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An Up Lifting Story: Vacuum Lifting Equipment Front and Center on Permian Crude Pipe Handling Jobs

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The price of mishandled oil and gas pipe can run high with the safety of workers, interest of shippers and integrity of tubular goods each hanging in the balance.

Logistics services providers go to great lengths protecting their employees and cargoes, insulating themselves from absorbing the cost of dealing with accidents or mechanical damages during the handling and transportation process.

Waves of specialized handling equipment have been rolled out in recent decades to keep in step with advancements in pipeline technology that require extra care to safeguard delicate anti-corrosive surfaces and coated bonded materials.

Demand for quadruple random lengths used to construct the large outer diameter (OD) transmission lines that carry Permian Basin crude oil to the Gulf of Mexico has also had an impact, emboldening the companies being formed, or specifically branded, to handle horizontal circular steel pipe.

In turn, the use of vacuum lifting equipment in North American pipe handling operations has increased exponentially and become a preferred method for a considerable number of logistics-type companies oriented toward oil and gas.

Safety First

Safety and efficiency are primary drivers for the acquisition of vacuum lifting technology, which provides a virtually touch-free alternative to the wire ropes, chains, hooks and other metallic equipment now impermissible on numerous pipeline projects.

Damage events can reverberate throughout the supply chain with the potential for delays in shipping, loss of customer confidence, costly insurance claims and thousands of dollars in repairs. Accidents resulting from unsafe lifting environments can have serious and irrevocable consequences that go beyond lost workdays to death or debilitating injuries.

Vacuworx lifting systems, a once-revolutionary idea in the pipe handling trades, have been proliferated heavily throughout North America and across the globe with a not-insignificant number of adopters championing the attachments for years.

The company launched in 1999, with a vision of developing an alternative to conventional slinging methods that would help decrease the excessive number of pipe-handling incidents, making pipe-handling activities much safer and more productive in the field.

For over two decades, Vacuworx has committed itself to building an industry revolving around the use of vacuum lifting technology with a partiality toward handlers of oil and gas pipe.

Ongoing research and development efforts, interactive product demonstrations and comprehensive training and certification programs have helped the company and its leaders understand the needs of pipeliners, contributing to their reputation as a service-centered, support-oriented company.

They’ve spent years engendering loyalty in the sector through the nurturing of lasting relationships centered on garnering critical feedback. These types of activities have also helped spur a culture of collaboration and innovation, leading to extremely open lines of communication and continuous improvement of the lifters’ performance and capabilities.

Vacuworx lifting systems

Two advantages often associated with Vacuworx lifting systems are the ability to be deployed rapidly and operate side-by-side without interference, even when wielding long-length, big-inch pipe.

Big Picture

Goals most generally associated with the adoption of vacuum lifting tend to fall into three categories: Keep everyone safe, minimize damage to pipe and dispense it at a faster rate.

More specifically, key performance indicators could be tied to offsetting financial risks, such as overinflated labor costs or disruptions in handling operations.

The first of Vacuworx’s RC Series lifters, an RC 10, rolled off the line in 2000, and the Tulsa-based manufacturer has been building on the success of its flagship model ever since. RC Series lifters feature wireless remote operation, lifting capacities up to 55,000 lbs and 360 degrees of rotate maneuverability. Vacuum pad assemblies accommodate for the handling of pipe up to 48 in. OD.

Best suited to operate in conjunction with large excavators, the RC Series was designed to give operators complete control of the pipe, and ability to handle it with great precision, from the safe confines of the carrier equipment. Deployment of the machines automatically limits direct contact with the pipe, eliminating the need for workers to climb on top of vehicles to secure hooks, straps or chains; tagline operators on the ground; or extra spotters in the lifting vicinity.

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Two advantages often associated with Vacuworx lifting systems are their ability to be deployed rapidly and operate side-by-side without interference, even when wielding long-length, big-inch pipe.

