Mühlhäuser celebrates 100 successful years Jul 2007

Shani Wallis, TunnelTalk
The company Mühlhäuser is celebrating 100 years in business. In the world of tunnelling, the company's rolling stock has been seen on tunnelling projects from Korea to Cairo, from Sydney, Singapore, and South Africa to Canada, California, and Russia, and so many places in between. Shani Wallis interviewed the personality at the head of the company to find out the secret of its success.

Mention the name Mühlhäuser and the visual association is immediate. Long trains of signature white muck cars and rolling stock units at the portal of a tunnelling project, often in a faraway place, with the project name and customer logos stamped clearly on the side of each.

A new Mühlhäuser development tube transporter
A new Mühlhäuser development tube transporter

From far and wide, customers have travelled to Germany to take delivery of their vital elements of tunnel production. The brand name is synonymous with the success of so many of the world's major tunnelling projects, including the Channel Tunnel and Storebaelt undersea rail projects in Europe, the Lesotho Highlands water tunnel project in Southern Africa, the AlpTransit baseline rail tunnel contracts in Switzerland, and countless metro projects and other tunnel ventures worldwide. In Singapore, European and Japanese contractors working on all contracts of the 48km-long Deep Tunnel Sewer (DTSS) project geared 100% with Mühlhäuser rolling stock, and the same was true for many contractors who completed much of the island's extensive underground metro lines and its recent cable tunnel contracts.

The global reach of the company is a credit to Heinz-Peter Mühlhäuser, who celebrates his 70th birthday this year and continues to manage a company started 100 years ago by his grandfather. Heinz-Peter took over running the company from his father more than 40 years ago and applies the same enthusiasm that marks the road of development since those early days.

When TunnelTalk visited the Mühlhäuser factory in Michelstadt, near Frankfurt, home of the original company headquarters and workshops that remain in the family to this day, Heinz-Peter described the development of the company as a three - stage process.

Mühlhäuser grout cars
Mühlhäuser grout cars

First, orientation of the company by his grandfather who founded and ran the business with his brother from 1907 to the early 1930s, developing the first rail-running muck cars for surface earth - moving operations. "There were no Caterpillars in those days," explained Mühlhäuser. The rail cars were made of wood, ran on 600mm - gauge track, and had a side - tipping mechanism. These became the indispensable workhorses of autobahn construction in Germany. Thousands were manufactured and used in the country.

It was construction of hydroelectric projects in Europe in the 1950s and 1960s, that lead to the company's second stage of development—specialisation. It was for the Kaprun hydro project in Austria that the company, then in the second generation of family management by Karl-Heinz Mühlhäuser, introduced the first all - steel, self - discharging muck cars with an increased capacity of 1.8 to 2.5m3.

"Competition at that time became fierce," recalls Mühlhäuser of his father's time in management. "More than 10 different companies were in the business of designing muck cars for the hydro tunnelling business and other purposes." To stay ahead of the competition, the company developed larger capacity cars to provide a system that would muck out a full drill-and-blast round with one train.

Mühlhäuser concrete remixers
Mühlhäuser concrete remixers

In 1966, when Heinz-Peter became the third generation manager of the business, the largest muck car in the Mühlhäuser range was "5-6m3, not more." Then, in quick succession, cars running on 900mm - gauge rail and up to 15m3 capacity were introduced. "This development was being driven principally by the introduction of the new tunnelling machines by Robbins," explained Mühlhäuser, and the first of what became a familiar combination of Robbins TBMs with trains of Mühlhäuser muck cars, often pulled by SIG and Schöma locos, was delivered to a project in Spain.

During this period, specialisation continued with the introduction of new muck cars including rota - dumpers, bottom-­opening cars, and shaft lift - off cars; manriders; concrete, grout, and mortar cars; and flat cars and segment cars for the advancing soft - ground, segmentally - lined TBM industry. Also, the third phase of company development began—globalisation.

"This was fostered by promotion of major tunnel projects in the 1980s and 1990s by the World Bank," said Mühlhäuser. "These saw our equipment going to long water - tunnel projects in Guatamala, Colombia, and Venezuela for example." Through this period, competition remained constant, but with Mühlhäuser remaining a market - leader.

Out in front

Understanding exactly what the customer wants and making sure to deliver is how Mühlhäuser described his fundamental approach to running the business when he talked with TunnelTalk in April. "You must always look to the client's requirement."

