How to deflate a tyre factory. The world has over the last few years faced a severe shortage of industrial, large-vehicle tyres, exacerbated at least in part by China's incredible industrial boom. Demand has consistently outstripped supply, leading tyre giant Michelin to restructure its global operations and maximize production efficiency to meet the challenge.

Manufacturing at Michelin's Poitiers factory ended in 2007. The city, close to the Atlantic coast in west central France, is as historic as it is picturesque. (It even housed the country's royal parliament in the 15th Century.) The emphasis now, though, is on redeveloping the Michelin site to create new employment and new commercial opportunities.


"It's a major job," says Stéphane Ayrault of Palardy TP, a demolition contractor on the project. "In all, there was 40,000 m² (47,840 yd²) of buildings at ground level. Most of it was warehousing but there was one office block, with a basement, and two floors. The project lasted five months and by the end we had dealt with over 70,000 tonnes of concrete."


Palardy, based in the Sud Vendée region and one of a group of companies involved in the scheme, took responsibility for the demolition of the buildings and the initial concrete pounding.


It had four demolition excavators on site in Poitiers, three of them Volvos. The biggest a 46-tonne EC460CLD, with a six-tonne pulverizing attachment. Then there are two EC360s, one a standard machine and the other capable of being equipped with a high-reach boom configuration.


Volvo's line of high reach excavators have booms of between 17-32 m (56-105 ft) and can handle tools of between two to 3.5 tonnes.


"We first looked at Volvo machines two years ago," says Ayrault. "Our equipment was getting old and needed upgrading so we tested one. Now we have six Volvo excavators and one wheel loader. We used to have a wide variety of machine brands but now they are mainly Volvo or Hitachi. We'll be sticking with them in future."


Things have changed

Not so long ago, demolition sites were characterized by noise, dust, dirt and - of course - the architypal wrecking balls swung from cranes. Things have changed, however.


"The industry has been transformed in recent years and is continuing to evolve rapidly," explains Ayrault. "Modern demolition sites are nothing like the battle zones of yesteryear. It's not like the wild old days: on the contrary, demolition sites are very clean and not really very different from your average construction site.


"Everything is very controlled and done in stages. The new Volvo engines make a lot less noise and consume less fuel - there's no comparison to the vehicles we had before. And for the operators in the cab, there's the extra comfort of the seating and the space and the layout. It's simply a much more pleasant environment to work in, which is good for everyone. You work better in better conditions - it's that simple.


"The first phase of work was to clear out and clean the buildings. A lot of that is done manually or with small machines. Then there is what is called 'selective deconstruction' before the big excavators are brought in.


"There is a huge emphasis nowadays on recycling and on the environment. Everything which can be recycled we recycle. There's not just the concrete, which is crushed and then used in civil engineering projects. There are also companies which specialize in re-using wood and plaster and other materials."


Playing it safe

Demolition work is not nearly as dangerous as some people imagine, says Ayrault, Wild wrecking balls have been replaced by careful planning and sophisticated step-by-step demolition. Safety is a paramount concern, an emphasis which has also highlighted the Volvos' advantages.


It is not just a matter of special reinforcement and guarding on the outside of the vehicles. Their safety package of operator features include seat belts, effective lighting, reduced blind spots, less vibration and noise and a clear view of the work area - all contributing to help make the machines ideal for this type of work.


There's the industry-leading FOGS (Falling Object Guard Structure) cab protection. The strength, durability, safety, ergonomics and comfort of the innovative Volvo Care Cab, indeed, make the machines ideal for demolition work.


Their versatility closes the deal for Ayrault. "With our range of attachments, like grapples, concrete pulverizers, clearing rakes and metal shears, we can do pretty much everything nowadays."


The Poitiers project has gone well for Palardy. "It's a big site so there was plenty of space to operate in. We've needed big machines but there were no real complications. There have, of course, been some breakdowns - there always are with machines in this demanding line of work - but they have all been minor and there are Volvo service agencies everywhere so things have been sorted out quickly."


As the head of Palardy's demolition arm, Ayrault, aged 40, married and with two children, stresses he is better at paperwork, evaluating projects and finalizing contracts than working out in the field. "I'm not sure anybody would be too impressed with my skills as an excavator operator!" he says. In fact Ayrault's career has turned full circle. He used to build things. Now he tears them down. He laughs at the idea. "I suppose you could put it that way, yes," he says. "I began my career in construction and I'm now in the demolition business.


"There's no special emotion when you demolish buildings," Ayrault concludes. "Mostly, they're industrial units in a bad state of disrepair. It might feel a bit different if I had to demolish something which I helped build - and perhaps that will happen eventually. When I'm about 60 - hopefully not before!"


Text: Tony Lawrence