A new case sheds light on three contracting companies working independently to perform various transportation and handling tasks feeding construction of crude oil pipelines in the heart of the Permian Basin. The individual companies’ continuous and time-phased deployment of the equipment over the past 18 months alone is indicative of Vacuworx’s level of entrenchment in the niche.

Their application and overlapping workloads reflect some ways in which pipe handlers are fine tuning strategies, making the most innovative use of vacuum lifting technology while right-sizing needs for equipment and labor resources across the board.

Fresh Take

Coastal Marine Contractors got started in 1982, as a marine construction company operating primarily in the oil and gas arena. Active throughout the Gulf Coast region, the company’s repertoire lies in laying and installing offshore pipeline, constructing platforms and related infrastructure, and repairing inland water, oil and gas facilities.

Coastal Marine specializes in fulfilling marine transport, pipe handling and specialty cargoes services projects. Based in Slidell, Louisiana, it covers the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway from Brownsville, Texas, to Panama City, Florida, and all connecting inland rivers in the United States.

The outfit owns and operates all its barges, excavators and other equipment, with a total of six Vacuworx RC Series lifters in three different models to handle a dynamic range of pipe handling jobs.

Coastal Marine’s initial dive into vacuum lifting came about in November 2018, working with newly milled, 80 ft lengths of 30 in. OD crude oil pipe manufactured by Jindal Tubular USA at its Port Bienville-based steel mill for the Gray Oak Pipeline.

Allen Warriner, General Manager of Coastal Marine, said the company had been engaged with a rather complex method of offloading the pipe from a barge using a lattice boom crane. That technique worked to an extent, but required an elaborate setup with a flagger, two tagline operators, two men exposed to pipe in the barge and two more people spotting on the truck.

At first, the company considered switching to a conventional hoisting application that relied on a crane, hooks and a 10-person gang. That prospect, however, appeared nearly as cumbersome.

Safety was the prime motivator when Coastal Marine went searching for alternatives that would provide for a nimbler solution and lessen exposure to suspended loads or elevated heights during operations at its Ingleside, Texas, landing site.

“With the lattice boom crane, we didn’t have any control, and we would get damage on the coating sometimes during the disconnection,” Warriner said. “We had to hire 14 people to secure a 12-man team.”

The hunt ended when they came upon a video of vacuum lifting in action and Coastal Marine was hooked. In short order, the company purchased a new RC 16 lifter and CAT 365 excavator, cutting its teeth on that first job by handling approximately 7,000 pipe joints for a total of 35,000 metric tons.

“We found Vacuworx on YouTube,” Warriner said. “Safety was the main concern, working on and around these slippery tubulars. In this case you have the excavator, the vacuum lifters and a helper-spotter. We noticed the efficiency of the offloading, so we implemented it on the loading, too.

“The labor aspect, the safety aspect, the mitigation of damage to the pipe — everything is clean and controlled. We figured it would be the safest if not the fastest way to unload coated pipe with a two-man crew.”

Vacuworx lifting systems

At Aransas Pass, Texas, Coastal Marine offloaded 80-ft pipe from its barges and Freight Solutions deployed a John Deere 744 wheel loader with a Vacuworx RC 16 lifter to load tractor trailers for transport to laydown yards in Cotulla, Texas.

Coming Together

Freight Solutions, based in Houston, Texas, has become well versed in pipe handling over the past eight years. The company, founded by Joseph Andrews in 2012, covers a wide variety of terrain with a North American footprint extending throughout the continental United States and Canada.

The first run with Vacuworx lifting systems for Freight Solutions involved a nearly seven-month project that began in February 2019, and included a handoff by Coastal Marine of approximately 15,000 joints of 30 in. OD pipe with coordinated efforts at a West Texas landing site.

Those 80-ft pipes were initially procured by Coastal Marine at Jindal Tubular’s mill and then transported by barge around the Gulf of Mexico to be offloaded in Aransas Pass, Texas.