One of the original wooden box cars that started the brand­name rolling stock
One of the original wooden box cars that started the brand­name rolling stock

What most clients want, explained Mühlhäuser, is to optimise the design of their service system to the size of the tunnel section. From wanting to muck out one round or TBM stroke in one train and carrying all supplies for one round on the same train—the segments for one ring, the grout for the annulus backfill, the supplies for rail and service extensions, and so on—Mühlhäuser explained that more recently, customers are needing cars to carry bigger and heavier segments for the larger and larger diameter soft ground TBM tunnels, as well as needing rolling stock to manage steeper gradients.

"This has often required us to engineer units specifically for individual projects. We do this willingly, investing a lot of time and money in developing units to meet special requirements. It also allows us to offer the widest possible range of products." On the Bodio-Faido contract of the St Gotthard AlpTransit baseline rail project in Switzerland, the contractor wanted to cast the final in-situ concrete lining concurrent with the TBM tunnel excavation. To meet the concrete delivery requirements, Mühlhäuser designed a train of six 12m3 concrete remixers that discharge in a remote - controlled cascade from one car to the other and directly into the hopper of the concrete pump and into the form. The list of other project - specific developments is long and varied and adds to the wide capabilities of the product line.

Reliability is a corner stone of customer concerns. "Keeping the equipment out of the repair shop and in productive service is essential for project success, and ensuring reliability is a basic principal of our company philosophy," said Mühlhäuser. "This keeps the customer happy and ensures return business to fill orders of their next project."

In the small, specialised world of tunnel construction, repeat business is the lifeline and future of any supply company. While other providers of rolling stock have come and gone, the success and longevity of the Mühlhäuser brand is anchored firmly in the policy of making reliability a company hallmark. This requires incorporating the best components available, particularly for vital elements such as wheel sets, suspension systems, and other mechanical parts. This policy does add to the price of the Mühlhäuser product, but it also guarantees a service life long beyond the construction cycles of most projects. The resale value of Mühlhäuser units is prized and was a potential appreciated by Mühlhäuser under his management of the business. Despite appearing a contradictory move, Mühlhäuser was one of the first suppliers in the industry to offer units for rent, buying back equipment to keep the rental fleet stocked.

Segments of tunnel being transported
Segments of tunnel being transported

"Many suppliers in the business resist the policy of renting their equipment, but this I believe is short-sighted," said Mühlhäuser. "Buying new is often beyond the budget of a project, and making units available for rent helps the customers and keeps them loyal. The rental business has been part of our operation for many years and is a large portion of our company turnover with more than 800 units in the fleet. It doesn't damage the sale of new plant. There will always be projects on which management insists on mobilising with new equipment. "

Another mainstay of the company has been the enthusiasm of Mühlhäuser himself to visit the project job sites no matter where. This dedication to seeing the company's equipment in action and of meeting the users face to face has clocked for Heinz­Peter many thousands of air- and road - travel miles and a reputation for being the face of the company. "You learn a lot from going to the job sites and by talking to the operators, the plant managers, and maintenance crews, as well as the management staff."

Attention to detail and quality control assurance are further hallmarks of the Mühlhäuser brand. The company is proud of its product line and is protective of its position in the marketplace and the reputation of its equipment. Mühlhäuser explained that only rarely have Mühlhäuser units been manufactured outside the company’s own workshops at Michelstadt. One occasion was on the UK side of the Channel Tunnel, where 50% of the units supplied were built at the now - closed Howden factory in Scotland. A tour of the Michelstadt factory workshops revealed a hive of activity with production in full swing to fill orders for new, refurbished, and rental units for various projects, including contracts on the Moscow, Istanbul, and Budapest Metros, for the Pajares high - speed rail tunnel project in Spain, and a set of 27 x 5.5m3 muck cars ready for dispatch to London for the Croydon cable tunnel contract in London for first - time customer Morgan Est.

Supplying rolling stock to both the French and the UK sides of the Channel Tunnel project
Supplying rolling stock to both the French and the UK sides of the Channel Tunnel project

Through the 42 years that Heinz-Peter has been at the helm, competition came not only from rival suppliers, but also from rivals to the rail - bound rolling stock system itself.

First, in the 1960s, modern load - haul dump trucks were introduced for larger drill-and-blast and larger diameter rock TBM projects. To counter the competition, Mühlhäuser developed larger capacity muck skips, taking them up to 30m3, or up to 60 tonne weight of muck per car, and added different types of rail - bound units to counter a wheel - based operation. These included concrete, mortar, and segment carrying cars, as well as flat cars fitted with cranes and excavators and any number of other rail - mounted pieces of service equipment. Mühlhäuser concrete remixers are now available in sizes from 2m3 to 16m3 and are among the most in - demand units in the rental fleet.

