Feature, Truck Technology

‘Oresome’ Swedes at home in the Arctic

On our large lump of Earth, iron ore comes from the ancient scarps of Western Australia’s vast Pilbara, carried to port across searing desert on the longest and heaviest trains in the world. It’s a tad different up north in the Arctic Circle where some of the world’s highest grade iron ore is hauled by road to eventually become Europe’s finest steel

It’s not easy jamming history into a nutshell but it seems that sometime in the thousand-year span of the Middle Ages – from around 500 to 1500 A.D. or thereabouts – native Swedes came to realise their iron ore produced better steel than anyone else’s. Apparently, their near neighbours in northern Europe were realising it as well.

Things have, of course, changed somewhat between then and now but not the demand for Swedish iron ore. Indeed, a little research shows that perhaps the only thing more consistent than yet another bad rendition of Mamma Mia at an old folks’ ABBA festival is the consistent quality of Swedish iron ore and its appeal to Europe’s leading steel producers.

According to that great font of geological knowledge, Google, Sweden has Europe’s and indeed, some of the world’s highest quality iron ore with few impurities in its natural state, therefore producing steel of exceptional standard. Critically though, the ore bodies have for centuries delivered the same consistently high quality which has, over just as many centuries, kept Swedish iron ore in high demand and equally, given Swedish steel an unsurpassed reputation for quality and strength.

Sweden is, in fact, easily the largest producer of iron ore in the European Union, responsible for up to 90 per cent of Europe’s iron ore extraction from a dozen or so mines mostly in the country’s far north, well inside the Arctic Circle. It’s an area historically known as Lapland, traditional land of the Sami people who proudly retain their reindeer herding heritage which, without too much surprise, occasionally causes friction with Sweden’s vested mining, business and political interests.

Nonetheless, cracking iron ore out of open cut and underground mines in this sometimes marshy and often frozen landscape remains an important national industry, fuelled by strong demand from both domestic and export markets. Germany is comfortably the biggest export market followed by Netherlands, Finland, Saudi Arabia and the UK.

After being crushed to an almost talc-like state, top quality ore from the Kaunis Iron mine emerges almost steaming from the crushing plant black as pitch. It doesn’t steam for long

On a global scale, however, Sweden is something of a minnow in the iron cauldron, apparently accounting for just one per cent of global production and thus, little more than a blimp on the radar compared to the titans of the iron ore export business led by – yep, you guessed it – Australia. Yet along with the vast differences in scale between Australia and Sweden, the other great difference is that the Swedes actually make steel from their iron ore. Lots of steel.

We, of course, make next to nothing from our iron ore except lots of money from selling vast quantities to the world’s greatest steel producers led, of course, by China.

Interestingly though, Sweden is also rated as one of the world’s leading steel producers and significantly, China buys considerable tonnages of Swedish iron ore and steel.

In some respects, Sweden’s iron ore and steel industries actually reflect the country’s remarkable standing in global business. Here is, after all, a country of barely 10 million people facilitating a highly developed export-oriented economy responsible for a few of the biggest brand names in the world, with none better known or perhaps more reliant on Swedish steel than automotive giant Volvo.

Yet in a significant mining enterprise in the country’s high latitudes, Volvo actually plays a role at both ends of the production cycle, from transporting iron ore by road to obviously being a major user of the end product.

Kaunis Iron’s technical and vehicle manager, Mikael Wahlberg. On a minus 18o Celsius morning, he says it’s relatively mild for a February day inside the Arctic Circle. A week earlier the temperature was 44 below. This winter has been hard even by Swedish standards

The ore mining enterprise in this instance is Kaunis Iron which is neither the oldest nor largest in the Swedish industry. It is, however, entirely notable for a number of reasons, not least because it uses a fleet of Volvo truck and trailer combinations to haul iron ore around the clock in winter conditions that can be so severe, ore freezes to the steel bins of the side tippers. No joke!

Cold comfort

For a visitor fresh from an Australian summer where the mercury has been regularly breaching the high 30s and low 40s, it’s difficult to imagine mining enterprises more Poles apart, literally and physically, than those operating in the furnace of Western Australia’s Pilbara and the deathly cold of winter about 100km north of the Arctic Circle.

