China-based China Railway Engineering Equipment Group Co., Ltd (CREG) is a subsidiary of the public- listed China Railway Engineering Corporation (CREC), a Fortune 500 company and a key state-owned company under the Central Government.
NBM&CW team at CREG's TBM facility in Zhengzhou City
ln December 2013, CREG’s acquisition of German Wirth IP (hard rock TBM and shaft boring machine) expanded the CREG brand in the hard rock TBM field. CREG has been granted over 500 utility patents, invention patents, and international PCT patents.
CREG products have been widely used in more than 40 cities in China and exported to over 16 countries and regions.
CREG TBM Behemoth
From Contractor to World's Leading Manufacturer - 10 Years of Unprecedented Growth
During the course of a three-day visit to CREG’s Headquarters and one of the company’s TBM manufacturing facilities in Zhengzhou City in Henan Province of China, NBM&CW team interacts with the Chairman of the company, and senior officials from the R&D, Technical and International Sales departments. What unfolds is a first-hand experience of the company’s humongous manufacturing capacity, information on its R&D and designing capabilities, and insights into the company’s manufacturing prowess across 18 facilities with subsidiaries/offices in Germany, Singapore, and Australia.
We are taken to the new production plant where a 15.8 diameter TBM has passed the Factory Acceptance Test (FAT) and is ready for delivery. The attractively coloured blue, white and red machine dominates the place, and we are pleasantly awed and impressed while viewing a short film on its mechanization and performance in a project.
What impresses is the organized layout of the large TBM factory, the workers in neat uniforms as per their designated work/post, the clutter-free grounds, and the unrestricted flow of men and material. The premises also house the R&D lab, the administrative block, and the staff canteens.
Taking CREG From Nothing to Something
How has CREG grown and progressed as a TBM manufacturer over the years?
It has been quite an arduous and fruitful journey as we have grown from being a contracting company to one of the world’s largest TBM manufacturers. CREG has undergone three stages of development and growth, driven by its TBM manufacturing, which has taken us from nothing to something, from something to being good, and from good to excellent!
Before the 1990s, in China, the drilling & blasting method was used for most tunneling projects. As China’s infrastructure was growing rapidly, there was a need for more efficient and safer technologies and workmanship, and for construction machines that would complete projects on time. We decided, therefore, to import a foreign TBM for our tunneling, with which we mastered a first-hand experience of the machine. Impressed by its performance, we started importing more TBMs from across the world. We got involved in its maintenance and modification and began to study each component and its function. In 2006, we refurbished the first TBM on our own and realized that we could manufacture them as well, and in 2008, we produced our first composite TBM in-house, on our own capability and design.
China’s mountainous terrains offered a huge market for TBMs. As a time-honored tunneling contracting company, we had acquired rich tunneling technologies and accumulative knowledge and experience to design and produce different types of TBMs as per the geologies of the different regions and the client’s various requirements. By 2013, CREG’s TBM supply share had taken a leading position in the Chinese market. This was the second stage of the company’s growth from large-scale production to continued improvement and optimization, during which, we acquired more expertise and technical know-how of TBM design, fabrication and services.
We are now in the third stage of development and are exporting the best TBMs all over the world. The company has grown from less than 200 employees in 2008 to more than 3000, and from one subsidiary in 2008 to 9 subsidiaries and 9 holding companies. Till date, we have received orders for over 800 TBMs and manufactured over 700 TBMs. The International Tunneling Association has ranked us the leading TBM producer in the world.
What would you attribute CREG’s skills to as a TBM manufacturer?
We have designed and developed our TBMs based on the technical merits and advantages gleaned from various TBMs of different countries. Our nearly 20-year research, in-depth understanding of complex terrains working as a tunneling contractor, knowledge of the technical features of the TBMs produced by various countries, along with our in-house designing and manufacturing capabilities, have helped us develop indigenously designed TBMs, while incorporating the best features of foreign TBMs. As a result, CREG TBMs have good geological adaptability, advanced technology, reliable quality, excellent cost performance, and reliable and efficient technical services.
I have seen some TBMs of foreign suppliers doing good work in excavation, but their ground supporting system was not very good. Or they have a very short life span due to an inconsistent design concept, or a simplified structure with insufficient working space, and not a user-friendly design.
