Engineering

Lighting the spark

With a local subsidiary now established in Australia, Holland, L.P. is bringing the latest and greatest in flashbutt welding to the local market.

In the mid to late 1980s, the freight rail networks across North America were facing a challenge to further increasing safety and productivity.

The railroads knew that the weights and frequencies that their tracks could support was limited by the number of joints in the track and the low-quality of the existing welds. To overcome this challenge, many North American railroads turned to a local company called Holland, L.P. The company had a history of innovating in the rail welding market, having introduced the first self-propelled railcar with a portable electric flashbutt welding machine in 1972. In 1979, the company released its first rail mobile welder, increasing the potential of flashbutt welding.

Using this technology, the railroads found they could effectively and efficiently reduce jointed rail thus increasing the speed of trains, the tonnage they could haul, and creating a much more efficient heavy haul network. Today, Holland, L.P. counts over 200 mobile flashbutt welders as part of its North American fleet and ensures the over 200,000km of freight track in the United States remains one of the most cost-efficient rail networks in the world.

While Australia is no stranger to Holland’s flashbutt welding technology, in 2020 the company significantly upped its presence in the Australian market, seeing an opportunity to help improve the effectiveness of the freight rail network in Australia as it did in North America in the 1980s and 1990s. Kevin Piefer, managing director of Holland Rail Services Australia Pty Ltd, outlines that Holland is bringing its full service capabilities and unmatched technical expertise to the Australian market.

“In North America, we build, operate, maintain and technically support our equipment.  In Australia, we’re pivoting from being an equipment supplier, to developing the same model here as in North America by operating, maintaining and technically supporting our newly designed and specialised equipment as well as our in-house proprietary Intelliweld® system.”

Having had years of experience building, operating, and maintaining its equipment in North America, Piefer sees Holland as ideally positioned to ensure the stability and connectedness of Australia’s rail renaissance.

“We learned many lessons over time in North America and now we can bring those lessons into Australia and create a flatter learning curve. Our goal is to really accelerate the improvement of flashbutt welding in a very short time frame. In the mining industry the need is now, and there’s a fair amount of money being spent on large projects such as Inland Rail, and the Perth Transit and many other projects.”

As a company dedicated to one thing, and one thing only, improving the quality of flashbutt welding in Australia is Piefer’s sole focus.

“We’ve heard over several years that weld quality is marginal at best. It sounds altruistic but we strive to improve the quality of flashbutt welding because if not improved, the entire industry will deteriorate.  We want to be a valuable and reliable partner to those that want that same improvement. We are here to be a part of the solution. We are not the status quo.”

The company is now established, and mobile welding machines are already on the ground at the company’s Perth headquarters.

“We do one thing, flashbutt welding,” said Piefer. “For track operators, not only do we bring the quality of flashbutt welding, we’re also bringing the fact that we have our own supply of parts, we have our own technical experts, we have remote access to people back in North America who have lived the life of helping the North American business grow.”

A company of innovation

Not only does Holland bring a history of flashbutt welding to Australia, but also the capacity to have the latest technology the company develops through its continuous cycle of innovation.

“The history of Holland is that of a company of innovation that also operates what it innovates,” said Piefer. “We don’t just develop something and then sell it off to the market, we develop it and then we operate it and then, because we operate it, we figure out how we could do it better. We’re able to close that loop of continual innovation.”

Most recently, this cycle has led to the development of the Intelliweld system. Recently arrived in Australia, the Intelliweld system is an extension of Holland’s MobileWelder® that can provide real-time weld monitoring and automated data connection, along with low consumption weld capability. What sets the system apart is the welding control system developed by Holland in house.

“That was designed by a team that actually worked for Holland as operators in the field, they also have technical skills and engineering degrees, but it was designed by the people that actually did the welding,” said Piefer.

These operators saw the potential through real-time data collection to not only improve weld quality but provide the capacity for continuous improvement and remote operation.

“They wanted more data collected, and they wanted a high level of remote access to the system,” said Piefer.

As the weld is being made, an electronic graph is created that can present, down to the millisecond, how the weld has progressed. The graph is available immediately as a digital file and can be used to demonstrate to the operator and customer the quality of a weld.

As Piefer explains, this data becomes important not only out in the field, but during the testing phase to certify that a machine is capable of making the weld with the materials present.

“With the Intelliweld system, we’re able to make a weld, take it to a testing facility and have it tested. Immediately we can make changes to the weld programming because we have the experts in the background that know if the weld testing failed because of what reason, and if we need to make these changes in the force, speed, or heat input of the machine.”

The Intelliweld system is also able to be accessed remotely. On site, the inbuilt controller has redundancy as part of the design, as any Apple iPad can be used to operate the welder. Off site, troubleshooting and calibration can be conducted remotely, limiting the need for specialists to be brought in.

“Right now, the market has been numbed to the fact that when problems arise in the field it may take a few hours before there’s a corrective action in place, and it could take days or weeks before the proper repair could be put in place,” said Piefer.

“Our remote monitoring gives us an immediate signalling back to headquarters if there’s an issue with a piece of equipment. And having remote access means there’s not only a technician working remotely to solve the issue, but that they also have complete access to the machine to assist the operator in resolving the issue on the spot.”

With these functions already on-hand, the data collection capabilities will ensure that the Intelliweld system continues to enable operators to improve the quality of their welds.

“It’s like listening to digital music on your iPhone versus listening to analog sound from a cassette tape from the past. The Intelliweld® system is generations ahead and its information feeds into a global dashboard, accessible from anywhere, where we track every unit and every weld,” said Piefer.

“There’s so much data we collect that we have continual opportunity to improve weld quality and deliver even better results to the market.”

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