On that job, Coastal Marine offloaded the pipe from its barges to the whip and Freight Solutions deployed a John Deere 744 wheel loader with a Vacuworx RC 16 lifter suspended by modified forks to load tractor-trailers for transport to laydown yards in Cotulla, Texas.

When volumes were running high, that system was used to rack pipe that Freight Solutions would later load on departing trucks using an RC 16 in conjunction with a John Deere 470 excavator. Jackson said the setup allowed for better management of production by avoiding delays. It also made the use of drayage trucks unnecessary, cutting the approximate distance pipe had to be carted by up to half.

“We were able to load pipe simultaneously in two-tier pyramid formation on the bed of the trailer, two or three on the bottom and one or two on top, with no dunnage,” Jackson said. “It’s a continuous process. When the volume on the trucks was high, we used a front-end loader to rack and store up to 400 joints at a time.”

Jackson said steerable pole trailers were also used by Freight Solutions to transport pipe directly from the port facility to a location about 150 miles out, at the energy company’s request, for stringing by the pipeline construction contractor along the right-of-way.

Next Steps

After Aransas Pass, Coastal Marine and Freight Solutions came together again, this time at Rockport Terminals in Rockport, Texas, where Coastal Marine was offloading pipe from barges and Freight Solutions was loading the approximately 11,000- to 12,000-lb joints from the dock onto trucks for shipment to their next destination. All overflows were taken straight to the rack.

It was during that five-month haul of material ultimately destined for construction of the Midland-to-ECHO 4 pipeline that the versatile qualities of vacuum lifting and individual approaches to employing the equipment started shining through.

Freight Solutions, a transportation and flatbed trucking company specializing in oil and gas equipment, is an experienced hauler with more than 180 stringing towable trucks to support arterial acquisition, movement and storage activities.

Kelly Jackson, Senior Project Superintendent, joined the company in February 2019. His start coincided with a transitional period during which the leadership team had made a strategic decision to incorporate the use of vacuum lifting equipment.

Freight Solutions already had the trucks, trailers and knowhow required to handle wide-diameter pipe, from unloading off water to stacking in laydown yards and delivering to the right-of-way. Now it had decided to take the entire pipe unloading and loading operation in-house, as opposed to outsourcing such activities.

With vacuum lifting, Jackson said the company was taking a proactive approach to inspiring customer confidence, alongside intentional steps that would help shield both pipe and personnel. What Freight Solutions discovered with Vacuworx was the innovative solution and experienced vendor it had been looking for.

“It is truly amazing to see a vacuum system,” Jackson said. “Most people tend to think it is a magnetic system and are surprised to learn that is a vacuum lifter picking up 11,000-lb joints, 19,000-lb joints, swinging them around, racking them three or four joints high.

“We have handled some heavy pipe. With the lifting tech up, the potential for damage is down. The number of required personnel is down. You don’t have a ground crew running around or the risk of a suspended load coming down and possibly hurting somebody.”

Adding Value

Factors such as quantity of joints and distances to be travelled are all but fixed, making many hard costs associated with hauling pipe from point A to point B largely unavoidable.

Because cost is incurred without adding value each time goods are handled at a terminal or storage facility, a primary logistics objective is to eliminate handling wherever possible. Ideally, the numbers of handlings are reduced to save time and reduce the risk of damaging the pipe.

Both Coastal Marine and Freight Solutions have made prolific use of their vacuum lifters and the practicality of carrier equipment to help overcome challenges associated with the need for re-handling.

By taking over their own handling of pipe, Jackson said Freight Solutions has already succeeded in cutting damage rates by up to five percentage points as vacuum lifting has eliminated any reliance on outside contractors or the use of hooks and slings.

“You would have a number of people in the hatch, then others on the dock pulling hooks out of pipe,” Jackson said. “That doesn’t include any additional operators that may be required if they don’t go direct discharge to truck.”

Coastal Marine’s appetite for vacuum lifting systems was whetted further, Warriner said, when its crews became the first to double up on the usefulness of coupling Vacuworx RC Series units with wheel loaders specifically for the performance of jobsite pipe transportation tasks.

