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Big interview: Eng Al Hammadi of RAK PWSD

Engineer Ahmed Al Hammadi, director-general of the Ras Al Khaimah public works department, discusses the authority’s purchase of Iveco Trakkers in the context of the emirate’s public projects

INTERVIEWS, PMV

With the constant ebb and flow of construction projects in the region, it can be easy to forget the equally important range of vehicle and machine fleets supporting this work directly and indirectly — this includes the logistics and aggregates sector, but significantly also the municipal fleets that take over where the contractors finish, delivering the infrastructure that ties communities and commercial projects to the federal roads, landscaping the space in between and taking out the trash.

In Ras Al Khaimah, the man presently handling these responsibilities is Engineer Ahmed Mohammed Ahmed Al Hammadi, executive council member and director-general of the RAK Public Works and Services Department (PWSD), and it was ultimately his decision that saw the recent purchase of a large order of Iveco Trakkers heavy trucks equipped with Atlas tipper bodies for the municipal fleet.

The crunch time came six months ago, when RAK PWSD was evaluating bids for a large fleet order. Al Hammadi explains: “Two years ago we went with Mercedes and Mammoet, but in the bidding six months ago, we did the analysis and chose Iveco, because they managed to match the specs of our main supplier, Mammoet, and we are optimistic that they will be better than our old fleet. Moving forward, if the trucks are a success, we will continue with them — so this could see the fleet shift.

“We believe the Iveco trucks will be better in terms of manoeuvring, and technically in operation. However, we are primarily interested in two things, both of which we will only come to know with time: how our drivers will handle this new combination on the road, and in turn, how our workers will handle them under maintenance — because the old ones came with an American chassis, and we have had a lot of trouble maintaining them.”

While RAK PWSD carries out a wide range of different functions within Ras Al Khaimah — in fact, it is one of the largest departments in the local government — for the most part, the tipper-bodied trucks delivered by Iveco have been put to use on a very specific undertaking that is being carried out with all the seriousness of any large piece of national infrastructure.

The work in question is the levelling of land to provide the plots of land as part of the Zayed Housing Project — a presidential initiative to ensure that every Emirati citizen is able to build a house, and to this end is able to purchase a plot of land from the government. As the Emirati population continues to grow, so too does the demand for these plots.

Al Hammadi says: “In the UAE, every local citizen is entitled to a piece of land for free. It is one of his rights: free healthcare, free education, free plots — so what they need from us is to level those plots.”

While this may sound like simple, the scope of the undertaking is significant. Ras Al Khaimah is nowhere near as flat as its sister emirates and its terrain rises quickly from the Gulf Sea over increasingly undulating dunes into foothills and then its mountains, including Jebel Jais, the highest peak in the UAE. The plots being levelled, as per royal decree, require RAK PWSD to pass through whatever obstacles lie in their path. At the present time, that obstacle is dunes, which means sand, and a lot of it — and here we come full circle to the need for an effective fleet of tipper-bodied trucks.

While RAK PWSD has a broad range of regular duties, from waste collection to road maintenance, it is the levelling project that is the main task in terms of its share of the department’s fleet resources — occupying some 50% of the available vehicles and equipment, according to Al Hammadi. By contrast, RAK’s entire waste management operation only accounts for 10% or so of the department’s fleet.

The whole process of plot levelling on a mass scale began four years ago, when it was found that the delivery of plots in RAK was being outstripped by the demand for plots from the Emirati population. His Highness Sheikh Sheikh Saud Bin Saqr Al Qasimi, Ruler of Ras Al Khaimah, subsequently instituted a drive to deliver a fixed number of plots each year, and he calls Al Hammadi on a daily basis for an update on the progress of the work — often visiting the sites himself and issuing direct instructions.

In 2016, RAK PWSD has been set the target of levelling 10,000 plots, but Al Hammadi highlights: “When we started four years ago, we started at only 5,000 — after two years we doubled the fleet.”

It is Al Hammadi’s job to make sure things stick to schedule, and so far they are. This year the total number of plots levelled had passed 9,000 in early October, but the effort has required a non-stop schedule.

Despite the fact that many of the active plot levelling sites are adjacent to existing residential areas, the trucks still work up to 11pm, and they start up again early the next morning. The work is carried out intensively to minimise the length of the disruption.

“We have been continuously levelling,” Al Hammadi continues. “It started four years ago, and from that time we have levelling day and night, and we will be continuing for the next two or three years.”

