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hydrapede technology

January 2012
by John Egan
Category: Feature

Let's define "big." A 72-ounce steak, baked potato and salad - that's big; a sperm whale -
big; an 18-wheeler - big; an elephant - big; Texas - sure enough, big.

We Americans can go on and on about how many beef patties it takes to make a "big"
hamburger or just how big is a "big linebacker," but Australians have their own
definition of big: the road-train, a semi-tractor pulling several trailers loaded with a
variety of cargos, ranging from mine ores and tailings to sugar cane. Road-trains are big,
all right, bigger than almost any conventional cargo transit vehicle on American
highways today.

Big is not just about size; Australian road-trains ply the sand and dirt roads in the
outback where there are no conventional highways. Cargos travel long distances,
anywhere from 60 to 1,000 miles, before reaching their final destination.

Today the Australian road-train consists of one semi-tractor pulling between three and
five trailers. But 20 years ago, a problem endemic to hauling heavy loads in the outback
was that of traction; payloads needing to be shipped from points of origin in remote
areas to their final destinations were arriving late or damaged. Conventional tractor-
trailer rigs proved no match for the loose and sandy road conditions found in the
outback. If the tractor could get enough traction to move, controlling the rig once under
way was equally troublesome on the unpredictable roads. The result was loss of time
and damaged equipment.

J. Smith and Sons Pty Ltd in Gympie, Queensland, Australia, undertook to solve the
problem of product shipment. "We couldn't get enough traction on the ground," says
Kevin McDonnell, engineering manager of the company north of Brisbane. "We couldn't
get enough traction up out of the pit."

In the late 1880s John Smith (also known as "Jack" or "Jackie") started out as a
blacksmith in Gympie, making horseshoes, picks and shovels for locals. In the 1930s,
Smith's son, Joseph, expanded J. Smith & Sons to include the manufacture of trucks and
trailers, useful industrial equipment for the time.

Today, Kerren Joseph Smith, director of this family-held company, specializes in a
narrow but important aspect of the transportation business including "the manufacture of
vehicles including bins and containers, truck bodies, dog and pig trailers, car carriers,
POWER TRAILER ARTICLE...hydrapede technology
rear tip trailers, side tip trailers, bottom dump trailers, low loaders, tiltslides, lazy and
powered dollies (what American truckers would call a 'pup')."

J. Smith & Sons has evolved into a 21st-century company currently employing around
85 workers (their high employment number was 130 prior to the global fiscal crisis). In
addition to shaping steel and combining it with diesel engines and giant tires to produce
machines meeting their customers' needs, J. Smith & Sons is employing highly advanced

Once they analyzed all the problems of transporting goods in the outback, J. Smith &
Sons went to work to come up with a new way to meet the challenge. "We went the
route of bigger trucks and bigger trailers," McDonnell says, "but at the end of the day we
could never get enough traction on the ground. We investigated on paper using this
concept but soon realized that it wasn't going to be good enough for three reasons.
Firstly, the control of the system by the driver was what we were trying to avoid. We
didn't need to put too much additional burden on him. Secondly, finding a suitable PTO
drive that would give any meaningful power output to the trailers proved impossible.
They just weren't viable. And thirdly, for the higher payloads, we needed more power
anyway so we had to include an additional power source. The driver already has a pretty
big job taking the 400-ton truck in a straight line on the road," McDonnell said. "We
didn't want to have to put a whole extra burden on the driver keeping control of a second
unit as well. We really had to automate."

The remedy had to be completely different; an efficient and adaptable power source.
"That was about 10 years ago," recalls McDonnell, a J. Smith & Sons employee for the
last 17 years. "We saw that we needed to have another power point in the middle of [the
road-train] to be able to climb the hills." The answer was J. Smith and Sons' invention,
the "Hydrapede."
The Hydrapede is an additional self-contained diesel power unit comprising three dual
axles (two drives and one lazy) and a sophisticated coupling system that interprets and
assists in all motion, including starting, stopping, speed, direction and turn control. The
Hydrapede is controlled by a patented Headstock controller, a load cell that detects the
pull on the kingpin.