In Rockport, Coastal Marine outfitted a Caterpillar 966H loader with modified forks and an RC 16 lifter, putting the system to work shuttling pipe over relatively short distances between the barge and loading areas. Going beyond the more customary method of utilizing that specific method to load and unload trucks at docks and port facilities, Warriner weighed in on the application and resources that were saved.

“The forks with pockets came to me one day with a spare RC 12,” Warriner said. “I called the engineer at Vacuworx and asked, ‘What are these for?’ He said, ‘So you can load pipe off the truck.’ So, I fastened it to a front-end loader and started using the lifter to stage pipe on the dock.

“Before, it was one excavator and truck for every 100 feet,” Warriner continued. “We would to have an excavator to offload the barge, another excavator to load the truck and another to load it on the pile a quarter mile away. It made the whole (vacuum lifting) process even better.”

Veteran Account

The application of Vacuworx lifting systems, in relation to this 200-mile, 30 in. OD pipe-handling job, was taken a step further with the entrance of Jones Pipeline Services, an early adopter and veteran user of the equipment for more than eight years.

Jones Pipeline Services, part of Jones Companies, has been honing its pipe handling tradecraft with vacuum lifters since the company’s foundation in 2011. The Hattiesburg, Mississippi-based organization, formerly known as Jones Logistics, offers a suite of pipe handling and transportation services, covering all modes of pipe transport including loading, offloading and shipping via truck and rail.

The company owns and operates over 65 trucks, 100 trailers, and a variety of Caterpillar, John Deere and Komatsu excavators. It has invested in the purchase of about a dozen Vacuworx RC Series lifters, drawn to the durability and adaptability of the devices when paired with multifunctional host machines.

Malcolm Zabaneh, Director of Operations with Jones Pipeline Services, said the company is accustomed to dealing with high workloads in all types of environments and locations from ports, to rail sidings, to storage and staging yards, all the way to the right-of-way.

He said Jones Pipeline Services handles full procurement and control of pipe yards with the ability to secure, rack and store horizontal steel pipe for extended periods, if necessary, until they are required for construction. At which, they serve to then load out and transport to the right-of-way.

The company was more than equipped when the first of Freight Solutions’ tractor-trailers started arriving from Rockport to Hondo, Texas, in September 2019, and Jones Pipeline Services began a six-month process of unloading and racking the pipe for future use.

“We had been touching up to 250 joints a day, with a production rate of up to 100,000 linear feet per week,” he said. “We handled all 200 miles of pipe with one system, an excavator with a Vacuworx RC 16 lifter.”

Zabaneh said that Jones Pipeline Services has grown to appreciate the features of Vacuworx equipment that are geared toward durability as the company’s iron tends to remain in near-constant motion on rugged jobsites and amid other harsh working conditions. The variables making up those determinations include mode of transport, established routes, levels of storage and construction timelines, among alternative factors.

Since 2011, the company has relied on Vacuworx almost exclusively, using RC Series attachments to lift and maneuver a total of more than 14,000 miles of pipe.

Jones Pipelines Services likes the level of preparedness that the lifting systems allow for — to deal with unforeseen events, influxes in production and on-the-fly demands. Zabaneh said crews are especially fond of how fluid the systems can be in terms of switching pad assemblies to dealing quickly with on-the-spot diameter changes and keeping the entire project moving ahead full bore.

Jones Pipeline Services operates between 15 and 20 Vacuworx lifting systems at any given time, using rentals or asset-owned as needed to ensure timely fulfillment of all job requirements and customer demands. That quick-coupling ability can contribute in many cases to the fluidity and efficiency of offloading or loading out, further increasing the value of the application across various project milestones.