Although their price is low, their operation efficiency is not high, and they have to be scrapped after working in two or three projects only. But at CREG, we custom-design and develop our TBMs as per the ground conditions of the particular terrains they have to work in and taking into consideration the equipment’s reliability and universality. CREG TBMs are tailored as per the geological conditions of the specific terrain and the customer's unique requirements, so that the customer can complete the tunnel projects safely and efficiently. It is not surprising then, that today, we have become strong competitors, globally.
What remarkable innovations and achievements of CREG would you like to share?
CREG has achieved many milestones in its TBM business that have made us competitively at par with international companies. In 2010, CREG designed nine dual-mode TBMs for both soft ground and hard terrain, which have been successfully applied to a subway project in Chongqing City, which is known as the ‘Mountain City’ in China. Our acquisition of Wirth’s Hard Rock TBM technology, reference and brand helped us accelerate our reach to foreign markets. Acquiring the German company (and related businesses) at that time was a big achievement as we were competing with several other, more established international companies. CREG achieved success based on its strength in technology, business integrity and cooperation.
Since we have grown from being a contracting company to a manufacturer, we have a lot of onsite experience and timely feedback to fall back on, and this is what differentiates us from our competitors. Working in China’s different geologies has taught us to think differently, innovate aggressively and make our machines unique because their design and robustness have to be allied to our geological analysis of the terrains they would operate in
One of our biggest innovations was the development of the horseshoe-shaped TBM. It was a classic case for CREG. In May 2015, a client wanted to build a tunnel of one hole, twin lines and four tracks in a loess mountainous region of northwestern China. It would be very unsafe to use the drilling and blasting method, the progress would be slow, and the construction period too long. The traditional circular TBM would require a diameter of 14-15 meters, which would involve a lot of overcutting during excavation, and therefore more concreting, which would increase the tunnel’s construction cost.
The customer proposed a horseshoe-shaped tunnel cross-section, which had been designed for the drilling and blasting (D&B) method, and could be completed by the TBM construction method. CREG took on the challenge after several top international TBM manufactures had declined due to its complex nature and innovation requirements. We studied the challenges and began to design a TBM that could meet the project’s requirements. We came up with an extremely innovative and feasible solution with a horseshoe-shaped TBM with a dimension of 11x12 meters to bore the tunnel. Compared to circular tunnel section and D&B construction method, it enabled optimized tunnel section utilization, faster excavation rate, higher safety, along with reduced cost of construction. This achievement got us worldwide attention and put us firmly on the global map of top leading TBM companies. Gradually, we began making the transition to design and manufacture more refined, humanized, easy to operate, and intelligent TBM machines to serve both the domestic and global markets.
What are CREG’s expansion plans?
Our TBMs are in demand all over the world so the scope for growth is increasing. We have developed four major industry categories: full-face tunnel boring machines, specialized tunneling equipment, building steel structures, and underground space development.
We are also considering acquiring some companies or working with more companies to expand the business chain. For India, we want to provide complete tunneling solutions such as TBMs, D&B equipment (i.e. the Jumbo, wet shotcreting machine, tunnel transport equipment), including complete-machine sales, maintenance and refurbishment, leasing, and we are also open to buybacks.
CREG has sufficient design and manufacturing capacity presently, but because of the rapid development of the industry, we are upgrading our management systems and factories and are working on intelligence design, production and service of our products. All these steps will enhance our efficiencies and increase our production capabilities, which will help us make the transition to the next higher level of advancement.
For the international markets, we are seeking collaborations and support for setting up manufacturing bases in foreign countries, which will further deepen our cooperation with our clients or sub-contractors so that we can provide them our package solutions as per their requirement. We are also pushing forward and working with advanced international research institutes to enhance our design and innovation capabilities.
India - A Promising Market
What are CREG’s long-term plans for the Indian market?
We have great relations with Indian customers and related parties. The country is a very promising market for CREG as India’s railway, hydro, metro and highway projects are growing exponentially, with about 39 cities currently in focus for development.
As per our understanding, India is planning and executing the development of roadways of over 66,000 kms and a high speed 15,000 km railway network, which would require a large number of tunneling and underground projects as India’s northern and many parts of its southern regions are mountainous or have hilly terrains.