The sheer pace of the excavation, loading and dumping required to level the dunes and fill in adjacent depressions is why the choice of tipper trucks was so critical. Downtime is not an option.

At the same time, in the cash-strapped economic climate, the RAK PWSD is constantly looking for ways to reduce its costs without cutting corners. Al Hammadi is driving change in the direction of higher productivity and performance and lower total cost of operation.

Pointing to some existing inefficiencies, he notes: “The old vehicles, the old trucks — some of them really you cannot find spare parts — that’s why we are now very selective. We are trying to unify our fleet and limit our selection to brands like Iveco, Caterpillar and Komatsu. Before, we would purchase 10 units at a time: Iveco, MAN, Scania, Daimler; now we are thinking differently.

Emphasising the pressure of parts supply, he adds: “It becomes too much. It is better to stick to two; not to keep one monopoly, but two. If you have maximum three, ok, but unifying is now the trend.”

The recent order with Iveco also represents the latest phase of a long-term relationship between RAK PWSD and both the Italian truck brand and its UAE distributor Saeed Mohammed Al Ghandi & Son (SMAG), of the Al Ghandi Auto Group, which first sold an order of Iveco vehicles to the authority more than 20 years ago.

Graham Turner, CEO of Al Ghandi Auto Group, who was also on-site in RAK, says of the relationship between the two parties: “Aftersales is where the whole long-term point comes in. We have to work together — even though RAK PWSD is doing its own maintenance —because everything is now so technological that we have train our customer’s teams. Iveco and Al Ghandi do that to make sure that the technology is being used properly.”

Al Hammadi responds: “Especially when you bring a new fleet or equipment really they (SMAG) are helpful — they come here, they sit here for a week or two weeks, they train our guys and they do whatever is needed. Also, they have their back-up here — they have their spare parts right here in the UAE. That’s not the case with some other brands.”

Turner adds: “It’s also a two-way street. We work closely with our customers, and they in turn don’t deal with the grey market — and that ultimately it benefits both of us. We have to be in partnership — if we just sold the trucks and ran away, it would be no good.”

Al Hammadi adds: “It is going well. Our people are managing and cooperating. It’s like a family business now,” Turner chimes in. “That’s the way I try and run the company — like you’ve joined the family!”

Fleet turnover

Another measure that Al Hammadi is working on to raise the overall productivity of his fleet is to sell his trucks and machines on after a few years where before RAK PWSD would retain units indefinitely.

He highlights: “For the older units, the parts are more expensive, and the bigger equipment is more expensive than the smaller units. We have maintenance contracts with the main suppliers, but now, after a year-and-a-half or two years, we change our fleet: we buy new ones and sell the old ones.”

Asked if RAK PWSD ever keeps equipment now for its full working life, Al Hammadi notes: “We used to do that in the past, but not anymore; now three to four years is the maximum. Out in the market you may find 10 or 20 operators that still do that. People used to do the same thing with cars — they would use the car until the end of its life. But we now certainly sell the old ones and buy new ones.”

Driver trigger

RAK PWSD’s other resource is its people, and another way in which it is working to improve its fleet is in the training of its drivers.

Activities like the plot levelling are also intensive in terms of manpower, and RAK PWSD has a special work group that works day and night in three shifts to finish each successive levelling in the required time.

Al Hammadi notes: “If you train your drivers and watch their behaviour, this affects how they manage your maintenance. When they feel they are patrolled, they will go more for the preventative maintenance — they’ll make sure that they see the necessary signs.

“I think it helps a lot when people think: ‘Okay, there is a control room — somebody is calculating the distance I’m doing and how hard I’m having to push the pedal.’ I have no doubt that this has already clicked.”

One of the next steps in the development of his fleet capabilities will be to hire a dedicated fleet manager. Al Hammadi adds: “We are still developing. We have a target, within three to four years, to be number one in the UAE — though if we can’t be the best, that’s okay.”

On the subject of being the best, Iveco is viewed at RAK PWSD as part of the trend. Al Hammadi notes: “We now have experience with Iveco since I don’t know when, but since I joined it has been Scania and Iveco. They have their spare parts, maintenance, training — so many things — and they have been the best.”

Paraphrasing HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, Ruler of Dubai and Vice President of the UAE, he notes: “You don’t have to compare yourselves to others; you have to overcome yourself and your problems. If you are busy with others you will get lost — so set your own targets, and if you can compete against yourself, you will be successful.”

As for Al Hammadi’s plans for RAK PWSD, he wouldn’t mind it looking something like the RTA in the not-too-distant future.

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