In keeping with its growth strategy, Fortescue Metals Group (Fortescue) has successfully completed a massive upgrade to its bulk material handling facilities at Port Hedland that will pave the way to the company's target export capacity of 155 million tonnes per annum (mtpa).
From humble beginnings in 2003 Fortescue has grown into the world's fourth-largest iron ore producer.
Its first mining operations started at the Cloudbreak mine in August 2007 with the construction of all mine, rail and port infrastructure reaching completion in 2008.
A critical part of the port infrastructure was the company's train unloader, which was put into operation in April 2008 when Fortescue unloaded its first train at the Herb Elliott Port, near Port Hedland in North Western Australia.
Since then, the company has fast-tracked its growth by steadily increasing production from its Cloudbreak mine and then bringing the Christmas Creek mine on-line in 2009.
Recalling that time, Fortescue's general manager - port, Gerhard Veldsman said, "At that stage, the mines were running at about 70-75mtpa; car dumper one was running really well, matching the capacity of our mines.
"Even now, I don't think that anyone in the Pilbara is able to unload at that rate. The problem was that we had more mining capacity and shipping capacity than dumping capacity," he said.
In 2010, Fortescue approved an ambitious expansion to triple production to 155mtpa.
The US$9 billion project not only includes an expansion of mining operations at the Chichester Hub and a greenfield development at Solomon but an expansion of the company's port, train unloading capacity and main rail network as well as a new line to Solomon.
Over the last few years Fortescue port shutdowns supervisor, Brad Stillman has been involved in all aspects of the company's first train unloader's maintenance. This has ranged from basic weekly inspections to major change outs.
During that time, he has worked closely with Metso's Service team on the procurement of spare parts, equipment enhancements and services.
For Stillman, TU601 is at home in the harsh conditions of the Pilbara due to its sturdy construction and reliability.
"We're not in a pharmaceutical lab - it's a really rugged environment out here. But even so, the unloader is like a Swiss watch - everything just works. That's why it's my favourite piece of the plant. It is a big, heavy, powerful piece of gear that needs to be treated with respect," he said.
On the back of the reliable performance of their first Metso twin cell, tandem train unloader commissioned in 2008, Fortescue awarded Metso Mining and Construction a contract to supply two more identical systems.
The first of the two new unloaders (TU602) was commissioned ahead of schedule in mid-September and the second (TU603) in November 2012.
Veldsman says it was crucial that TU602 was delivered on or ahead of schedule and that the ramp up had to go well, because the business was experiencing a "real bottleneck" when it came to unloading trains.
"It was delivered two weeks early, which was fantastic. The original ramp-up schedule was meant to be eight weeks, but we shortened that to six and we did it in four," he said.
The early delivery of the second train unloader resulted in Fortescue being able to dump 580,000 tonnes of unbudgeted ore in September, Veldsman explained.
"At $100 a tonne, that's $58 million in extra revenue that we hadn't counted on. So the early delivery helped cover our capital investment."
According to operational readiness and commissioning manager, Mark Shirley, the company is clearly benefitting from the additional capacity of TU602.
Even though it is not yet needed for full time use, TU603 is already playing an important role.
As well as catering for future expansion of the company's production capacity, TU603 provides overall system redundancy in case of any problems occurring with the other unloaders.
"Train unloader two is hugely important to the business, taking us to between 110 and 115 million tonnes capacity. TU603 is also one of the critical parts in our supply chain; if you've only got two train unloaders and you lose one, you've lost 50% of your capability," Shirley stated.
Veldsman agreed, adding that the installation of the two new train unloaders represents a significant part of the company's move to expand their Herb Elliott Port facility.
This is the conclusion to Part one of this three part article, to read the second part, click here.