From Buyer To Seller
As China’s infrastructure was growing rapidly and faster, and safer and faster technologies were needed to complete engineering projects on time, CREG's parent company China Railway Group Ltd (CREC), one of the largest contracting companies in China, began importing TBMs since 1997 from various countries for its tunneling projects. In 2008, it produced its first composite TBM in-house, which was well received by the market. In 2012 end, CREG became China's no.1 TBM manufacturer in terms of market share, production capacity and quality. Buoyed by these successes, CREG set its sights on international markets and in 2013, exported its first TBM. Today, CREG is considered one of the world's three largest TBM manufacturers with subsidiaries or offices in Europe, Australia, Malaysia and Singapore.
The Chinese government is implementing development plans for 80 regions/cities, conducting intercity traffic projects, which will be followed by development of the rural areas. Likewise, the Indian government too wants to build a comprehensive traffic network all over the country to connect the north-south and east-west regions with roadways, railway lines, canals and waterways, as well as urban transportation – all of which will present a lot of tunneling projects and market opportunities for CREG.
CREG provides financing through a leasing company at a good interest rate, provided the contractor fulfils the credit rating in the market. We understand that most contractors in India are working in several projects simultaneously and in need of financing, and in compliance with legal procedures, we are open to the possibility of financing them. This would also be a good way to enter the Indian market.
However, for the overseas markets, financing and leasing are not easy to implement as the process involves a transaction between an international bank, and there are certain international law provisions and clauses to comply with. But depending on the specific circumstances, we are willing to provide financial support for special projects, which we would consider on a case to case basis, on the premise of legal compliance and a win-win cooperation.
Building the Workforce
What kind of training is given to the employees at CREG?
About 30% of our employees are experienced staff with over ten years working experience and 60% are university graduates, and we provide extensive training for the newly introduced employees each year. Every new employee undergoes an over-one-week theoretical training and at least one year of work practice to understand the requirements of specific jobs, and the company's actualities so as to fully understand the company’s history and growth over the years.
In the first year, the newly recruited graduates are inducted into various departments or institutions as interns exercise; they are taken to various project jobsites to see the machines at work or to work in the factory workshops to understand the manufacturing process. The employees’ work performance is gauged at the end of each year, which motivates them to learn more and become competent for any work assigned to them.
Many difficulties will be encountered and a lot of time gets wasted in projects if the contractors use a geologically unsuitable TBM, as was seen in many projects across the world. We have an edge over competitors as we have decades of tunneling experience and can provide better solutions that are more cost-effective and safer too
CREG: Global Contender
The superior performance of our TBMs has affirmed our design and development skill and ability to provide international quality machines to markets across the world. As former contractors, we have the know-how to give advice on machine selection and the technical service personnel for any kind of project. Our engineering experts are available for assisting and supervising clients’ onsite operation and maintenance of the machines, and we can also undertake tunneling sub-contracting work for contractors and clients.
In 2013, when we took over the intellectual property rights of German Wirth, relying on our strong technical strength, the acquisition positioned CREG amongst the top TBM suppliers of the world, so much so that we won a lucrative contract by an Italian contractor for work in Lebanon. Our 3.5-meter TBM, the smallest hard rock TBM with back-loaded cutters in the world to date, has completed 20 kms of hard rock tunneling in the Lebanon project, and seeing its performance, we have got several other projects in Italy.
However, the advantage that a European company has over us lies in its higher brand visibility. It may have decades of TBM manufacturing experience, but we are innovating constantly, relying on our own strength, and with Wirth’s complete technical and brand systems, including QA, QC invention, IP, etc., we will become technologically more competitive.
Largest in China
As of today, around 2,000 TBMs are in use in China, of which CREG has supplied over 700. We enjoyed a number one market share in China for six consecutive years, and in 2017, we were the world's number one in production and sales. Almost all the critical project owners/contractors are buying from us.
Last year, we produced around 172 TBMs of 3m to 16m diameter for different applications and locations. In my view, our 6-7m TBM, which is the most used standard size traditional TBM, would be the most suitable for a country like India.
We have solutions for slurry TBM, open TBM, double shield TBM, single shield TBM, EPB TBM, Jumbos and specialized machines for blasting and drilling. We provide total tunneling solutions with mechanized systems for greater efficiency, and we continue to make more innovations along our production chain.