As the truck begins to move and accelerate, the force exerted against the kingpin at the
front of the Hydrapede is measured by the headstock, which then transmits the
information to the PLC (an onboard industrial computer). The PLC instructs the engine
to increase the power output to the axles, thus matching the motion of the tractor. In
effect, the Hydrapede keeps the load under control.

The sophisticated sensing mechanism of the Hydrapede can tell the difference between
the tractor pulling the road-train as opposed to the load tonnage in the rear pushing the
load, as happens when going downhill. The Hydrapede's ability to interpret this
information, fed to the PLC 10 times per second, counteracts the possibility of a
jackknife by confirming that all the wheels are pointing in the same direction as the
load's tow force. "We also compare drive wheel speed and lazy wheel speed so that we
can implement traction control in slippery conditions," says McDonnell.

American technology enters into the picture, too, as the Hydrapede uses an Eaton 18-
speed auto-shift RoadRanger transmission that can even skipshift as needed. The
POWER TRAILER ARTICLE...hydrapede technology
Hydrapede has a larger version of the conventional pneumatic brake system found on
tractor-trailer rigs.

The Mk 3 and Mk 4 Hydrapedes are powered by a 600-horsepower engine. When mated
to a 650-horsepower prime mover (tractor), the train can haul as much as 315 tons (gross
435 tons) and there is a Mk five under development that will employ a 700-horsepower
engine, facilitating even larger loads.

However, the Hydrapede is not necessarily economical in all applications. For loads
traveling shorter distances, five kilometers or less, the conventional dump truck is still
the most economical method of moving the product. "But dump trucks don't like
traveling at high speeds for more than a few kilometers," McDonnell points out. This is
when the Hydrapede becomes both economical and efficient. On the road, road-trains
can operate economically from 100 kilometers to 1,000 kilometers. "Typically our
mining road-trains would have haul distances reaching from 5 kilometers to 100
kilometers. These would be on private roads on mining leases." An average distance is
35-50 kilometers

The real value of J. Smith & Sons' new technology is measured in terms of load. Using
trailers also manufactured by Smith & Sons - trailers looking more like railcars than
over-the-road vans and measuring anywhere from 2.5 meters (8.2 feet) to 4 meters (13.2
feet) wide, with lengths of up to 15 meters (49 feet), and a height of 4.8 meters (15.75
feet) - a road-train can carry loads of 315 metric tons (347 tons gross).

J. Smith & Sons does not manufacture a one-size-fits-all product. Customers working
with Smith & Sons engineers can expect to get equipment designed specifically for their
needs. "That's what we pride ourselves on, actually," says McDonnell. "Usually they'll
come to us and say, 'We have a problem, we need to be able to transport efficiently this
much product from here to here,' and they want us to solve the problem," McDonnell
says. "We look at their applications and then come back to them with what they need."

J. Smith & Sons' method of operating works. So far they have designed equipment for
special needs in places including Argentina, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, New
Caledonia, South Africa and Hawaii. In the world of extreme load-hauling equipment,
Smith & Sons continues to enjoy steady business. "In the early '80s we (Smith & Sons)
probably had 80 percent of the sugar market in Queensland, where the majority of
Australian sugar is found," McDonnell says.

J. Smith & Sons is experienced in the manufacture of coal-transporting equipment as
well, with a 20-year history producing specialized mining equipment.

In the final analysis, it's not really a question of "big" after all, but how to move big
loads with special transportation needs from remote and sometimes difficult locations to
the marketplace. J. Smith and Sons, with their 21st-century technology and hands-on
design expertise, will continue to break new ground in "heavy haulage" for decades to
come through imaginative and ingenious equipment like the Hydrapede.