‘QUADDIE‘ a winning bet

In October 201914 MinutesBy NZ Trucking magazineOctober 24, 2019

Working outside of VDAM can be risky; however safe bets can be achieved with research, collaboration, and cooperation.

Photo: The B-train tracks through the somewhat tricky route out from Napier Port without even looking like endangering a kerb, flower, or rim for that matter.

A step outside the constraints of the NZ Transport Agency VDAM (Vehicle Dimensions and Mass) rule when designing transport equipment presents a risky gamble. Craig Gordon, proprietor of Total Transport Engineers LP of Mount Maunganui, was prepared to think outside the square. With the assistance of a couple of likeminded and proactive individuals he has constructed a trailer set that exceeds current design parameters yet improves on-road performance, creating a feasible operating solution for his client, and lowering the impact of trucks in the local community. Turn the clock back just over three years and a regular coffee and chat between Craig Gordon and good mate the late Robbie Kitney brought about a discussion regarding proposed vehicle concepts, dimension parameters, and volumes. Robbie‘s work at the time included port logistics in Napier, and he posed the question: “can you design and build a unit legally capable of transporting two 40-foot containers, or alternatively four 20-footers?”

Craig‘s immediate response was “No”, under the parameters of VDAM rules. Within VDAM the allowance for overall length of vehicle combination is 23.0m and only a handful of exemptions existed, covering special vehicles working in special circumstances. Robbie explained to Craig his earlier conversations with Steve Young (business development manager for Napier Port at the time). Steve had described to Robbie how the port was operating a fleet of small basic skeletal units as a ‘conveyer system‘ transporting empty containers from the main sea port to their two inland container storage parks. The round trip of approximately 11km traverses both commercial and residential areas.

Photo: A bird‘s-eye view as the 29m skeletal unit demonstrates its capabilities.

Steve expressed his wish to Robbie to find a way to legally double the productivity of each individual trip. There were significant potential benefits:
• A reduction in basic operational costs for this necessary task.
• A halving of truck and trailer numbers on the road.
• A reduction in daily trip numbers along this designated route.
• Minimising the impact of container traffic through the residential areas.
• A reduction in associated noise along the route.

Craig agreed to investigate possibilities and attempt to find a solution. About three months after the initial meeting Robbie phoned Craig to see how he was going. Craig mentioned he had looked into the application and had an idea to share. Robbie‘s response was, “Great. Meet me at 10am next Thursday and come ready!” The following week the two men met, with Steve in attendance also. Craig presented them with information and photos documenting TTE‘s latest three-TEU container skeletal build for a client. As tidy as this was, the concept did not ‘tick all the boxes‘ Steve was looking for. Steve reiterated the solution must be able to handle four 20-footers at a time or alternatively two 40-footers. The reasoning behind this was simple; the container handling machines at the port handle boxes in multiples of two – either a pair of 20s or a pair of 40s. This immediately ruled out the three-TEU skeletal concept and required a clean sheet of paper.

Photo: Container handling at Napier Port happens in twos. Loading trucks only capable of an odd number of containers is inefficient.

Craig left this meeting fully focused on researching the brief. It was agreed that this research and any potential developments arising from it would, in the interim, remain confidential between the interested parties. Craig‘s research took him back to a promotional video he‘d seen a year or so earlier of a self-steering system developed by an Australian company, Trackaxle Ltd of Shepparton, Victoria. This was a defining moment. Discussions with Trackaxle sales representative Kerry Atley were followed by Craig preparing some initial concept drawings. Wheels were in motion. Over the next six months Craig‘s research and development included a series of conceptual drawings, meetings with Trackaxle in Australia, and numerous phone calls and emails. The end result was a vehicle combination he was confident would be both fit for purpose and provide Steve with the operating solution he was searching for. While visiting TTE‘s premises, the late Geoff Walsh of Transport Technology Ltd, TTE‘s certifying engineer managing the company‘s design assessments and certifications of new vehicle builds, was able to review the initial concept and draft layout drawings. “Geoff was both impressed and surprised,” remembers Craig.

Photo: Napier Port‘s Robert Phipps (left), and Warren Young in front of the completed unit now working in their operation.