Challenges and scope in Indian market
We have offered our TBM solutions to a few major contractors in India, and are in negotiations with some of them, while others did not close the deal. This could be because some international TBM manufacturers are offering refurbished or second-hand machines that are more affordable. The initial cost of such machines maybe low, but if they calculate the total cost of acquisition and their shorter lifecycle, our TBMs, with their better technology, will prove to be more long-lasting and cost-effective in the long-term. Added to this will be our reliable aftersales support so that buyers get a good return on their investment.
In December this year, we will be participating in bauma Conexpo India, which will give us an opportunity to showcase our competencies to the Indian market. We are also looking at possible joint ventures with Indian partners who have experience in tunneling jobs and the expertise and capabilities for local manufacturing and/or assembling of our machines, which will make them even more cost-competitive.
We are reworking our marketing strategy for a fresh entry into the Indian market. We understand that with offers of buyback, refurbished machines, and financial support, we would be able to make good deals and enter into a mutually beneficial cooperation with Indian contractors.
The scope of work in India is great and worthy of doing a lot of work. So, investing in India for the long term makes good business sense, but government support is necessary for a company to evolve in a foreign country
Marketing plans and goals
Our aim is to win our customers’ trust with technically-sound products and reliable after-sales services, and to expand our brand value thereby. Our machines are highly efficient due to their high technology, their pricing is competitive, and the service we provide brings value to the user.
Having built our brand in the domestic market, our focus now is on Asia, followed by the Middle East, Europe, Oceania and America. CREG’s Malaysia office takes care of the Indian market, and our technical team has been interacting with major contractors for considering our technical and commercial proposals. We had deployed a TBM in 2015-16 for a metro project in Delhi, which did commendable work.
Many Challenges, Many Achievements
Project feasibility study
We have 18 factories, some of which are located near seaports to enable faster transportation of the heavy machine parts. Our TBM’s key components such as the cutter head, main drive, erectors and feeders are mostly manufactured in our factory in Zhengzhou, which enables us to ensure their quality and reliability.
A pre-project study is always conducted for designing our TBMs, even for the ones which will be used in countries outside China in view of their different geologies. Since we have undertaken a lot of tunneling projects in varied and complex geologies across China, we have a lot of ground and construction experience, which we can also apply in other countries with similar strata.
In fact, CREG has been involved in the design of some world-class TBMs of foreign clients, and we are hoping to share our experience and knowledge in international forums and exchange views with international peers. Though the geologies may be different, and vastly so in a country like Africa, most of the differences can be attributed to industrial practices. So, we rarely meet a challenge that we cannot address.
Challenges requiring customisation
In a certain project in China where we had to deploy a 15-meter slurry TBM, the major challenge was the high water, soil pressure, and a large number of broken rock blocks. This meant that the rock-breaking cutters would have to be replaced very frequently. To address this problem, we had to ensure the pressure-sustaining ability of our machine and the safety margin.
The pressure used was actually 6 bars, so we designed our machine to be able to sustain 10 bars, taking into account the safety margin. We also specially made main drive, main drive pressure seal and tail brush to ensure that the machine could sustain very high pressures.
Another challenge was the machine’s large cutter head with numerous rock-breaking cutters on it; so, if things go wrong with one cutter, it is difficult to detect the changes caused thereon to the overall equipment parameters, which would easily cause partial damage to the cutter head. To combat this problem, we installed three sensors on the cutters to detect the wear, temperature, and rotational speed of the cutters. After simulation tests in our labs, we have successfully applied this innovative configuration on our machines.
CREG is working on the latest automatic and robotic information technology. We want to achieve the driverless stage and want robotics to replace dangerous jobs such as cutter interventions. Our Intelligence R&D Institute is collecting information on the equipment and the sensors and building data on different geologies in preparation for our next level of development. We are also working on intelligence design and automation to reduce human intervention in the erection of segments, and for onsite maintenance work such as greasing.
The Turning Point
For a project in Southern China - the first river tunnel - the client required a 13.5-meter slurry TBM. Though our design of a 13.5-meter TBM was acknowledged and accepted by the experts, unfortunately, we did not have any reference record in 2014, due to which the client did not accept our proposal for the project.
