Construction Equipment Global
Dubai skyline

Constructing an aerotropolis

The sky is not the limit in Dubai

Constructing an aerotropolis

Dubai has made a name for itself across the globe as a place where the impossible is made possible – a modern marvel of a city sprung from the desert as if a mirage. And today, Volvo machines are at the heart of the city’s aspiring vision to become an aviation hub to connect the whole globe.

No city reflects the rise of the modern Middle East quite like Dubai, whose sprawling metropolis has emerged from the arid sands of its far flung corner of the Arabian Peninsula in a matter of decades.

The iconic city of concrete, steel and glass you see today is all but unrecognizable from the small coastal fishing and trading community made of walls of stacked sand and coral that once bore the same name.

Hundreds of square kilometers of arid flats and wandering dunes fifty years ago now host Greater Dubai with a burgeoning population of some five million inhabitants. In skies touched only by the swirling desert dust, there are now more airplane contrails than in any other place in the world and spectacular light shows emanate from the world’s tallest building where decades ago there was no electricity, let alone a cityscape.

Dubai today is a city of global ambition that punches well above the weight of a typical city of just 3 million people. Aside from pre-eminence of the Burj Khalifa among the world’s supertall structural marvels, Dubai’s Jebel Ali Port is the largest man-made harbor and by far the busiest port in the Middle East, while Dubai International Airport is the world’s busiest airport by international passenger traffic.

A street in Dubai

This formidable infrastructure has positioned Dubai as a global hub for both commercial and leisure activities, and the number of visitors that frequent the emirate each year now stands at over 15 million people, or more than five times the resident population of the city.

Fast forward to 2018 and it is against this backdrop that the latest chapter of the city’s story is now being written. With the Emirates position as Europe’s most easterly hub and Asia’s most westerly hub Dubai is within an eight-hour flight from two-thirds of the world’s population. As flying has become more affordable flight passenger figures are increasing every year and Dubai’s ambition is not only to build the world’s largest airport but to become an aerotropolis, a new city form created around an airport.

The air traffic hub at the heart of Dubai’s plans, Al Maktoum Airport, is already in operation with a capacity of 7 million passengers a year. The first phase of the mega expansion project will see this leap to 26 million passengers a year. Ultimately, by around 2025, its capacity will then rise to around 140 million people – making it by far the largest airport and aviation infrastructure hub in the world.

Indeed, the broader plans laid out for Dubai South, the Aerotropolis surrounding and encompassing Al Maktoum Airport envisage a scale and a scope that will continue to propel the fortunes of Dubai as a city long into the future. Currently under construction over an area of 140km2, or two times the area of Hong Kong Island, Dubai South will house 900,000 people.

In the near term, however, the scale of the work laid before the contractors on the ground is no less daunting. Out of the 140km2 total area of Dubai South, 50km2 is being prepared as part of the ongoing expansion of Al Maktoum Airport.

Remarkably, this entire ground preparation operation is being conducted by a single company, Tristar Engineering and Construction, a veteran Abu Dhabi-based infrastructure contractor that has overseen dozens of critical projects in the UAE over the decades.

However, the Al Maktoum Airport expansion project sits head and shoulders above anything that Tristar has completed in the past. Logistics- and Fleet Manager Mohammed Amer states: “You can call it a megaproject; it is not at all ordinary. I don’t think anybody has done a similar project in the UAE with such quantity.”

Logistics- and Fleet Manager Mohammed Amer
Mohammed Amer, Logistics- and Fleet Manager.

And the quantity is the key, because in fact, this project is not one of area, but one of volume. It is the amount of material to be moved that is truly staggering. “We have finished 100 million cubic meters of cut and fill, and we have a balance of about 70 million cubic meters to go,” says Amer.

This is because Dubai’s desert landscape is a mix of rising dunes and sunken depressions where the sea water seeping through the porous mineral below has glued the sand together, making it as hard as rock.

