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Fabricating

Tough trucks

By Nick Wright

Antarctica’s newest fleet is customized to withstand sub-zero temperatures

April 2012 - Although the existing trucks at McMurdo Station, the U.S. research center in Antarctica, only log about 1,000 miles a year, they’ve been worn and torn by four decades of sub-zero temperatures, salt spray and some of the most unforgiving conditions on earth.

When JD Stone, manager at Sterling, Colo.-based Industrial Welding and Supply Co., first read the extreme temperature specifications for the new trucks his shop was contracted to help customize for McMurdo Station, he says at first, “it didn’t register.

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The three massive International Paystar trucks, which would enthrall any state’s department of transportation fleet, required the construction and features hold up to temperatures as low as minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit (and as warm as 40 degrees Fahrenheit).

At those temperatures, “some of the things happening with metal down there are pretty amazing,” says Jim Story, vehicle maintenance facility supervisor for the U.S. Antarctic Program. The program is run by the National Science Foundation, which uses a prime contractor to handle logistics, personnel and supplies for the U.S. research stations in Antarctica. “I’ve seen suspension saddles on big trailers snap like potato chips.”

McMurdo Station, built in 1955, has an average temperature of 0 degrees Fahrenheit and is a hub of scientific research for the continent, according to the United States Antarctic Program website.

Stone says the three trucks are customized with the same configuration. Each is outfitted with a Kybato hook system, which lends the trucks to a modular setup for easy attachments. The 6x6 all-wheel drive goliaths each have a fifth wheel coupling, steel snow plow, dump body and 304 stainless steel spreader for sand or salt.

Industrial Welding’s Colt Rock Box dump bodies are fabricated with standard welds from Hardox 450, an abrasion-resistant steel plate with workable cold-bending qualities. Stone says his shop installed dovetails instead of tailgates for easy loading. The company’s background metal fabrication and customizing tough trucks for the oilfield industry translated into an ideal multipurpose application. “For not being an off-road truck, they’re just monsters,” he says.

Cold conversion
To find specific parts that would operate in the harsh cold, Stone delved into research, which was at times challenging. “Wheel seals, valve seals, cylinder seals, all those are only good to 20 below before it gets too hard,” he says. “When you have a hard seal, anytime say a piston moves or shift fork or anything, it’s just going to tear.”

The chassis were treated with multiple undercoats, and the truck beds primed and painted. Any rust in the dump bodies would come off after a load or two of gravel, Stone says. Reinforced door retainers, in addition to heavy duty hinges, are intended to keep doors from being blown open in the wind, according to Story.

Fleet Operations contractors mainly will use the trucks to carry “fines” or other materials mined for coating roads and piers and providing pads or excavation for construction, Story adds. “Because of the stainless steel spreader we bought as one of the convertible attachments, they will be able to mine fines directly into the hopper/spreader and spread fines on the roads for traction.”

A separate subcontractor, Tulsa Truck Manufacturing Co., split the trucks’ frame and installed a step frame that allows the “center of gravity of a load to be lower,” Stone says. Industrial Welding further installed a closed-loop, heated hydraulic system throughout the truck—a crucial specification to accommodate given the temperature fluctuations. “It’s always difficult to put a hydraulic package together to run more than one thing,” he says.

Industrial Welding was the last assembly stop for the trucks before being hauled on lowboy trailers to Southern California, from where they shipped in December 2011. “We finally got the trucks in mid-September and finished the last one a couple days after Thanksgiving,” Stone says.

The annual shipment made a February stop in Christchurch, New Zealand, before navigating the Antarctic pack ice and arriving at the McMurdo Sea Ice edge. The shipping process alone presents challenges illustrated by the logistical coordination.

“We have the longest logistics pipeline in the world, so things need to be built to be self contained,” Story says. FFJ

Sources

  • Industrial Welding and Supply Co.
    Sterling, Colo.
    phone: 970/522-2206
    fax: 970/522-2216



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