This came as a setback and forced us to think about making larger diameter TBMs. We subsequently designed, developed and manufactured TBMs of 15.03m, and 15.8m. Today, we have got recognition for our large diameter TBMs and are providing complete tunneling solutions. Our aim is to move forward with many more innovations.
Today, CREG has the technical expertise and capability to produce TBMs of any diameter, even up to 18 meters, and we are also working on the technology to develop 20-meter TBMs.
Refurbishment of used machines depends on the negotiations with the client and our assurance of their end-quality. We engage professionals and specialists to put the machines in good working condition. We have supplied two machines to Malaysia, one of which we refurbished for a client in India and the other we brought back to China and refurbished it for a domestic project. On an average, we refurbish 30-40 machines in a year; either the entire machine or only the key components.
We are working on intelligence design and automation to reduce human intervention in the erection of segments, and for onsite maintenance work such as greasing
Operator training & after-sales service
We provide very systematic mechanical and hydraulics training (both theoretical and practical) to TBM operators and maintenance personnel of contractors and clients so that they understand the different systems and components of the machine. We also provide training for a special operative need or demand by the client, and for projects in complex geologies.
As regards after-sales support, we believe that customer service should start at the time of selection and order placement of a machine by giving the right advice to the client. CREG’s subsidiary company - CREG Technical Services - has about 650 employees who are mainly employed in providing technical service and after-sales support.
Analysis, Methodology, Research & Development
Since no project can be identical, we take a very analytical and methodical approach to every new project. Our selection / development of the TBM is based on its suitability to the geology of the project. The research inputs based on strata tests come from the different project needs from different clients, but at the same time, we do some jobsite investigation of our own. We also collate information from other projects in the area to further determine the geology, and gather information on the local standards, since different countries have different bylaws. Based on the inputs, we design and offer the best possible solutions.
Once we have all the relevant information, we make the necessary design optimizations in our TBM. For instance, during selection of the cutters, they undergo tests in our labs to determine the cutter that would be most suitable in the particular geology. We consider the design of the cutter to minimize the possibility of its wear and tear and the need for frequent cutter changing.
Based on received geological information, we do some special designing of the cutter heads, or make some adjustments in the cutter spacing and wear resistance. The cutter head has a special standard design, and we can give some treatment to the colours in accordance with the client’s requirements.
For the selection and use of key components sourced from suppliers, our R&D department will study the project’s requirements vis-a-vis the TBM’s motor, power requirement, torque, hydraulics etc, and the design is made accordingly. Our procurement department and the designers will then coordinate closely with the component suppliers to specify any customization of the components. By working alongside the sub-contractors and the component suppliers, we are able to provide the right solutions.
For the key components used during operations, we provide a storage at the jobsite, and we also keep critical parts such as main bearings, reducers and other wear parts at our fabrication premises for supply to the jobsite at the shortest time possible. This ensures that our machines are always in operation and have minimal shut-down time.
R&D for Innovation
CREG is a high-tech enterprise and its approximate 6% of the total turnover is invested in R&D. We have a strong focus on innovation. CREG is integrating a lot of technology and design of some components, for instance, assistive rock breaking technology and inclined/vertical shaft TBM.
When we innovated with the rectangular and the horseshoe-shaped TBM, we were motivated by market demand. Previously, underpasses were being built by the cut and fill method. But the traffic above had to be stopped during operations. So, we began to look for solutions to this problem, and we worked with our clients to come up with the rectangular TBM (RTBM).
The Rectangular TBM (RTBM) has two major benefits: one is the economic benefit. If you excavate using a circular TBM, there is a lot of overcutting followed by refilling, which costs a lot of money. The other is the social benefit as the RTBM has no impact on the traffic above and all other surface functions can continue unobstructed.
Our procurement department and designers coordinate closely with the component suppliers to specify any customization of the components. By working alongside sub-contractors and component suppliers, we are able to provide the right solutions
We have also developed a RTBM for soft ground. There are about 10 RTBMs working in China and other countries currently, however, they are recommended mostly for softer road tunneling/underpass projects. The horseshoe-shape TBM too is used for lower/softer grounds/loess, and we have applied for a patent for both RTBM and horseshoe-shaped TBMs.
We are doing R&D for the domestic and the international markets and we have an R&D centre in Germany also. There are about 500 designers who coordinate with clients in various countries, and we plan to open more such centers in other parts of the world.