Site visit: Formula 1 racetrack, Kuwait Motor Town

As asphalt subcontractor Arizona National Company executes the Formula 1 racetrack for Kuwait Motor Town, PMV Middle East discusses the use of advanced machine control systems

A Vgele paver equipped with a 14m-long averaging beam delicately lays asphalt for the Formula 1 subcourse on the Kuwait Motor Town project.
A Vgele paver equipped with a 14m-long averaging beam delicately lays asphalt for the Formula 1 subcourse on the Kuwait Motor Town project.

As asphalt subcontractor Arizona National Company executes the Formula 1 racetrack for Kuwait Motor Town, PMV Middle East discusses the use of advanced machine control systems...

Kuwait has recently embarked on an ambitious spate of projects, including an expansion of the country’s oil and gas facilities and the delivery of a new airport.

However, there is another flagship project that will be the first of its kind in the country: Kuwait Motor Town.

This auto sports development is centred around a racetrack circuit that will allow the nation to host Formula 1 events.

A project of national prestige, it falls under the direction of the Amiri Diwan itself, and leaves little room for errors or delays.

And the project needs to be precise: Formula 1 is a sport where milliseconds count, and where the slightest deviation in the surface of the racetrack could have serious implications for the finely tuned vehicles flying at hundreds of kilometres per hour around the circuit.

In light of all this, Arizona National Company, the contractor with the critical task of laying the racetrack itself is deploying advanced machine control technologies in partnership with Trimble that represent novel territory for both Kuwait and Formula 1.

Heading up the project from a technical perspective is Eng. Bashar Saleh Othman, the equipment department manager at Arizona National. “It is not the biggest project in Kuwait, but it is one of the most exacting projects in terms of the accuracy required for the subbase and asphalt,” he explains.

“On our other projects, there is usually a tolerance of up to 20mm while you are doing the subbase; but on this project, the degree of error cannot exceed 9mm. And the higher you go in the layer, the lower the tolerances. For the final or wearing course, the tolerance is almost 1mm — we are going to have to be really focused and accurate to achieve this.”

Arizona’s adherence to the project’s specifications is in turn being overseen by Germany’s Tilke Engineers & Architects, a leading specialist in racetracks responsible for numerous Formula 1 projects worldwide.

“They are in charge of checking the accuracy and the tolerances,” notes Othman. “So their people are really precise: there is no tolerance for error with them; no mercy.”

And when it comes to grading and laying asphalt with precision, a set of tools that are key to ensuring accuracy are machine controls.

For Arizona, which maintains a primarily Caterpillar fleet, one supplier immediately stood out, and that was Sitech Gulf, a company within the Mohamed Abdulrahman Al Bahar group, the dealer of Caterpillar in Kuwait.

For the Kuwait Motor Town project, Arizona National made it clear from an early stage that it planned to bring Trimble on board for the supply of at least one of the technologies critical to the project: averaging beams.

As Othman explains: “Averaging beams are basically a series of sonic sensors distributed along a 14m beam and installed on each side of a paver. Instead of relying on the single sensor built into the paver, the multiple sensors of the averaging beams produce an average reading. This reduces the risk of error while levelling, increasing accuracy, and making for a smoother ride on the surface.”

The sonic tracers on pavers rapidly emit and receive ultrasonic signals, much like a bats, to gauge the distance to the underlying surface. Where an averaging beam is used, the generation of an averaged reading plays a vital role by negating the effect of any surface anomalies, such as small depressions or loose pebbles, which might otherwise throw off a paver’s single in-built sensor and cause the machine to overlay or underlay asphalt.

Unsurprisingly, all of Arizona’s pavers are therefore equipped with averaging beams, as Othman notes: “We have to be really accurate, because any mistake in the slope, the thickness or the surface of the final layer could affect the Formula 1 cars, and these cars and their drivers are worth millions. So the importance of these averaging beams will really come during the laying of that wearing course.”

The wearing course is the final of four layers that will be out down by Arizona, which is currently laying the subbase, a mixture of aggregates and native soil, and the subcourse — the first layer of asphalt. Next up will be the binding course and, lastly, the wearing course.

