Manufacturing AUTOMATION

Big toys for big boys

May 17, 2005
By Dick Morley

Debbie, my long-suffering secretary, calls me over to the phone to say there is someone on line two. I pick it up, and it’s Ian Verhappen, Manufacturing Automation’s technical columnist. He is calling to invite me to present at the ISA 2005 Oil Sands Conference in Edmonton and Fort McMurray, Alta. He wants me to speak about the future of programmable logic controllers. “Well, since I recently acquired a knee handicap and can’t walk,” I say, “I’ll need to travel first-class and require my usual fee.””

“This is an ISA-sponsored event,” says Verhappen. “We’ll spring for your out-of-pocket first-class expenses, but you’re going to give the talk for free.”
Uh, did I mention I have a fee?
My curiosity is aroused. I give the phone a questioning look, which Ian seems to sense on the other end. He continues: “The deal is I’ll let you ride in my pickup truck … It’s the largest truck in the world and weighs, unloaded, 400 tons and carries a 350-ton load.”
I ask him when he wants me to speak and how high I’ll have to jump – gimpy knees and all!
As you can see, I am enamoured by big toys. I own several big toys myself, but none as grand as this truck. I looked up the big truck on the Internet and was astonished by its size. The truck’s tires are 13-feet high. The vehicle would not fit into my garage with its 12-foot doors.
One Sunday in early March, I got on the puddle-jumper and headed for Minneapolis. From Minneapolis I flew to Edmonton. Edmonton is as alive and thriving as any blue collar, redneck, industrial city. I loved it. It is flat, and I’m used to hills, but I loved it nonetheless. I found the people polite, aggressive when it comes to business, and hardworking.
ISA’s Edmonton Section hosted my speech, “Oil Sands and Control Futures.” The audience asked excellent questions and the session was highly interactive.
The next morning, I took off for Fort McMurray, or, as the locals call it, Fort McMoney. The plane had an ancient operating mode and a propeller. The seats, although big enough, were a little uncomfortable. But nothing could keep me away from the “big stuff.”
We took a tour of Syncrude Canada-the world’s largest producer of crude oil from oil sands and the largest single-source producer in Canada-and checked out all the facility’s equipment from controls to trucks and conveyors. Then it was time for the best part: My hosts interrupted the truck’s delivery schedule to let me into the driver’s cockpit and off we went. In addition to its 13-feet tires and 800-ton weight, the truck has a 1,200-gallon fuel tank, uses an electric drive with a generator (much like a locomotive), and is a hybrid with electric motors delivering thousands of horsepower to the wheels.
I had a wonderful ride in the truck. We drove over to a big, 24,000-volt steam shovel. The truck backed into position and dumped 350 tons of dirt (or three shovels full) into the hopper. The first shovelful rocked the truck, then it settled down. I wanted to take pictures but the windshield was dirty. We were on a frozen road with nearly an inch of slime and mud.
The driver suggested I step out onto the truck’s “deck,” which was approximately 12 feet by eight feet. I could have had a picnic table, barbecue pit and five guests out there.
I rode in the truck as it moved a load of overburden-shale and gravel covering the oil-bearing sands. The overburden comes from an ocean that existed millions of years ago. The remnants of this ocean are 50 to 300 feet deep.
At one point, the truck moved the load over to where a D-11 bulldozer was plowing away. As the truck wallowed through mud, the electric motors overheated at 3,000 horsepower output. “Holy T-Cronkite!” I thought. As an ubergeek, I appreciated the experience.
I grinned when I noticed that the truck’s driver communicates with the steam shovel by beeping a horn, and not through sophisticated communication technology.
That night, I gave my talk in Fort McMurray and suggested that the automation industry simplify controls with Commercial Off The Shelf (COTS) technology. The U.S. military is becoming a believer in COTS. We use specialized industrial components defined by standards that force us to live in the past. I think we should take advantage of new wireless standards, new equipment, itty-bitty computers and parallel processing languages, and make controls simple and straightforward.
The trip was an exciting adventure. Most impressive were the trucks, the Syncrude facility and my hosts. The facility had the flavour of a gold-rush camp of yesteryear, except the gold, in this case, was black.
I leave my readers with the following thoughts: Understand the impact COTS will have on future control design; deal with the world the way it is, not the way you think it ought to be; and please, get some excitement in your life!

Dick Morley is the father of the programmable logic controller. He is also an author, a speaker and an automation industry maverick. You can reach by e-mailing


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