Aug 31, 2006

Large fleet of Komatsu HM300-1s push the limits for Quebec road builder

The St. Lawrence Seaway is one of the world’s foremost shipping ports – bringing in goods from all over the world to North America for hundreds of years. On this great seaway, sits the city of Baie-Comeau, Quebec, located on the north shore of the St. Laurence River, about 400 miles northeast of Montreal. Founded in 1936, Baie-Comeau is an industrial town with a population of about 25,000 people.

At first glance, the size of the city and its seemingly remote location can be deceiving, but in reality this area of Quebec is home to three very important industries: aluminum, hydroelectricity and paper.

Alcoa, the world’s leading producer of primary aluminum, fabricated aluminum and alumina is active in this area and maintains a large facility in Baie-Comeau. In fact, the operation in Baie-Comeau is home to the largest aluminum smelter in the Americas.

The hydroelectric power industry also continues to grow rapidly. The area’s abundance of flowing water offers a natural opportunity to tap into this resource. And, the Canadian government recently injected billions of dollars into the industry to spur its growth. Several northeastern states in the United States – including Vermont and Maine – count on this source of electricity.

HydroQuebec is one of the largest producers, providers and distributors of electricity in North America. It is owned by one shareholder – the Quebec government – and builds, operates and maintains hydroelectric dams all over the province, with several large operations in the Baie-Comeau area.

But these two industries play second fiddle to the area’s largest industry: paper. However, unlike the other two, the paper industry is in decline due to shrinking demand for paper and paper products and stricter government regulations.

All these industries benefit the local economy by providing income and jobs. Additionally, they offer business opportunities associated with the work that they bid out to area construction companies. For instance, each dam that is built by HydroQuebec requires a 250-mile (or 400 km) road built for service accessibility. And, the paper companies almost exclusively contract out the tree-harvesting portion of their businesses.

Julian Bernier recognized the opportunity. In 1979, he and his wife Louise founded the business that bears their name with a single forestry contract through a local paper company. Today, that same family business has grown to include 180 operators during the high season and 120 during normal periods of operation.

What started with forestry work has expanded to other areas for Bernier. A large part of the business is trucking – whether it be hauling heavy equipment for its own projects and other companies, or handling and trucking timber and other materials for the paper industry. The company’s main focus remains in the forestry and road-building business. With this, its crews are constantly cutting and hauling timber and blazing a path for new access roads all over Quebec.

There is fierce competition from numerous other area contractors. To maintain an edge, Bernier needs his operation to be as efficient and productive as possible. One area where Bernier saw a need for improvement was in hauling and moving material from his job sites. For this, Bernier was mainly using highway haul trucks – of which the company owns 40. But a couple of years ago, he thought he could improve production while reducing costs by considering another option – one better suited to the area’s rough type of terrain – the articulated truck.

New Trucks Are Up to the Challenge

Bernier was encountering problems using highway trucks to haul material from job sites. The primary issue was haul trucks lacked maneuverability in the soft ground terrain.

At about this same time, Komatsu America Corp. was introducing its new line of articulated trucks to the market. Because Bernier’s fleet already consisted mainly of Komatsu equipment, including: six PC300LC-7 hydraulic excavators, two PC400LC-7 hydraulic excavators, two PC22OLL-7 log loaders, one PC270LL-7 log loader, one D61EX-15 crawler dozer, one D155AX-3 crawler dozer, four D85EX-21 crawler dozers and two WA500-3 wheel loaders – he was interested in this new line.

Bernier decided he wanted to demo the new Komatsu 30-ton HM300-1s running on a job site. His distributor, Federal Equipment, based in Montreal, Quebec, called Steve Moore, product manager, trucks, with Komatsu America Corp. Moore arranged visits to job sites in Columbus, Ohio – where there were some HM300-1s in operation. Bernier watched the trucks in action, questioned the operators and looked the trucks up and down.

As the men were sitting in the airport waiting for their return flights, Bernier made the decision to place an order for 11 HM300-1s to add to his fleet.

“Back at home, everyone thought I was crazy, since the Komatsus (articulated trucks) were so new to the market and were considered untested,” says Bernier. But his mind was made up, and his decision proved to be a good one.

Now, he’s matched up his HM300-1s with PC300LC-7 hydraulic excavators, and productivity is way up. These are “a good match because of their productivity and low fuel cost,” says Bernier. Fuel economy is enhanced by the trucks’ incorporation of a common rail injection (CRI) system that reduces emissions and improves low-speed torque for increased productivity. Dozers matched with the HM300s include the Komatsu D155 and D61.

Combining Komatsu machines results in better cycle times, increased productivity and better parts availability. Because the HM300-1 engine, torque converter, retarder/wet disc brake and transmission are Komatsu designed, many of its parts are interchangeable with other trucks and loaders. This aids in parts availability and maintenance uptime.

A typical day for Bernier’s crews starts at 7:00 a.m. and ends at 6:00 p.m. Sometimes, crews work two shifts – depending on demand at the time. Because of the nature of work in forestry road construction, the machines are constantly in unique situations. When asked if he’s encountered any limitations with his HM300-1’s, Bernier replies with a smile: “Yes, they can’t swim.”

Now, with the trucks bringing a new dimension to his work, Julian Bernier is seen as somewhat of an equipment trendsetter in the area – largely because of his experience with the Komatsu HM300-1s. “Because they have performed so well, several of his competitors are emulating him,” says Michel Charest, director, major accounts with Federal Equipment. “They say: ‘if it’s good enough for Julian Bernier, it’s good enough for us,’ ” he adds. In fact, Bernier actually rents his artic trucks out to other local companies.