But, as already mentioned, it is the wearing course that is key, as Othman continues: “During the laying of the wearing course we will have three pavers working at the same time. It’s a 15m- to 16m-wide road, and usually you would do that in passes: you would start with a five- or six- metre wide section on one side, then work on the adjacent five or six metres, and so on, until the span was done.

“But for a Formula 1 wearing course, you have to cover the entire 15m or 16m span at the same time with three pavers, proceeding together, each with its own averaging beam — to prevent the formation of cold joints.”

Specifically, if the span were not laid concurrently, it would risk the formation of longitudinal cold joints. Othman adds: “You will always have cold joints across the width of the road, because at some point you will have to stop for the day and restart the next, and that’s ok, but you need to keep the cold joints to the bare minimum.”

Likewise, the deployment of averaging beams ensures that there are no anomalies in the readings that might in turn lead to the overlaying or undelaying of asphalt and therefore risk a deviation from the tolerances.

In contrast, any error in the wearing course would force the contractor to remove the entire asphalt layer and pave it all over again.

Aside from the cost of the raw materials, Othman notes: “On some past projects, errors with the sensors have forced me to remove the asphalt and waste three weeks doing the layer, instead of completing it in two days.”

With both Tilke and the Amiri Diwan watching, Arizona is not even countenancing such risks, and is using the averaging beams for the asphalting from start to finish.

Othman adds: “No one cares about the lower layers; they only care about the last four centimetres: the wearing course. But to reach the tolerances that you want, you need to start correctly from the base, and the less error you have in the subbase, the subcourse and the binder course, the easier it is to meet the target that you have for the wearing course.”

For the asphalting, Arizona is also deploying Vögele pavers from Wirtgen, in a break from its Caterpillar preferences. Explaining the choice of these machines, Othman says: “Vögele are proven on such projects, and to insist on using Caterpillar machines would have been to swim against the current with Tilke, which in its history of Formula 1 projects, has always seen it done with Vögele machines.

“We also kept in mind the fact that Vögele have the experience in doing such things, and given the novelty of the project for Kuwait, it was a common sense decision to want Vögele on board. Caterpillar were already on board, because all of our other fleet is Caterpillar. But it is great to have both on board, because the more experience, expertise, knowledge and professionals you have involved on a project such as this, the more added value to you.”

Passing grade

While the true finesse of Trimble’s averaging beams will not be evident until January 2018, when the laying of the wearing course begins, another system from Sitech Gulf has already resulted in a big increase in the productivity over the course of laying the subbase.

At the outset 0f the project, the subbase for the racetrack was being laid using a paver — an apparently routine practice on Formula 1 projects to achieve the tolerances — even though laying aggregates is tough on pavers.

Othman notes: “We felt very sorry for the paver. It is the very latest series of Caterpillar — an F series — and the first one in the Middle East. It has all the technologies you can think of when it comes to pavers and it is a very reliable machine. We only used it for the subbase to start with because we wanted the highest accuracy possible, and it did the job, but was very tough on the machine.”

When a visiting team from Sitech Gulf saw this, they immediately put it to Arizona that they could achieve the same tolerances using standard motor graders equipped with a GPS-linked machine control system — a system used in 50% of grading operations in Europe.

Othman recalls: “When the Sitech people saw that we were using the F series Caterpillar paver for the subbase, they also felt sorry for the machine. We didn’t have any problems with the paver; it was doing well, but they were wondering why we didn’t go for a more efficient solution with the grader.”

Intrigued, Arizona agreed put it to the test, liked what it saw, and arranged to demonstrate the method to Tilke, which would need to be convinced about the break from convention.

Othman notes: “We had to arrange a demonstration for Tilke in order to propose this GPS technology. Initially, they were not sure, because they had previously used other technologies, but not this technology. However, when they saw the accuracy that this system could achieve, they were blown away and told us we needed to bring another unit on board immediately. They were very happy.”

In Europe, the heaviness of natural soils means that bulldozers are a more frequent choice for levelling applications than motor graders. This trend explains why pavers have emerged as the natural choice for more precise operations. But as Sitech Gulf observed, the Middle East and its comparably lightweight substrates allow for alternative possibilities.

The convention broken, motor graders are inherently faster and more productive than pavers when it comes to the bulk grading of coarse aggregates. For Arizona, Trimble’s grade control systems quickly demonstrated that it could raise the productivity even further.

