Review: Used Komatsu WA480-5 wheel loader
A mine-spec Komatsu WA480-5 wheel loader is showing true tenacity and toughness working 24-hour shifts in a Queensland clay pit, writes Ron Horner
Located only 17km from the Brisbane CBD is a 24-hectare (originally 80-hectare) fully designated mine site which has been in production for almost 125 years.
This site has been a productive clay pit governed by the Queensland Department of Natural Resources and Mines and, up until recently, owned by Boral (Bricks).
The clay mined from the site and, more recently, imported materials are stockpiled in layers, re-excavated and blended to create materials for the manufacturing of bricks at the Boral site in Darra to supply to the booming Queensland housing market.
Located within the site is a series of Sediment Basins constructed for water and sediment retention and to cover the company’s environmental obligations, and surrounding the basins are several huge clay stockpiles of materials which have been imported and spread in layers.
These stockpiles are made up of varying different colours of clay from several pits around the Brisbane region and are eventually blended in proportion to suit the coloured bricks required for the end user.
The stockpiles are within easy tramming distance from the crushing plant and can be transported by front-end loader.
Boral has had several brands and sizes of loaders over the years, the choice of which has depended on end-product market supply and demand.
At the time of our on-site review I met with long-time plant operator Brad Connon, who has some 24 years of loyal service under his belt.
Brad told me that when he started work some 24 years ago the company had a Cat 966 wheel loader, then ran Case machines and switched to a Komatsu WA420-3, WA470 and, most recently, the WA480-5.
The Komatsus have provided excellent service for the duration, Brad said, and the operators have been more than pleased with the operator comforts which abound in the Komatsu range of loaders.
The WA480-5 has about 20,000 hours on the clock and, other than the bucket suspension accumulators giving some grief, has been a tremendous workhorse operating 24-hours shifts in the sometimes dusty and also wet conditions which prevail during the stormy Queensland summers.
I am very familiar with Komatsu loaders, having owned several during my lifetime in earthmoving. I have to admit I too have a liking for the Komatsu range, but that is merely a personal choice and not swayed by costs or service provided.
The first thing you realise when looking at this mine-spec machine is that it is well used. The operator’s seat, although replaced on several occasions, has lost a bit of its original firmness and controls are a slightly worn.
But once you get this 25-tonne, 283-horsepower (211kW) machine on the move you know it’s still got the grunt for this type of job.
With four forward and four reverse gears and a top speed of about 35km/h it doesn’t take long to get the machine from inside the crushing plant out into the pit.
The loader is fitted with a 4.2-cubic-meter, Australian-made bucket. By shaving the face of the stockpiles vertically the operator is able to blend the different-coloured clay in the first of several stages of blending.
The operator then hauls the materials to the undercover crushing plant to load the hopper, where the materials are crushed to a finer grade and blended as stage two of the brick-making process.
The hopper bin holds about 18 tonnes of clay and takes about 30 minutes to empty as the conveyor moves the materials to the processing plant some 200 meters away.
On a 12-hour shift the loader moves about 500 tonnes, which rounds out at about 180,000 tonnes a year.
In the cab
The cab, as with most of Komatsu equipment, is well laid out and has all the creature comforts one could imagine for a machine of its day.
Air conditioning is compulsory in the Queensland heat and, believe it or not, it gets pretty darn cold in the evenings out near Ipswich during those frosty winter nights.
The wheel loader’s features include emergency stops, two-way radio with designated channel, grid mesh windows for rock fall protection, auto grease, dual fire extinguishers, Loadrite scales to take the guesswork out of tonnage feed, large internal and external mirrors, extra lights for night shift and a roof-mounted radio.
Auto grease is the only way to go with production machines like the Komatsu 480 due to the night shifts and 24 hour production required to keep the plant moving. The loaders are moved to the processing plant at the end of each shift for a quick fuel up and check over, and then they are back into the toil of producing bricks for another long shift.
On the job
Two loaders are in operation at the pit, and they are alternated so as servicing and repairs can be carried out on the stand-down loader.
If by chance one loader has to be removed from site for off-site repairs a sub-contractor’s loader is bought on a dry-hire basis as stand by in case an emergency arises or the Boral production loader suffers a breakdown. This ensures the plant can operate at full capacity at all times.
The drive train is powered by a six-cylinder, turbo-charged 673 cubic inch (11 litre for those under 40) engine, and this tidy loader is rounded off by fully automated power shift with electronically controlled modulation valve and variable transmission cut-off system, and a large torque converter with lock up function, gear kickdown and hold functions.
Once in the cab and on the move I could feel the ride suspension was not quite sorted and could well be associated with the operators minimal complaint list, but with 20,000 hours on the clock and 24-hour shifts one could have some sympathy for the old girl.
Out of the undercover crushing plant and into daylight for the short trip to the pit and clay face. There is no grader here to hide your mistakes or to keep your roads clean and tidy from spillage so the operator has to do his own housekeeping.
Like your missus says, "You dirty it … you clean it up!"
The clay face is clearly in layers of different coloured clays imported from several outlying clay supply pits. The operator has to neatly shave the face from bottom to top so as to have a filled bucket with an even distribution of material for the trip back to the crushing plant.
Too much of a dark coloured clay can have a detrimental effect on the end product, for example, especially if you need to produce a lighter colour for this run.
On my first attempt I struggled to get the mix/blend correct and had to dump the bucket, but on the second and subsequent attempts I had more control and the Komatsu WA480-5 just purred through the morning’s production.
In this particular plant communication is the key to safety. Cameras and coloured lights are used to direct the loader operator when to load and when not to.
For example, a red light is pulled if the conveyor has been stopped, the crusher operator is dislodging an oversized rock from the hopper bin or the bin is merely full.
Once outside the plant the loader sometimes has to traverse across the haul truck access road. These trucks are importing materials from an external source and a dangerous situation could arise if sight and radio contact is not adhered to.
The bottom line
The Komatsu WA480-5 wheel loader is a great mid-range production machine capable of moving far greater tonnages than those required at the Boral site.
It moves quickly across the ground, is comfortable, the cab is well appointed and well laid out, it has power to burn and is economical in its fuel usage — all of which makes this one machine ideally suited for this application.
Boral advised me that the machines are ready for updating in the not too distant future. Although they have significant hours on the clocks they have always been serviced to the hour through a Komatsu maintenance and servicing programme.
Komatsu has been a leader in heavy machinery manufacturing for many, many years in all types of machinery from excavators to dozers and loaders, and it has the service and sales support to back its products to the hilt.
Boral reckons Komatsu has a winner in their loader range and, from my experience and what I have witnessed here on this job at Darra, I have to agree.
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