Industry Challenges: Shifting Focus to New Opportunities

Bernier sees the decreasing demand for paper products as a continuing trend, so he is looking at other area industries to develop new work. “The demand has run in up and down cycles in the past,” he says. “But I don’t see it ever returning upward. It’s my opinion that we are looking at a slow and steady downward decline.”

On top of that, with a relatively long growth cycle because of cold weather, local foresters have to wait 65-70 years to re-cut trees that they plant in place of harvested trees. This is problematic when compared to new competitors in other areas of the world, such as Thailand. There, the growing cycle is extremely fast, and trees can be harvested, cut down, planted and re-harvested many times during the same period it takes for one such cycle to occur in Quebec.

Also, government regulations have reduced harvesting production by 25 percent. “For us, this is bad, because the forests in the area have grown and are ready to be harvested,” says Bernier. “If the trees stand too long, they will simply fall by themselves, which makes it much more difficult to harvest them and also results in many trees becoming garbage.” Right now, Bernier estimates they are about 50 years behind on managing the logging forests. Bernier compares the situation to a garden. A gardener must clean and cut a garden to maintain it and keep it flowering and growing; in the same way, the logging industry must maintain the forests.

Truck Features Maximize Productivity

One of the new areas of opportunity for Bernier is support for the hydroelectric power industry. Recently, the trucks were put to the test working on a dam on the Eastmain River in the northern part of Quebec Province for HydroQuebec.

In this area, the roads are oftentimes too soft for running rigid trucks, and the rough terrain also poses a constant problem. “The rigid trucks and artic trucks are almost equal in terms of speed,” notes Bernier. “But in the rough terrain, there is no competition.” Productivity in the HM300-1 is enhanced with K-ATOMiCS—Komatsu Advanced Transmission with Optimum Modulation Control System. K-ATOMiCS offers a six-speed, fully automatic transmission that uses an advanced electronic system to eliminate shift shock and torque cutoff to improve operator and engine efficiency.

It automatically selects the ideal gear based on vehicle speed, engine rpm and the shift position chosen. This results in powerful acceleration; smooth down shifting and synchronized engine speed when climbing slopes. This ultimately minimizes operator fatigue, keeps the load in the body and increases productivity.

A normal cycle on Bernier’s job sites is one to two miles, with numerous and sometimes steep inclines and declines. For this, the HM300-1 is equipped with a powerful, Komatsu SAAD140E-3 engine, offering a superior GVW-to-horsepower ratio, lowering cost-per-ton and bettering grade climbing and descending capabilities while increasing fuel economy. The HM300-1 features a 6-wheel, oil-cooled multiple disc braking system for excellent stopping power. The brake system is designed to minimize maintenance by reducing debris in the brake lines while increasing the performance of the braking response.

On a daily basis, the trucks haul around 3,000 tons during an 11-hour shift. The HM300-1 features a maximum gross vehicle weight (GVW) of 109,960 lb., hauling up to a 30-ton payload at its top rated speed of 36.7 mph. Everything runs the same cycles, except for the log loaders, which typically run longer hours.

One of the features that helped sell Bernier on the machines was the strong construction of the trucks’ main frames, axles, articulation and suspension. For the operators, the main benefits of the trucks are cab comfort, visibility and easy access options. Komatsu’s “human first” approach to engineering cabs offers operators a comfortable work environment. Komatsu’s dual-entry cab is the widest in its class and offers plenty of storage space and large seats. The front and rear hydro-pneumatic suspension system contributes to smooth riding and easier handling in rough conditions, reducing operator fatigue and increasing productivity.

Taking Pride in Machine Maintenance

It is apparent that Bernier is proud of his artic trucks and all his machinery. The trucks are kept very clean, and each operator is responsible for cleaning his unit. Bernier personally inspects the equipment and adheres to stringent requirements. Because of this, his equipment distributor – Federal Equipment – uses Bernier’s operation as a model for other customers and potential clients.

“We consider Bernier a major account, and he receives special service – but we also use him for our business as well,” adds Charest. “There are many times when we contract with Bernier for hauling our new equipment – since he has so many haulers.” With his 40 trucks and trailers, a main component of his business is trucking and he needs to be able to haul around his own equipment fleet to various job sites.

In terms of maintenance, Bernier notes that they’ve never had to replace any joint on any of the trucks. He attributes this to careful maintenance, along with his insistence in using special lubricating grease – purchased from Komatsu.

The oldest truck in Bernier’s fleet has 4,500 hours on it – without a major problem. Because of the low instance of problems with the trucks, Bernier is able to reduce the number of mechanics required on job sites. It’s also allowed him to reduce his parts inventory.

Maintenance is done mostly in the field, but if a problem arises, Bernier does have a facility in Baie Comeau. Each operator is responsible for logging all maintenance intervals and keeping accurate service records for the unit they operate. Another key: Bernier follows Komatsu’s recommendations for service requirements to the letter.

Family Business Grows and Adapts to Changes

What started with two people, and a single forestry contract, has grown into a multi-faceted business that employs just under 200 people. As the trends and changes in the area’s industries affect the business climate, Bernier is adapting and finding new opportunities. With attention to detail, a keen business sense and a strong family bond, Bernier has built a successful business in Baie-Comeau. Bernier sums up his business philosophy as this: “It is not good to be alone.” And with his business partner and wife Louise by his side, and his son Martin taking a leadership role at the company, he won’t have to worry about that anytime soon.