As Othman explains: “With Trimble technology we were able to have only two graders covering the whole area required for the subbase, and they have been completing the work with the minimum errors in terms of the tolerances, together with a much higher production rate. Since the GPS-linked system reduces the risk of human error, it also indirectly reduces the time that needs to be spent checking the project’s accuracy.”

As Ahmed Ragab, regional sales manager for Sitech Gulf, explains: “Usually in the industry you need 10 passes: the first three or four to just reduce the thickness of the layers; two passes for cleaning ; and only then do you really start to be precise for another five passes.

“But with the machines control, instead of the operator going backwards and forth, the blade adheres much more closely to the design from the first pass and your cut and fill becomes massively more accurate. You can do it in one third of the number of passes.”

And while Arizona has yet to evaluate its project performance in such detail, Othman confirms: “On site they are telling us that in term of passes, this technology has saved us roughly four to five passes every time.

“When it comes to the speed of the passes, when you are just removing material in the first few passes, it is much the same, but when it comes to the last passes, which give you the end result, it is much faster — because an unaided operator has to go very slowly to make sure that he stays within the tolerances.”

This reduction in number of passes and increase in the speed of passes in turn translates into a significant increase in the overall earthworking productivity of the graders, measured in terms of the volume of material graded, in cubic metres per day.

Ragab estimates that a machine control-equipped grader can achieve volumes of 3,000m3 per day on a subbase course, while Othman notes: “A grader normally goes up to around 1,700m3 or 1,800m3 per day — mainly because the operator needs to repeatedly make sure they are doing the bed correctly. So, you can achieve almost double the production from without the Trimble technology.”

Thanks to the Trimble system, just two graders are now tackling the levelling and subbase work for the racetrack and several other tracks for drag racing and karting — across which a fleet of between four or five graders would previously have been required.

Othman continues: “So it has saved fleet capacity for me, and allowed me to take my other graders and put them where the accuracy is not as critical, such as on the service roads. So you are increasing the production rate, and getting the accuracy that you want.”

Arizona is now also bringing on board a pair of Trimble’s Universal Total Systems (UTS), which use lasers to survey the terrain and provide even more precise readings the machine control systems than with GPS.

As Othman notes: “We are currently GPS, but with the UTS devices, we will be able to increase the accuracy from 9mm to 5mm.”

Commenting on the overall impact of the technology, Ragab adds: “You get a consistent surface and you don’t get ups and downs — so if you’re off by 5mm, it will be a constant 5mm. You don’t have to check every metre, because it’s all the same. It’s consistent and precise.”

Mapping skills

The success of the grader trial subsequently led Arizona National to request what other Trimble technologies Sitech had on offer, leading the supplier to propose its mapping system for the compaction operations in the later stages of the project, from January 2018.

As Ragab explains: “It’s a mapping system equipped to the rollers following the grader or paving systems to make sure that each layer is compacted to within a certain tolerance.

“If you over compact it, it cracks the layers underneath; if you under compact it, one day it will crack as well, when you lay another layer above it. So it’s a very sensitive operation, but most contractors turn a blind eye to it, because they don’t understand the value of it — not until a few months or a year after they finish the project, when the cracks start to appear.”

To avoid this, the Trimble system instead maps the area and monitors where the rollers or other compaction machines have already been to ensure that their operator conducts a certain number of passes and no more, based on initial tests conducted on the layer.

From the perspective of the operator a display indicates the level of compaction for the space around the machine by highlighting the areas first in red, then blue, then green, as it progresses from a state of under compaction through to optimal compaction, before going red again if the operator conducts too many passes and begins to over compact the layer.

Othman comments: “I can’t speak about the mapping system yet, but I am sure that — based on our experience so far — it will also result in a significant reduction in errors during the compaction process.”

On-site partners

For Sitech Gulf and Trimble, the project is not only the perfect demonstration of their systems, but a leap forward in Kuwait.

As Othman notes: “All the machine control technology coming from Trimble are relatively new. We are the first people in Kuwait to use the averaging beam, and for the grader, we’re not the first, but you can count the number of people that have used it on one hand.”

Othman points to the contractor’s strong relationship with Sitech as instrumental in the ultimate scale of the deployment, noting: “This encouraged us to sit with them and see what options they could help us with.”

