Pipeline's Progress

National Oil Companies are helping drive a booming market

A Caterpillar side-boom at work on the Taweelah - Fujairah Pipeline
A Caterpillar side-boom at work on the Taweelah - Fujairah Pipeline


With billions of dollars being invested in the Middle East’s midstream oil and gas networks and transnational pipeline projects, the region’s National Oil companies and their contractors are helping drive a booming market for sellers of pipelaying machines

Mention a pipelaying project, and the first thing that comes to mind is probably a long row of side-boom dozers lowering pre-welded pipe segments.

While pipeline construction often involves a large number of different machines – excavators, bulldozers, trenchers, pipe benders, welders and trucks – the pipelayers themselves are the most important tools.

And as for on-site safety, using the pipelayers competently is all important: as numerous YouTube videos will attest to, the number of accidents caused by a row of side-booms tipping is not insignificant.

Caterpillar is the undisputed king of the side-boom segment. While these are offered by a number of brands, including Komatsu, Liebherr and CASE, Caterpillar has always managed to be the staple of many pipelaying projects, in part because of a reputation for reliability.

Marco Jannuzzi, pipeline manager for Caterpillar, covering EMEA, says that Cat machines “have an extraordinary tradition of work in the Middle East”.

In part, he says, this is because the two Cat largest dealers in the Middle East –Zahid Tractors and Al Bahar – are large and well-established dealers with a long tradition with the brand that stretches back decades.

And perhaps the best advertisement is the number of machines in operation.

“We know how to build machines that can withstand operating conditions as tough as you experience in the Middle East. High-ambient temperature packages are available and have been tested on thousands of pieces of equipment, over decades,” says Jannuzzi.

Caterpillar launched its first side-boom pipelayer in 1952. Based on a bulldozer rig, the manufacturer makes extensive modifications to the base dozer in order to become a pipelayer. But although it is a well-known product, Caterpillar is on the guard against the perception that the machine has not evolved.

“A comment we often hear is that our pipelayers have remained ‘the same’ for decades,” says Jannuzzi. “Well, although their look may be similar, current machines are definitely not ‘the same machines’ as 60 years ago.”

Engine and emission technology has progressed considerably, and Cat’s PL machines use a Planetary Powershift Transmission for higher horsepower. Electronics means improved efficiency for its hydraulics and machine management, included its ‘Connected Worksite’ which can monitor all machines on a worksite.

Yet one reason Caterpillar may need to guard against complacency about its product, is a competitor with a new style of pipelaying machine it refers to as “revolutionary concept”.

Volvo Construction Equipment released its new pipelayer machine in 2008. A completely new design in every sense of the word, it’s a machine that the Swedish manufacturer hopes will completely change the work patterns of contractors on pipeline projects.

Departing from the common wisdom of the side-boom segment, Volvo’s pipelayers are based on an excavator rig. This means that the boom can rotate 360°, and it also gives the driver a lot more flexibility when travelling under load.

The machine was initially released in the North American market in 2008, released there to test in the field the machine’s function and reliability. The US was chosen because of the strength of the dealer network there, and ability to access the machine, says Frank Schmitt, Volvo CE’s pipeline business development manager.

“The oil & gas clients want to have the machine up and running all the time, so the service we are providing through our dealers to the field should be excellent.”

In the US it received a favourable reception, leading to contractors in Europe clamouring for its release date on the Continent to be brought forward. Volvo acquiesced, releasing in 2009-10, and it has seen its popularity in both markets grow.

Last year came the global release, and Schmitt says that the machine is seeing good success in markets in the Middle East, Africa, Northern Africa and in the cold climates of the CIS states.

“The machine is now starting to spread around the world,” says Schmitt, and is in use on the full range of pipeline projects: oil and gas pipelines, water pipelines, and even slurry pipelines, with the machines currently working on a slurry pipeline project in Morocco.

“In the region here, especially in Saudi, we see huge demand. We see demand for the larger machines which are suitable for the pipe sizes we find in Saudi Arabia, and also for the bigger oil pipelines in the UAE.

“Whereas in the surrounding countries, there are smaller pipe sizes used, and there our PL3005D [released in the Middle East next year] is the suitable pipelayer.”

In terms of project-related demand, the market in the UAE has softened, says Schmitt, but in Saudi Arabia there remains a large number of projects to be completed. There is also growth in water pipelines in the Middle East and in North Africa.

Unlike the traditional side-booms, the Volvo pipelayers are very versatile outside of the core pipelaying role, and can be used to efficiently move around pipes either in the staging ground or along the pipeline.

“When we present this machine to clients in the oil & gas pipeline construction segment, and they see that the machine is capable to lift the load at 360° swing, immediately they see the advantage, and realise that they can change the working pattern completely at the job site.”

“For the pipe-handling, they do not have to use a big crane anymore, which is a higher investment than our machine,” says Schmitt.

It’s the same at the bending station, where the machine can be used to move around the pipes quickly. A higher hook height also makes unloading of pipes easier.

“Also when you’re lining the pipes for welding, instead of moving the tracks, and lining the pipes, you’re using the swing. And together with the precise boom cylinder, you can quickly align the pipes and clamp them for wielding.”

Schmitt says that one of the main advantages of their machine is its ability to work on slopes, whereas traditional side boom machines are hamstrung when laying pipes on a high gradient.

Since their boom cannot rotate, as a slope increases the centre of gravity of the machine shifts. In the case of the excavator-based pipelayer, the operator can rotate the boom and hold the weight up the slope.

“What we have learnt from our clients in the field is that we have a big advantage on our machine versus the traditional side-boom when they are working on a slope,” says Schmitt. “The position of the weight means that the machine is even more stable, and can lift a lot of load.”

