutter mountings and grill bars had been worn away. On inspection a serious crack in the screw conveyor was found and the flights had been severely worn. The TBM had been operating for 12 months and had bored 300 m of abrasive ground with insufficiently thorough maintenance. Geology consisted of weathered granite with a high quartz and feldspar content, 130 MPa UCS, and was often mixed with softer soils. It came to a standstill below the main railway lines at a major Bangalore metro station.
Rebuild & Recovery Plan
iPS was able to build an intermediate shaft and refurbish the TBM to the point that it could advance into that shaft for further rebuild work including a replacement cutterhead. But the rebuild work itself was not easy—sourcing parts in India was a challenge, with smaller parts being brought in from Germany and other countries. A new cutterhead was shipped to the site by air freight. Crews dismantled the TBM to inspect and repair the screw conveyor, hydraulic system, PLC, and main drive. The TBM was relaunched in August 2015.
A Second Chance
Once the TBM had started up again, iPS then trained the crew on the importance of maintenance and inspections. They went over cutterhead interventions, what to look for, and how to prevent significant damage.
The training and TBM rebuild were a success—despite continued abrasive geology and mixed face conditions the machine completed the remaining 630 m of its drive in seven months. Frequent interventions were undertaken to maintain and inspect the machine. Breakthrough occurred on April 19, 2016.
Like any piece of machinery, it is essential to consider the total life cycle and to take steps to maximize the efficiency and life of the equipment through good operation and maintenance. Contractors should work with equipment suppliers to learn of the maintenance that is required—both scheduled and in response to changing geology.
When a project begins, err on the side of caution: do too many inspections, more than you think are necessary, to get a feel for how the machine reacts in different geologies. Geological surveys are extremely important, but they don’t always reveal every feature, so in the event the machine encounters unexpected geology, even more inspections will be necessary than normal. Above all, avoid complacency: just because a TBM is a large steel machine with a metal cutterhead and cutters doesn’t mean that nothing can damage it.
The proof is in the multitude of successful projects around the world: TBMs can and have shown their ability to excavate projects at world-class rates of advance even in very difficult conditions. With proper maintenance and operation, a TBM can last over many kilometers of tunnel and years of use.
Purchasing a Tunnel Boring Machine is no small consideration. Many factors are equally important to the price, and they can mean the difference between project success and significant downtime. Download our complimentary checklist to learn about the nine most important things to consider:
Learn more! Download the checklist for choosing a TBM here.
- What it’s Like to Live at a Jobsite for a Year (or More): An Interview
- 3 Ways to Bore More Efficiently in Extremely Hard Rock: Maximize your TBM Advance through Minimized Downtime
- A Bevy of Breakthroughs: The Robbins Jobsite Roundup Featuring 6 Epic Projects
- A Brief History of Rapid Excavation in 7 Key Points
- Namaste Nepal: How I Learned to Live with Less and Appreciate Tunnels More