Massive equipment: Workers at a tunnel boring machine (TBM) manufacturing facility in China, that China Railway Tunnelling Equipment Co Ltd in tends to replicate in Malaysia to refurbish TBMs, provided it could find a suitable site. — Photo by MENG YEW CHOON
THE MRT tunnelling work is currently going full steam and according to MRT Corp CEO Datuk Wira Azhar Abdul Hamid, the final 10% of drilling through the most critical areas will continue until the end of July.
This is not the first time Malaysians have seen a tunnel boring machine (TBM). The nation saw the use of one such machine during the contruction of the SMART Tunnel over a decade ago.
It leaves one to wonder, where do these massive equipment go after they complete their job?
Although some are headed straight to the scrap heap, most get a second life as a refurbished machine.
For example, two of the TBMs excavating a portion of the Sungai Buloh-Kajang line of the Klang Valley MRT will be refurbished.
“We prefer to refurbish them in Malaysia,” said China Railway Tunnelling Equipment Co Ltd (CRTE) chairman Li Jianbin.
According to Li, Malaysia is a natural choice due to the fact that it is surrounded by MRT projects that use mainly new machines.
“For example, Singapore requires all metro projects to use only brand new machines. Even the tunnelling contract for the Sungai Buloh-Kajang had the “brand new only” component built into the requirement for tenders.
Indonesia is starting with its metro tunnelling drive, with the launch of the Jakarta metro construction recently.
All these make for the availability of many TBMs that still have some life left in them (some more than others, depending on the length of the tunnel they had respectively completed).
“We are looking forward to setting up a TBM refurbishment facility here, and we have budgeted around RM20mil for this purpose,” said Li, 52, who has more than 25 years experience working on tunnels.
The refurbishment business outside of China fits in nicely with CRTE’s aim to transform itself into a global TBM supplier.
It is already China’s largest TBM manufacturer, but competition at home is stiff even though there are more than 700 TBMs of all shapes and sizes running in the republic on any given day.
Part of its global ambition include acquiring the intellectual property rights ownership of Wirth TBM and shaft boring machine technology from current owner Aker Wirth (owned by Norway’s Aker Solutions).
As part of the deal, CRTE acquires the right to use the Wirth brand name on TBMs and shaft boring machines based on the acquired technology.
“We are looking at renting or acquiring a piece of land ranging from 3ha to 4ha within a free trade zone,” said managing director of CTE Ltd, CRTE’s international division, Don Hall.
CTE initially found a piece of land at the Port Klang Free Zone (PKFZ) located in Pulau Indah. The size was right, and so was the rental.
However, the soft ground scuttled the deal to set up Malaysia’s first TBM refurbishment workshop that could see a workforce of up to 20 skilled technicians at work.
The free trade zone facilitates the entry and exit of TBMs needing refurbishment as well as sending them to their onward destination, without going through tedious Customs paperwork.
“The site in PKFZ would have been great for us except that the ground was too soft. Our machinery imposes exceptionally high loadings of at least 300tonnes per square metre on the floor.
“Preparing the foundation for our workshop there would have cost at least RM20mil, which is just as much as what the workshop costs, making it not viable,” said Hall.
CTE is still interested in making its venture work in Malaysia, and is on the hunt for a site as the date draws closer for its two TBMs to be recovered from the ground at the upcoming Pasar Seni MRT station by August and September, respectively.
A TBM is an expensive piece of machinery, with even the relatively simple ones costing from RM25mil apiece. The cost escalates dramatically when complicated circuits and pumps and other mechanical components are added in.
Many parts of the TBM are replaceable, so refurbished machines can give a reasonably good level of performance and reliability, although rich and time-pressed countries such as Singapore prefer to minimise construction risk by insisting on only new TBMs regardless of the length of the drive.
This makes Malaysia a strategic location for doing such refurbishment for export to countries such as India and Vietnam, given that a few hundred TBMs are expected to be retired from China over the next few years.
Who would have guessed that Malaysia is now a place where TBMs are given a new lease of life, to enable the use of these costly machines to be maximised.