Still, while being guided around the Kaunis Iron loading facility by technical and vehicle manager Mikael Wahlberg on a minus 18 degrees Celsius morning, we’re told it’s reasonably mild for a February day in Sweden’s far north. There’s not much cloud, gratefully the wind’s not blowing and a little after 9am, the sun peeks shyly over the horizon for a few hours before slinking back under Earth’s rim, leaving the landscape to deepening shades of grey until around four in the afternoon when night comes again, quick and cold. Really cold!

Mikael seems mildly amused by our constant and invariably naïve opinions on degrees of cold before laconically pointing out that it can get much, much chillier. Last week, he says simply, the temperature dropped to minus 44. Suddenly, our perspectives become a little clearer, and considerably quieter.

Back for another load, complete with all the snow and ice of the last run

Meanwhile, it’s not just the thermometer carving our perceptions of the extremes between Australia’s oven and Sweden’s freezer. It is also the colour and consistency of the actual ore pouring into stockpiles off high conveyors from a large undercover crushing plant.

Whereas our iron ore is the archetypal red of ancient Pilbara ranges, Sweden’s is black as pitch when crushed to an almost talc-like state, briefly damp and warm from the crushing process as it streams into the cold air, stockpiled and ultimately loaded onto trucks and trailers by front-end loader. At this time of year though, the ore isn’t black for long as snow and ice soon cover everything in a white shroud.

The mine gains its name from the small nearby village of Kaunisvaara and after the finding of extensive high quality ore deposits rich in the magnetite which makes Swedish ore so sought after, Canadian company Northland Resources started construction of the Kaunis mine in 2010. Production started two years later.

The mine is just 50km from Sweden’s eastern border with Finland and the construction of a broad-gauge railway was initially proposed as the best logistics link, connecting the mine to the Finnish rail network and thence on to the Baltic for shipping ore to international customers.

That somewhat expensive plan was, however, shelved when Northland was given permission to use an existing iron ore port on the other side of Sweden at Narvik in Norway, about 380km west of Kaunis Iron. The new plan was further cemented when the company was given the nod to run trucks grossing 90 tonnes from the mine to a rail head 160km to the north-west, where the ore is then transferred to rail for the remaining 215km or so to the Norwegian port.

Yet, achieving regulatory approval to run trucks on Swedish public roads at 90 tonnes was not easily won. Strict monitoring and safety requirements have been in place from the start.

Initially, Scania trucks were chosen for what would always be a high-profile, high mileage and carefully monitored road run but in spite of meticulous planning in streamlining the operation, greater forces were at play and it wasn’t long before the whole project fell into a profitless pit.

Despite big reserves of some of the world’s best ore, low prices and high debts caused the venture to fail and in 2014 both the mine and the Canadian mining company were declared bankrupt.

But of course, nature and economics deplore a vacuum and with a projected 30 years of high grade ore still waiting to be tapped, the mine was back in business three years later when rights were sold to the newly formed and fully Swedish company, Kaunis Iron. So, with the support of Swedish investors, iron ore mining kicked off again in 2018.

Around 130 drivers, male and female, work shifts around the clock in a fleet of 35 truck and dog trailer combinations. Demand for Swedish iron ore is non-stop

This time though, it was Volvo doing the deal for the road work, winning a long-term (2017 to 2026) contract to supply trucks which by Scandinavian standards are among the heaviest combinations in the trucking business. Fittingly perhaps, the truck of choice was Volvo’s flagship FH16 750 configured as 10×4 twin-steer side-tipper rigid with a steering pusher axle at the rear, towing five-axle side-tipper dog trailers. Overall length is 22.25 metres.

In approving the high gross 10-axle combinations and in the process enhancing the viability of the operation, Swedish authorities judiciously kept the calculations simple by allowing nine tonnes per axle, thus a gross weight of 90 tonnes.

The base details of the haulage operation are imposing with Mikael Wahlberg explaining that Kaunis Iron’s 35 combinations work around the clock every day of the year, each unit notching around 350,000km a year. All up, the fleet covers approximately 12 million kilometres annually and moving more than 100 loads every 24 hours at an average payload of 62.5 tonnes, the 35 combinations shift around 6500 tonnes on each 24 hour cycle, or 2.3 million tonnes of ore a year.

