Dealing with High Pressure in the Canadian Oil Sands

An interview with John Owens, Supervisor – Hydraulic Hose Technician at North American Construction Group

Based in Acheson, an industrial hub in the Greater Edmonton area of Alberta, Canada, John Owens supervises the assembly of hydraulic hoses for North American Construction Group (NACG), a leading provider of heavy construction and mining services in Canada. A hose failure SME (subject-matter expert) with over 38 years of experience in the hydraulic hose and fittings industry, Owens is a specialist in high pressure applications and a proven leader in his field.

Hose & Coupling World had the pleasure of speaking with Owens about his experience in the industry, the challenges of working with hydraulics in the mining sector, and the importance of adopting a hose management program.

With combined experience in the manufacturing, distribution and end-user segments of the hose and fittings business, Owens has seen the industry from every perspective. “I am a second generation ‘hoser,’” he says. “My dad started a hose and fittings business in the 60s in Moncton, New Brunswick. So, I started working there when I was just a teenager in the summers. I worked there for ten years.” Choosing to further his education, he pursued his studies in Mechanical Engineering-Marine Power at Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland.

Over the years, Owens explored various opportunities: he worked for a hydraulic repair facility in Moncton, New Brunswick, running the hose component of their business; a hose import wholesaler in Ontario; a European hose- assembly equipment manufacturer in Michigan, USA; a manufacturer of fittings, specializing in hydraulic adapters, also in Michigan; as well as spending several years with a large hose distributor named Pacific Hose & Fittings, where he ran operations in Vancouver and Edmonton. His work has taken him from the east coast of Canada to the west, and south of the border.


Now on the end-user side of the business, as part of NACG—one of the largest contractors of construction and mining services in western Canada—Owens assumes a role custom- made for his skill set. He assists in high-powered open pit mining operations in the oil sands of Fort McMurray and surrounding areas.

Owens provides an overview of open pit mining operations: “The process involves mining bitumen (an unconventional oil deposit) mixed with sand. Hydraulic or electrical shovels are used to mine the ore off the face of the mine, which is dumped into large mining trucks and then hauled off to a processing facility.”

Elaborating further on NACG’s operations, he says, “As a contractor, we provide various services for the mines. We remove dirt from on top of the ore—overburden they call it. We perform reclamation work, which involves dispersing the sand that was separated from the oil. We have some of the biggest mining equipment in the world inside the company. It is quite an interesting company from the mining perspective.”

Machinery built for high pressure applications

There are many challenges associated with re-manufacturing machinery for use in the Canadian oil sands. A significant factor is the sheer size and power associated with operating some of the largest mining equipment in existence, which includes hydraulic shovels, hydraulic excavators, mining trucks, bulldozers and graters.

He explains, “In my role, I am providing the necessary hydraulic hose assemblies for various NACG operations. We’re building replacement hose assemblies as part of our equipment remanufacturing process. We are also build- ing assemblies for emergency breakdown in the field. If they have a hose failure during operation we can build the replacements from an established build sheet and ship the hose assembly up to Fort McMurray the same day.”

Last year alone Owens estimates that his team built and shipped approximately 800 hose assemblies to address potential and actual breakdowns occurring in the field. This is aside from the day-to-day task of building hose assemblies for the machinery that they are re-manufacturing. Without question, it is no small task to ensure that the elements most prone to failure—the associated hoses—are up to the job and ready on demand.

Hydraulic hump hoses: the high visibility hose assembly

Hump hoses are two inch hoses with six-wire reinforcement that run from the car-body of the shovel to the boom and are capable of withstanding 5,000 pounds per square inch (psi) of pressure. Owens explains, “The mining shovel is the heart of the operation; if it fails then everything behind it—all the equipment that it is servicing is shut down as well. So, the hump hose is a high visibility hose assembly because it gets the attention of everybody when it breaks in the field.” According to Owens, with an average lifespan of approximately two to three years, or about 6,000 to 10,000 hours, these hoses endure high demand, pressure spikes and extreme temperatures on a routine basis.

The hydraulic system must lift the shovel upward and through the material it is mining, and then lower the bucket with the material. In the summer, the bitumen takes on a rubbery “gum-like” consistency. While in the winter, facing the borderline subarctic temperatures of northern Alberta, the material becomes rigid. “It becomes like a block of ice; it will actually break off in chunks,” Owens says. “So, you’re expecting to have 30 tons of material in your bucket, then all of a sudden a chunk snaps off and the material now weighs 70 tons. That’s a big deal for the hydraulic system.”

Not only that, explains Owens, machine operators must take great precaution in feathering the speed at which they are descending the shovel, as not to create a pressure surge. He explains, “When you are dealing with 40 tons of material in a bucket—say it’s travelling at 10 feet per second and the operator stops suddenly—if he doesn’t feather the motion, the kinetic energy in the bucket is translated into pressure. The next thing you know, you get a pressure spike of 30,000 psi.”