“I think he was a little shocked to be fair, but he was great to bounce ideas off. With his wit and humour, he was second to none.” It was time to call a second meeting with Robbie and Steve to present Craig‘s proposed layout. A 6×4 tractor unit towing a 29-metre, 5-axle B-train with four steered axles able to meet the four 20- or two 40-foot container brief. On paper it looked perfect and offered solutions to all of the operating parameters. The response from Steve was immediate. “Let‘s get this under way.” Armed with this information and with the assistance of the technical team at Trackaxle, Craig approached John de Pont of TERNZ Transport Research. John agreed to undertake a computer modelling assessment based on Craig‘s working drawings using the Trackaxle steering system. The outcome of this computer study provided a positive outcome on paper, which gave Craig the confidence to approach NZTA with his proposal.

Craig contacted Don Hutchinson, principal engineer – heavy vehicles at NZTA. Craig met with Don in his Wellington office to submit his proposal. “Don was both keenly interested in the overall concept and a great help,” said Craig. “He never seemed fazed at all.” Several weeks of emails and phone calls followed between Don and Craig, with checks and re-checks of submitted data, plus confirmation of various inputs. This culminated in TTE being granted a feasibility permit to build a trial unit. For Craig and the team there was a feeling of great elation in gaining approval to build a trial unit after two years of discussion, research, and feasibility concepts. However, this success was bittersweet because of the death of both Robbie and Geoff during the extended research and development process.

Photo: When great minds converge. A customer need that will bring commercial and social benefits, meets innovative engineering and regulators.

“The two of them played instrumental parts in the combination‘s conception and design. It‘s a real shame they are not here to celebrate this success with us,” said Craig. During construction of the trailer set at the TTE workshops, Warren Young took over the reins at Napier Port following the resignation of Steve. As the trailers neared completion, Napier Port workshop manager Robert Phipps visited TTE‘s workshop to observe progress. The tractor unit and first trailer were parked in a tight wash bay. Craig jumped into the cab to swing the combination into open space to allow Robert the opportunity to look over the project. Robert was standing beside TTE‘s Chris Savage and said to him, “There is no way that will come out of there in one swing”. When it successfully made the manoeuvre in one sweep, Robert was astounded and instantly saw the merits of what had been built for their application. The build completed, it was time to test theory and maths and see how the end result measured up.

Photo: An onlooker observing the 29m combination when parked would take some convincing of its manoeuvrability. Seeing would soon be believing however.

The unit was taken to a large closed off area and put through its paces. Both Trackaxle personnel and John de Pont were on hand to assist, measure, and observe. Aerial footage recorded the unit traversing through a designated set of measured turns and manoeuvres. After a couple of minor tweaks the results were beyond impressive; the combination displayed follow characteristics superior to that of a conventional 19-metre quad-axle semi, itself the best part of 10 metres shorter than the B-train combination. It was the delivery run from Mount Maunganui to Napier Port where the unit proved its real mettle. Craig drove the combination to Napier himself, with son Samuel and brother Nigel following directly behind and videoing the unit‘s progress. Footage taken from their vehicle shows how the combination follows the tractor unit‘s path with a near perfect track match.

Robbie Kitney

Geoff Walsh

Photos: Robbie Kitney and Geoff Walsh were heavily involved in the project, but sadly both men passed away before project completion.

“Nigel commented to me how the video did not show much as the trailers never crossed the white line,” Craig said. “The video footage clearly displayed how the Trackaxle combination followed the prime mover as calculated. It is not like a normal unit where you swing out wide for a corner. With this rig you drive your lane, and it will follow.” The unit differs from most combinations in that during turning procedures the vehicle‘s steering bogies allow the axles to follow the curvature of the set path. There is no skipping, shuddering, or grabbing of tyres on the tarmac. To an observer the unit glides through the curves. Currently the unit remains subject to an NZTA specified trial over the designated travel route. Its operation is now fully in the hands of Napier Port where it is undergoing evaluation, with early results looking highly promising. The trailer combination‘s ease of operation and greatly improved productivity already has smiles forming on the many faces involved with its development.