Then, in the 1990s and early 2000s, continuous conveyors made their move out of the mining industry and onto civil tunnelling projects. "This was serious competition," said Mühlhäuser, "but it hit our competitors hard too. Many competitors are now gone and rather than fighting for projects that customers have decided to work with continuous conveyors, we saw the trend as allowing us to stay leader of the rail muck - car market while maintaining our company size and its well established method of operation, avoiding the trap of rapid expansion, and of supplying to these projects other supply units such as concrete carriers and so on."

The Channel Tunnel

Over the company's development, perhaps the most prestigious order for Mühlhäuser equipment was to the Channel Tunnel project, with more than 350 units of equipment used. Rail - running concreting equipment was supplied to the French side to supplement a slurry pumped mucking system, and a full range of rolling stock was supplied to the UK operation, including 15m3 self - tipping muck cars with tipping stations, segment cars, flatcars, manriders, concrete remixers, and cement and aggregate cars feeding rail - running concrete mixers. Mike Duggan, as an employee of TML's UK JV partner Taylor Woodrow, was instrumental in mobilising the UK operation and recalls how the decision to gear up with Mühlhäuser rolling stock was made:

"I first became aware of the Mühlhäuser company in the late ‘70s when I worked on the Kielder water transfer tunnels for the Anglo German JV. Some of the tunnels were equipped with Mühlhäuser muck wagons and some with others of European manufacture. These other units gave constant maintenance problems. They didn't have the large, strong bearings and good suspension of the Mühlhäusers. At the end of the contract, the Mühlhäuser cars were quickly sold on—the others were eventually sent to scrap.

In the early 1980s, with the Thyssen Taywood JV on the contract to extend the Piccadilly Line to Heathrow Airport Terminal 4, we included Mühlhäuser in the invitations to quote for the logistics plant we needed. Heinz-Peter was straight on a plane over to our offices to discuss what we had in mind to enable him to offer what would be most suitable for our requirements. As the project was relatively small, the budget limited, and we needed quick delivery, his offer to supply refurbished muck cars fitted the bill and I felt secure we would have no problems with reliability. The Mühlhäuser rail crossings were too expensive for our budget and when we told him we would be making our own, he generously offered his assistance with their manufacture. As soon as we started work, he came to site to make sure his equipment was working well and as we wanted.

When most of the Heathrow team started planning the UK Channel Tunnel effort, Mühlhäuser was at the forefront of our minds for logistic equipment. Again he was quick to discuss our proposals, and when tenders were invited he left nothing to chance—even to the extent of putting a muck car on a lorry and parking it outside our offices for all to inspect what he was offering.

During this time, Heinz-Peter took me to visit some long tunnels being driven in Austria, in winter, in the snow. The ride from the airport at Klagenfurt was particularly memorable for Heinz-Peter, demonstrating in a snowstorm on a completely white road the antilock braking system on his new Mercedes car. I declined his offer for me to try out the system. He does live life to the full.

When visiting the tunnels on the tour, conversations were two - way, with him offering advice on how to improve performance and explaining site improvements that he would add to his designs. It was on this tour that I first saw the Schoma diesel locomotives in operation, and I subsequently introduced these to the Channel Tunnel operation.

Performance and reliability were of the utmost importance to the success of the Channel Tunnel undertaking and we therefore awarded the supply of muck cars and manriders to Mühlhäuser. A decision no one regretted."

Company future

Under Mühlhäuser's directorship, the company has a workforce of more than 70 factory workers and administrative staff and a team of young employees who manage the daily operations and who are committed to keeping the production factory and office headquarters in Michelstadt, the small, picturesque ancestral home village of the Mühlhäuser family. Leading the management team is Paul Zeder, the Sales and Administration Manager who is a possible successor to Mühlhäuser and who has established for the company modern computer - based management and data recording systems. Karlheinz Seehaus and Christian Jurek are the lead design engineers spearheading innovations and product - line developments, and Stefan Heinecke, who came to the company 16 years ago as a young mechanical engineer from what was the former East Germany, has been the company's production manager for the past seven years. Martina Stimmel is known to many as Mr Mühlhäuser's able personal assistant and efficient link between clients and others in the company team.

As a firm fixture in the business of tunnelling, the name Mühlhäuser is familiar to all. TunnelTalk and its staff join readers and customers in congratulating the company on its centenary and Mr Mühlhäuser on his 70th birthday.

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