Amer continues: “We have some areas where we are simply loading the trucks with excavators, but we also have hard material that is like rock where the excavators first have to break the material up with hydraulic hammers before excavating it and loading it into the articulated haulers.”

And with so much at stake, Tristar is naturally relying on some of the best earthmoving equipment that money can buy: a fleet of 37 Volvo A35F articulated haulers.

Even so, the cutting and filling of 170 million cubic meters of sand and rock over an area of 50km2 in just two years requires a relentless effort, and Tristar’s 37 A35F haulers are working 10 hours a day to meet the tight schedule and dizzying production targets.

Volvo A35F working in Dubai
The Volvo A35F's are working long days moving sand and rock over the vast area.

And then there is the climate. Ambient temperatures in the UAE desert can rise well in excess of 50°C in summer, while the dryness and lightness of the sand ensure that a fine suspension of desert dust is almost always in the air. Such conditions demand that even the best equipment is carefully looked after.

However, they are also conditions that Volvo CE’s A35F haulers happen to be well prepared for, thanks to both their fully enclosed axles, which guard against the dust and circulate cooling lubricant, as well as their three-stage filtration system, which ensures that no airborne dust makes it through to the engines.

Amer notes: “The most important thing about the Volvo machines is their extremely low downtime. Volvo Construction Equipment created the articulated hauler, and to this day they continue to lead in their design and manufacture.”

“All of our haulers have exceeded 10,000 working hours, and we are still happy. Now we are also doing oil analysis for the haulers because I want to monitor them very closely as they reach higher hours.”

“That will help to catch any problems in the engine, transmission or hydraulic system. When you make routine scheduled oil sampling, you will know what the oil condition is within each element of the powertrain, and if there is something you need to overhaul or repair before it breaks down – because if that happens, it will cost you two, three times more to repair it.”

Mercifully, Tristar has experienced extremely few breakdowns with its Volvo-only hauler fleet, and that is one of the main reasons why the contractor has only stocked Volvo machines since it first invested in the D series machines back in 2007 – upon their debut in the Middle East.

Volvo A35F hauler in Dubai
With the F Series machines, Tristar has almost achieved 100 percent availability.

Amer continues: “It’s because of the dealer, the strong performance of the haulers, the high resale value, and the low breakdown time. But the most important thing is not to have breakdowns. We want to keep the availability of the machines at 100 percent and we have almost achieved this with the F Series machines.”

Tristar has a highly trained and skilled workforce, but up against high productivity targets and tight deadlines, vigilance is required to ensure that the best driving practices are maintained and reinforced.

These include, notes Amer, “using the retarder within a reasonable distance before stopping to reduce the speed gradually and not suddenly braking”, which can affect the brake life and raise the prospect and risk of breakdowns in the braking system.

To deal with the high temperatures of the Gulf summer, the haulers are meanwhile filled with unusually viscose oil to ensure its moving parts stay adequately lubricated and cooled.

Amer adds: “This is our mentality: we like to always maintain our fleet, and keep it ready for any work.”

And lately, the work put to Tristar’s F Series articulated haulers has also involved the nearby Expo2020 site, where they are likewise engaged in hauling sand as part of the site-wide cut and fill of dunes and depressions.

Amer explains: “At the Expo2020 site the haulers are shifting soft material over soft ground from one place to another, as part of cut and fill works. We’re using the articulated haulers where there is no proper road for the normal trucks.”

Volvo wheel loader working in Dubai
A total of 800 machines are working both sites.

Across both sites, Tristar now has a total of 800 machines and pieces of equipment and a workforce of 3,000 people engaged in an array of activities.

It is an exciting time, but as Amer quips: “You will never get bored in contracting because every day there are issues to work on. Especially with equipment, you might face 100 different problems a day minimum. So you have to work in so many different directions, and every day brings new challenges.”

Constructing an aerotropolis

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