While details are currently under wraps, there’s apparently a proposal to significantly increase the fleet’s annual tonnage to as much as 3.2 million tonnes a year by 2027.

With trucks supplied on an operational lease arrangement, indexed on a tonne/kilometre rate, there’s a regular replacement program which has to date seen almost 100 Volvo FH16 750s enter the operation. Moreover, a thoughtful Mikael Wahlberg reports that reliability has been largely good thanks to effective maintenance programs from Volvo’s dealer in this part of the world, Wist Last & Buss.

It comes as something of a surprise though when Mikael casually mentions that among the 35 trucks in the fleet are two Scanias. He does not expand when asked why the ‘other Swedes’ are in the operation except to quietly mention that the experience hasn’t been particularly positive.

Related article: Volvo shows off muscle and 780hp might

Asked about the inherent difficulties of operating in such fierce winter conditions, Mikael simply shrugs and intimates that it’s all just part of the process. Still, there are obvious necessities, like heavy-duty plastic liners in the bins of the Hardox steel side-tippers to help prevent ore from sticking to the metal body.

Yet given the intensely gritty and abrasive nature of the finely crushed ore, the liners suffer considerable wear and in a bid to overcome the problem, Webasto heaters channelling warmth through the bin floor are now being trialled in some units. Webasto is well known for the effectiveness of its products in severe cold and there’s ample optimism the trial will deliver positive results.

Meantime, finding the right tyres for running on ice and snow is a constant challenge, according to Mikael Wahlberg. “We are always testing different brands and types of tyres,” he remarks, adding that studded tyres on steer axles and at least two trailer axles are standard issue in winter months. And in this part of the world, winter can obviously last a long time.

Yet finding and retaining good drivers, male and female, is not difficult according to Mikael, explaining there are around 130 drivers in the operation, obviously working on two shift schedules each day. “Generally, there are two drivers for each truck per day.”

The general consensus is that drivers born and raised in the north are the most resilient while those from the south of Sweden can find an Arctic winter particularly difficult. “It’s good today but this has been a hard winter,” Mikael emphasises.

Moreover, with 750hp and a burly 3550Nm (2618lb-ft) of torque under foot, he doesn’t deny that good drivers are attracted to the performance of Volvo’s potent FH16 flagship.

Still, it seemed reasonable to ask that at 90 tonnes on a relatively flat 160km loaded leg from the mine to the railhead, would a lesser rating be viable and perhaps more fuel efficient? He agrees, to a point, conceding that lesser ratings have been considered but retention of good drivers is an equally important consideration.

Besides, Mikael says the fleet average of 1.8km/litre (5.14mpg) across a full year of operation meets the required fuel efficiency demanded by Kaunis Iron in its contract with Volvo. He does, however, infer that it’s a close-run thing.

At 90 tonnes gross, Kaunis Iron trucks are among the heaviest on Swedish roads and authorities closely monitor their operation

The 750s are Euro 6 models and AdBlue use generally runs around six per cent of fuel consumption, he reports, further pointing out that payload is enhanced by a single 278 litre diesel tank and 60 litre AdBlue tank. Trucks are refuelled at the rail head after each loaded leg.

Asked if Volvo’s new D17 engine with up to 780hp is likely be considered for the job, a smiling Mikael Wahlberg answered simply, “I think 750 is enough.” Then, after a few moments, added, “Maybe we will test a 780 just to see what it’s like. It might even be better on fuel.”

On the home front, Volvo Group Australia (VGA) has confirmed that the 780hp D17 will be offered in the top-shelf FH later this year for gross weights up to 90 tonnes or thereabouts.

Buoyed by the results of local testing, VGA is obviously confident the 780 can be adequately cooled under the FH whereas the 16 litre 750 was troubled by cooling issues. Subsequently limited to an ineffective gross of 50 tonnes, Volvo’s biggest big banger never made a mark on the Australian market.

Back inside the Arctic Circle, Mikael Wahlberg declared coyly, “Cooling isn’t a problem up here.”

Well, there’s a shock.

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