“The U.S. has become the largest producer and exporter in the world, pushing toward larger diameter pipelines leading out of West Texas towards the Coast,”

Zabaneh said. “In recent years, commodities from the Permian Basin have seen explosive growth. The need to move this commodity in large volumes has been fueling demand for these long-length, large-diameter pipelines.
“We work in ever-changing conditions in the field and so, too, the types of demands of our services,” he continued. “Most recently, we’re seeing all large diameter pipeline projects requiring larger RC 16s, RC 20s and RC 25s. Vacuworx’s service team understands the needs of the industry. They are really good at setting realistic expectations and getting the equipment there on time, all the time.”

The biggest advantage Jones Pipeline Services has found with Vacuworx is efficiency, but Zabaneh said near-immediate access to personalized customer service and technical support are their biggest selling points. The safety aspect, he said, comes very naturally.

“All our operators are trained to use Vacuworx systems,” Zabaneh said. “The machines are highly functional and user friendly and very compatible with our excavators.

“We have found a partner, been a partner, like to think we are a partner with Vacuworx,” he added. “We only utilize Vacuworx lifters. We own our own fleet and rent as additional capacity is required or needed. From taking a service call to getting us a part for another attachment, there has never been a time we can pinpoint that Vacuworx has let us down.”

Shared Outcomes

Super users tend to roll from one pipe-handling job into the next, leaving little to no room for downtime as customer needs are continually being analyzed or reassessed while handling round after round of cylindrical stock.

Increased competitiveness for third-party shippers is often tied to running lean and improving flexibility, at the same time lessening the human toll and offsetting chances to incur additional expenses during the handling and transportation process.

Those turning away from obsolete handling methods and toward vacuum lifting are reporting higher levels of output and agility, contributing to an increase in both pipe-handling effectiveness and logistics services quality.

Value-adds and technological capabilities that improve profitability and produce desired outcomes can be viewed as points of differentiation as exceptional care is taken to protect both people and products while meeting or exceeding all project requirements for in-full, on-time delivery.

Between February 2019 and January 2020, Coastal Marine, Freight Solutions and Jones Pipeline Services, each put a glove on 1.2 million lf of pipe for one pipe-handling job. The success of the project in this case reflects how the overlapping use of vacuum lifting equipment by highly independent actors as part of tightly coordinated efforts during pinnacle stages can lead to shared, positive performance outcomes.

All three companies when asked about vacuum lifting equipment rental and purchasing decisions gave high marks to compatibility with excavators, creation of less labor-intensive working environments, and the anticipated level of service and support they expect to receive during and after the sale.

They are demonstrative of the customer-fueled approach that is pushing the envelope of the lifters’ endurance and performance while maximizing the capabilities of high-capacity excavators and versatile tool carriers in the field.

For some users, Vacuworx lifting systems have become an indispensable tool used to reinforce logistical prowess and stay ahead of latent vulnerabilities in the pipe-handling space.

Others have propped the RC Series up as a virtual institution that helps align safety goals with the optimization of labor resources from the steel mill to where the pipe is strung out and welded together in the ground.

“All three companies were using our lifters at each stage of the process,” said Paul Raines, a regional service manager with Vacuworx. “I was quite impressed as this is the first time I have had a firsthand experience with companies working together with our lifters in such a manner.”

After clearing Rockport and Hondo, Freight Solutions and Coastal Marine both immediately transitioned into another three-month project on behalf of Jindal Tubular, which had been supplying 36 in. OD pipe for an eastern Kansas natural gas line set to span approximately 31.5 miles. Jones Pipeline Services was already on to its next project, a 255-mile, 42 in. OD pipe-handling job, while looking ahead and bidding on future opportunities.

Built and operated by Phillips 66, the 900,000 barrels per day Gray Oak Pipeline, stretching 850 miles from West Texas to the Gulf Coast, went into service as of April this year. The Midland-to-ECHO 4 pipeline expansion, which will transport crude to Enterprise’s ECHO terminal in Houston from the heart of the Permian Basin in Midland, Texas, is expected to become operational in 2021.

Todd Razor, president of Three Razors Media, is a multimedia storyteller residing in Des Moines, Iowa. He covers people, projects, trends, innovations and technologies in the construction, real estate and manufacturing industries.

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