While the range has been well-received in the US and European markets, Volvo CE’s PL series is yet to truly break-out in the Middle East. In part this may be because the radical newness of the design means that some companies are wary at first about buying a machine which they have yet to see put to use on a project.

One way to assure customers in the oil & gas sector is with pipelaying machine’s safety features. Load monitoring systems are required in a number of markets by legislation, and Caterpillar’s global dealer for the pipeline sector, PipeLine Machinery (PLM), offers a wireless system that can be installed on Cat machines.

Volvo’s load management system operates with three sensors built into the machine: a sensor measuring the load on the hook, a boom angle sensor, and sensor measuring the slope the machine sits on, both the X and Y axis. Together, these provide the operator with an accurate picture of the load status.

A further nod to safety is the provision by Volvo of operator trainers, and buyers of new machines can expect trainers from both the Volvo factory and the local dealer to instruct their operators, and in a follow up visit will observe operators and give recommendations about how to better arrange the work site.

Another ‘bonus’ for operators in the Middle East is that machine operators find it easy to transition to the Volvo pipelayer machines, since most have experience on excavators.

Volvo’s initial global release of pipelayers consisted of an 80 tonne and 110 tonne versions, the PL4608 and the PL4611 respectively. The smaller, 50t, PL3005D was released earlier this year, though buyers in the Middle East will have to wait until mid-2013 before a Tier 2 version is released, that is compliant with the fuel specifications currently in use here.

When asked whether competitors view Volvo’s range of machines as a serious threat, Schmitt declined to comment. But other sources suggest that the purveyors of side-boom pipelayers are watching the market’s uptake of the machine with interest.

Earlier this year Caterpillar upped the ante by introducing two new models at the top of its pipelayer range, with the PL83 and PL87 replacing respectively the 583T and 587T. The PL83 now is rated at 72.5 tons, about 14% more than the 583T, and the PL87 can carry over 97 tons, a 6% increase versus the 587T.

The new machines are also equipped with longer track roller frames for more tracks on the ground, and feature a repositioned centre of gravity for improved balance and work capability particularly on slopes.

It has also recently released the 953D Welding Tractor designed for pipeline contractors to support welding operations.

Jannuzzi says that they have seen some shift in the demand based on pipeline size, but that completion of large diameter pipelines still requires high lifting capacity pipelayers, hence the lift capability upgrade.

“Other areas are now focusing on distribution networks, with pipelines of smaller diameter. Recently, we have seen an increase of 28 inch lines, which has driven increased demand for 40 ton size class pipelayers.”

One maker that excels at the mid-range is Liebherr, who have a range of crawler-tracked machines, including four pipelayers and one welding tractor, with their operating weights lying between 17 and 58 tonnes.

Of course the German-manufacturer, best known for cranes, also services the pipeline construction market with its crawler cranes range.

Indeed, while there is a focus on the pipelayers themselves, a pipeline construction project will typically have a wide range of machines on site.

Crawler cranes may also be used for certain parts of the project, especially where lines cross, or where the standard boom length offered by the pipelayers is insufficient.

Andreas Geier, general manager of Sennebogen Middle East, says that the main demand for their products in the Middle East is through the oil & gas sector, including pipeline projects.

Tracked cranes are the only crane that can travel under load, the ‘pick and carry’ function, and Geier says that their telescopic crawler cranes have been used on several pipeline construction projects in the Middle East.

“Our machine will never replace the standard pipe layers, but the pipe layers with the side boom application are fixed in one position.”

The long boom on the telescopic crawler – 58 metres on the 80 tonne model – means that it can be used to place pipe segments where there is a cross of pipes, or angle of pipes, though the typical working radius of the 80t crawler is 12-20 metres.

Advantages of the Sennebogen product include the very robust boom design, says Geier, which uses a hydraulic cylinder, rather than an electronic boom design with pins. “The pipes can move during the process, so the boom needs to be very strong.”

A crawler crane can also be used at the staging area for the pipe-bending. And its other uses are one of its advantage, says Geier.

“The advantage of the crawler is that you can use it for yard crane, as a service crane, within the job site. It can handle standard crane jobs, it’s a multifunctional machine.”

Multifunctionality is another argument made by Volvo in favour of their PL range.

As noted, the machine is based on an excavator, and it is able to converted into an excavator with a kit supplied by Vovlo, with two mechanics able to convert the machine in a single shift. For some contractors this is advantage, while others will use them purely in their pipelayer configuration.

Yet with their 360° rotation, contractors are finding a lot of uses for the machine in supporting the pipeline construction process, says Schmitt, using the machine for pipe handling and for other operations where usually support machinery would be used. “It’s the first machine which comes on the job site, and the last machine to leave.”

Taweelah – Fujairah Pipeline
244 kilometres in length, the Taweelah – Fujairah Pipeline (TFP) Project was a significant pipeline project crossing four Emirates in the UAE. With transportation capacity of 1.6 billion sc/f of natural gas per day, the pipeline was built to deliver natural gas to Fujairah where Abu Dhabi Water and Electricity Company (ADWEC) had built two power stations.

With construction beginning in 2009, and the project completed in December 2010, 116,000 metric tonnes of line pipe was used, involving more than 20,675 pipeline welds.

244 kilometres of the pipe consisted of 48” pipeline, while 1.2 kilometres of a 40” spur line was laid between the receiver of the pipeline and the power plant. The highest point of the TFP is 680 meters above sea level, and the construction included 27 steep slopes whose gradient ranged from 10 to 33 degrees.

The pipeline passed through more than 9,800 metres of wadis and catchment areas, and 174 kilometres of the TFP pipeline constructed along with IPIC’s oil pipeline in the shared right of way (ROW). The line was built by the Russian engineering construction company Stroytransgaz (STG).

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