Given the unfamiliarity of local operators with the Trimble system, Sitech has also taken an attentive approach to assisting Arizona in the process of training its machine crews.

As Othman explains: “The first thing we had to work one, before we even introduced the training for the technology, was to explain to our crew the reason for the technology.

“I have one grader operator that has been with us for more than 25 years, and he disliked the Trimble system because when we said the blade of the grader would be working by itself, and he was afraid that it would to replace him.

“We had to explain how it is not there to replace them, but to help make life easier, and how, without them, the technology is useless.”

Othman adds: “Getting your crew on board is more important than the technology itself, because if the technology is misused through a lack of understanding, it will get you nowhere.”

Equally important was to get across the idea that the technology was not just a formality to appease Tilke, but a tool that would improve productivity, and which a necessity in order to achieve the level of accuracy required.

He adds: “If the operator accepts that the technology is there to help them, they will work miracles for you, but if they don’t, you will have nightmares. The team must understand the concept and the reason behind it. Trying to force the point simply won’t work.”

Sitech’s Ragab adds: “We understand the implementation phase is not always that easy, especially when it is the first time. Adopting machine controls and automation is a process.

“It’s about being friendly to the end user, because most of these users have been doing the same job for decades, and our grade control system is almost taboo to them. They don’t want to touch it, and if anything happens that they’re not used to, they’re off.”

Sitech Gulf has therefore remained on hand, providing on-site training for the technology not just for a few days, but on an ongoing basis, turning up as and when necessary.

As Othman explains: “It’s not just like he is trying to sell me the equipment. Sitech are attending meetings on site as part of the project. Whenever I need some people on site, other than those already in Kuwait, I can call them, and by the next day they are in Kuwait. That is something we don’t usually get.”

Arizona has also been able to avail of a range of flexible purchase options from Sitech, including a purchase arrangement for the averaging beams, a rental arrangement for the GPS grade control, and a rent-to-purchase/lease-to-own option for the mapping systems.

Othman comments: “We have tried all the options from them, and this has been another service that has provided value for us. They haven’t forced us to purchase or rent; they have been flexible, and provided recommendations.”

No going back

Across the project, it remains too early for Othman to estimate the savings that will result from the implementation of the Trimble technology, as such calculations will only be possible once the project is completed and can be compared to others of a similar scale.

But in terms of pure time, he notes: “It should be an eight month project, but I expect that it will save us between two to four weeks overall, and for a short project that is a significant time reduction.”

While Sitech’s Ragab notes: “We usually reduce the number of machines on site by a minimum of one third and by up to 50%, based on our experience and project history.”

Trimble’s systems also add more than 15% to the cost of the grader, and Ragab notes: “So you would pay 12% or 15% extra and get minimum double the production.”

Based on the overall increase in productivity across a project fully equipped with a machine control technologies, Ragab estimates that a contractor might save 10% on the bottom line.

He continues: “You also make indirect savings. When your machines do more in less shifts, you use fewer parts and extend the lives of the machines, and so your total costs of ownership and operation drop. These are savings that you don’t feel right away, but after one or two years, you are able to calculate.”

For Arizona, on the basis of his experience over the last few months alone, Othman is already keen to use the Trimble technology, as well as the experience that he and his teams have gained, in his future projects.

He explains: “After this experience, we are going to continue to use the Trimble technologies used on this project even on standard road projects, because we have seen the impact they have on the production and the accuracy.”

“Having the knowledge and experience of Trimble on board would definitely have helped on other projects, like it’s helping me now — even when I face issues unrelated to their technology. If I have a general question, they are more than happy to answer and guide us.”

This genial disposition is looking to pay off, as Othman is now actively exploring the application of Trimble’s systems to other projects and with other machines.

He explains: “In future, we will not just focus on the three technologies that we are using on this project. We already talking with Sitech about our other ongoing projects to see where else we can use their technology with excavators, bulldozers and skidsteers.”

Commenting on the experience as a whole, he adds: “The technologies are a new thing, and as with any new item that you are introducing to a country or an industry, it takes time to break in, but this project was a perfect entrance for this technology in Kuwait. We are definitely going to use it in future, and we are going to recommend it to others.”

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