Additionally, there are internal temperature and vibration considerations. “Hump hoses run hot. Not to mention, there is also a lot of vibration on that application,” Owens says. This, along with other factors, can lead to cases of “pipe whipping.” This is when the pipe that the hose is attached to is actually bending in the process. While often not a significant bend according to Owens, it is sometimes enough to cause the pipe to whip when the pressure gets released. This, in turn, compromises the hose to which it is attached. To help mitigate some of these challenges, Owens is currently working in partnership with one of NACG’s valued sup- pliers to develop an improved hump hose that incorporates a better quality rubber and an improved coupling design. Still in the R&D stage—with prototyping and testing to come—the prospect of extending the hump hose’s field life and reducing unnecessary downtime, is an exciting one for Owens.

Hydraulic hose: the dilemma of fitting orientation on a hose assembly
The hydraulic hoses used at NACG are generally standard throughout the industry, explains Owens. Typically made out of Nitrile rubber, Owens builds hoses with one- to six-wire reinforcement, designed to withstand up to 6,000 psi. Something that is unique to Owens’ operations, however, is their method of addressing fitting orientation and assembly alignment. “I have built some tooling and developed a process to do that,” he says.
Owens explains the problem: “One of the issues with hydraulic hoses is if you have two angled fittings pressed on to the hose—so you have a straight piece of hose and you have two 90-degree fittings pressed on to the hose—the 90 degree fittings have to be installed at specific orientation relative to each other, to ensure proper alignment in the end. The dilemma is how to rotate those fittings into those positions.” He asserts that, to date, he has not come across any tool in the marketplace that has done an adequate job addressing this tricky issue. Even those original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) that have attempted to come up with a solution, continue to struggle with the tooling.

Owens estimates that 30 percent of all the hoses on the equipment used at NACG have two fittings that have to be rotated. Even though he has found a method to ensure
proper alignment of the fittings in his operations, he nonetheless asserts, “It is a problem in the industry.”

The importance of tracking failures
Since working at NACG, Owens has set-up a tracking program to monitor hose failures that currently includes approximately 6000 hoses. He says, “Really, the only way you can do it is by having a big dataset accumulated. Over many years, you begin to see the pattern and how long the hoses are actually lasting in the system.” It’s a concept that makes sense on many levels, suggests Owens. The question is, how do you set it up?

Owens explains, “What is unique about my situation is that I had set up a similar program for an OEM customer in the past—a multinational construction machinery manufacturer at a forestry excavator facility. So I had a very high level quality-control tracking system, which I am now using here, as the end user.”

He suggests that there is huge advantage not only to end users but to suppliers as well. He remarks, “The power of this tracking system translates to big-business for suppliers who want to make knowledgeable recommendations to clients, based on real-world product knowledge. It’s an invaluable resource.”

Quality assurance: production instructions tags
Owens takes pride in his implementation of a process of production instruction tagging that ensures the consistent duplication of the assembly process. He explains, “Quality control is about the ability to repeat your process consistently—in the same way every time. So, product instruction tags may not sound like a big deal, but in the aftermarket, it’s basically non-existent today. There is no one providing an instruction tag on building the hose.”
He describes his process: “Here everything has a production instruction tag that tells you how to build the hose, which includes an illustration. I have very high repeatability built into the system. So, I don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time. In the beginning there was a lot of setting-up and paperwork, but I have been here for five years now, and most of the hoses have been cataloged, the production tags have been produced and now we just have to copy them. So that’s a typical day—building hoses from production tags.”

Cutting downtime with a preventative maintenance program
According to Owens there is tremendous value to OEMs, distributors and end users alike, in establishing a preventative hose maintenance program—which includes tracking failures and a system of production instructions—as a means of ultimately and significantly reducing downtime in the field.

Owens says, “The main reason I took this job was for preventative maintenance. My dad used to say to me, ‘I’m not in the hose business, I’m in the downtime business.’ The real trick is you have to get at that downtime for people to pay attention. If you can’t get at that, then it’s just a commodity. The money is in downtime.”He adds, “I was reading this article written by an Australian, and he said that in the coal mining industry in Australia—which is similar to what we do—27 percent of the unplanned downtime is due to hose failures. So that is not an insignificant number.”

The problem, insists Owens, is that most companies aren’t tracking hose failures, which would allow them to deter- mine when they should be changing hoses on hydraulic equipment. He remarks, “If it’s a broken hose, they just put another one on, and that’s the end of it. So, the idea of having a preventative maintenance program, where you’re scheduling when to replace hydraulic hoses, based on real information acquired in the field, doesn’t really exist.” More- over, most hose shops that are building hose for mines take the old hose off and reverse-engineer it, explains Owens, without doing any paperwork. “This method relies totally on the skill set of the operator building it,” he asserts.

To this end, Owens’ customized hose management pro- gram is able to provide very high-level quality control and accuracy. “Basically, the percentage chance of building the hose incorrectly is zero,” he states. With written instruction tags that need to be filled out, ensuring that every step and measurement has been followed, the chance of error becomes extremely unlikely, because everything is recorded.


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