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Q&A: Get the Lowdown on Pipelayers and Sidebooms

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Pipelayers and sidebooms are ubiquitous on oil and gas pipeline construction sites. Getting the right piece of machinery is critical to project success, as well as ensuring safety on the jobsite.

North American Oil & Gas Pipelines spoke to two experts in the manufacturing and distribution of pipelayers and sidebooms with Doug Garner, vice president of engineering for Tulsa, Oklahoma-based Midwestern Manufacturing Co. and Dawn Otero, marketing and communications manager for Cypress, Texas-based PipeLine Machinery International (PLM).

Midwestern converts new and used tractors into reliable pipelayers with lifting capacities of 10,000 to 230,000 lbs. Midwestern’s sidebooms fit on Caterpillar, John Deere, Case and Komatsu tractors. Garner has more than 20 years of experience in the design and manufacturing of fluid power and mechanical systems, spending the last 15 years at Midwestern.

PLM is the global pipeline equipment dealer for Caterpillar and offers a range of pipelayers with lifting capacities from 40,000 to 216,000 lbs. Otero has been involved in the marketing of Cat pipeline construction equipment for nine years, working closely with the PLM sales and product support teams to understand and facilitate customer needs in the industry.

The following is a transcript of the questions North American Oil & Gas Pipelines asked Garner and Otero.

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Pipelayer PL87 Hero

What innovations have there been in pipelayers/sidebooms in the last five years?

Garner: We collaborated with John Deere Engineering to develop a full range of purpose-built sidebooms/pipelayers, ranging from 40,000 to 220,000 lbs. These fully integrated sidebooms have a low, compact design that provides balanced weight distribution for optimum lifting, operating control and excellent visibility. All four models include a high capacity pipelayer winch package controlled by a multi-functional, electronic joystick for all load, boom and counterweight functions. Our new sidebooms on the John Deere oval-track platforms with extra wide gauge and shoes offer maximum stability, low ground pressure and improved safety features.

Otero: PLM works with Caterpillar to ensure that the voice of the customer is heard, and data is examined to see what improvements can be made to the design process of Cat pipelayers.

Courtesy of extensive engineering changes, the latest Cat pipelayers maintain their center of gravity. In addition, the track roller frame length remains extended, with rear idler positioned downward, resulting in more track on the ground to enhance machine stability, especially in slope applications.

The latest innovations have been in safety and technology. For example, as of 2018, all new PL series model pipelayers include a rear-view camera mounted to the ROPS with the ability to add additional cameras for increased visibility. The Cranesmart Load Monitoring Indicator (LMI) is also now standard, which will wirelessly feed load information to the operator so that safe decisions can be made while operating the machine. Also, technology is always changing and improving so with this comes the opportunity to use machine data to improve on utilization, equipment and fuel loss, monitor the health of the machine and improve response time for service. Unsafe actions are now retrieved from some of this data, which helps contractors determine if there is a training opportunity or something else needed. With data analytics, the possibilities are endless, and Cat pipelayers are keeping up with the industry in this regard.

What are the top concerns when choosing the right pipelayer/sideboom for a particular job?

Otero: I would say top concerns are the terrain of the project site and the size and weight of the pipe. With flat terrain, the weight of the pipe can be taken at face value and a pipelayer with the required lift capacity will be successful. However, if you are working on uneven, mountainous terrain, where parts of the right-of-way are on a slope, a larger lift capacity pipelayer would be recommended for stability.

Other factors can contribute to choosing the right pipelayer. For instance, the length of your project and a completion deadline may determine the number of pipelayers needed and whether or not a higher capacity pipelayer would be the right choice.

Garner: Size and weight of pipe to be handled, required boom reach, typical soil conditions and slope of terrain the machines will be working in. We focus on providing sidebooms that offer the best stability, smooth operation, safety and support.

What maintenance tips do you have to ensure a pipelayer/sideboom remains in good working order?

Garner: Follow the inspection, testing and maintenance requirements listed in Chapter 14-2 of the ASME B30.14 Sideboom Tractor Standard, along with the recommended inspection and maintenance information provided in the sideboom/pipelayer owner’s manual. They provide specific information on frequent inspections, periodic inspections, inspections for sideboom tractors not in regular use, testing, preventive maintenance, adjustments, lubrication and wire rope inspection and maintenance.

Otero: Proper operator education, daily inspections and a good general understanding of the capabilities of the machine leads to a healthier tractor. Follow the maintenance schedules and instructions as set out in the machine’s operation and maintenance manual.

How have manufacturers like Midwestern and PLM helped improve jobsite safety?

Otero: PLM partners with Caterpillar to do more than just make the machines safe to operate. They participate in programs that create a safety awareness so that the people who operate the machines go home safe. An example of this is the Pipeline Safety Leadership Training program. This program was designed specifically for pipeline construction and explores real-life examples to convey the power of culture on safety performance. With an emphasis on personal accountability and incident prevention, the training gives leaders at all levels insight into their role in influencing the attitudes, belief and behaviors that drive culture. In addition, when considering an ancillary product or pipeline solution, safety is the foremost concern.

Garner: In addition to providing sidebooms that offer the best stability, smooth operation, safety and support, we have representation on the ASME B30.14 sub-committee and keep up with the latest standards. We include the necessary operator aids, such as load monitor indicators with our sideboom attachments, along with powerline proximity sensors and cameras as requested.

How has new technology improved operator efficiency?

Garner: When I first started here [at Midwestern], we were typically using manual three-lever hydraulic control valves to control the sideboom functions (Load/Boom/CWT). We quickly changed to hydraulic pilot controls, which included a multi-axis joystick controller for the Load and Boom functions and simple single axis controllers for the other functions. Now, due to the advancement of electro-hydraulic controls, we commonly use E/H controls with a brain module and E/H valves. The E/H controls allow us to have all the functions in one joystick controller and are very easy to use.

Otero: This is a big topic in the industry. Condition Monitoring will improve operator efficiency by streamlining the maintenance process for parts and service, reducing costs such as fuel loss and time to locate machines and allocate them where they are needed. This type of technology and services offer by PLM allows you to know idle time, run-time and code induced faults that may indicate a problem. Another example is the Cat Inspect 4.0 app which allows you to easily download and fill out inspection forms that are serial number-specific so that it can be saved and quickly routed to service personnel if needed.

How do you view the pipeline industry today? Is it declining, even or growing?

Otero: We see it moving forward, but not without obstacles and uncertainties.

Garner: It’s been more challenging in today’s world with all regulations and environmental restrictions. We do seem to be in a down cycle at this time due to pipeline projects being delayed, but it will eventually turn around as history has proven out several times in the past.

What are the biggest concerns for you as a manufacturer in today’s pipeline industry?

Garner: Keeping up with the ever-changing regulations while, at the same time providing a cost-effective solution.

Otero: The biggest concern is forecasting for machine inventory while the industry has uncertain project start dates due to delays in permitting and environmental challenges, etc.

How do you overcome those challenges?

Otero: PLM was created as the global Cat dealer for the pipeline industry, so this is a challenge that we face all the time. However, it is our job to do so. In this process, we work closely with the Caterpillar Global Pipeline (CGP) division on monitoring the industry and forming unique approaches to having the equipment our customer needs — when they need it.

Garner: We stay connected with our dealers and customers to address their needs and provide the best product and support possible.

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