Packing it in: Melvelle Equipment’s battery-powered solutions

As a local specialist manufacturer of rail tools, Melvelle Equipment leverages in-house ingenuity to meet emerging demands.

Two years ago, Andrew Melvelle travelled to New York to demonstrate his Newcastle- based company’s latest equipment for rail maintenance and renewal. There, speaking with representatives from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, Melvelle understood that there had to be another way to run small tools besides diesel- and petrol- powered engines.

“What they would like to have was battery powered equipment doing the traditional jobs that were done by diesel- or petrol-powered small tools and that led us into coming up with the design to replace our diesel and petrol powerpacks with battery-style unit.”

In New York the reason behind the switch was clear. Confined environments made the fumes from diesel-powered equipment a hazard and being close to residents on elevated sections of track also posed an issue.

“In the underground networks in particular you’ve got an asphyxiation hazard but also when you’re on the elevated track, they do a lot of their maintenance at night, so if you can take away the engine noise you’re pretty much halving the noise output from the work heads. Therefore the environmental impact just in noise is a massive improvement to operator comfort as well as the residents that are near these elevated tracks,” said Melvelle.

Bringing these ideas back home, Melvelle and his team at Melvelle Equipment designed an early version of what would become the company’s battery-powered Track Packs. Demonstrating the tool to a local operator, the safety benefits of the new technology became even more apparent.

“I did a demonstration with one of our work heads in a viaduct and it was amazing the impact of not having the engine noise has on the environment. You can hear the safety officer above all else because he’s the loudest person there, as he’s not competing with an engine. Hearing protection, depending on the operation, is not necessary anymore.”

With traditional diesel engines producing roughly 100 decibels of noise, roughly equivalent to the volume of a noisy motorcycle engine, cutting this out of maintenance tasks can make a dramatic improvement in safety, particularly in a live rail environment.

“You can hear the whistles and you can hear the workers around you calling out, so it’s very much an improvement to the environmental working conditions for the operator,” said Melvelle.

In addition to these operational benefits, moving from diesel or petrol to electric power can contribute to the broader shift towards sustainability in rail.

“It’s the future of technology to try and help the environment and become a little bit more sustainable.”

Melvelle have designed equipment such as portable trolleys in house.

A COMMITMENT TO INNOVATION IN RAIL
Having seen the benefits that electrically powered track equipment can have, Melvelle Equipment took the design prototypes and turned them into a manufacturable unit. During this process, conducted by Melvelle Equipment’s in-house industrial design and engineering team, further efficiencies were found.

“We have made it modular which brings most modules down into a one-man lift. This is a massive advantage compared to what we have to do with a petrol-powered or a diesel-powered power pack, because once you’ve got it bolted together that’s it, and it’s a significant lift.”

Melvelle designed the Power Pack to be adaptable to the equipment that Melvelle has supplied for decades to the Australian and international rail industry. The system can drive a number of different hydraulic workheads and is built to power each in the most efficient manner.

“There are very few battery powered hydraulic units in the marketplace so what we’ve developed is very bespoke to the operation of small tools. The system will identify which work-head is being used and therefore change the program internally to suit the application,” said Melvelle.

“It was a matter really of looking at what we’ve got and the output or the final performance needed to be and then sizing everything or matching everything to those parameters.”

Having multiple decades of experience in designing and manufacturing hydraulic workheads for the rail industry, Melvelle could calibrate the electric power to be more efficient than a diesel option.

“We know the flows and pressures that are needed and when the flow of pressure is required to be at its peak performance to do the job. Then we matched the performance curves of the electric motors to match the peak performance of the hydraulics we needed. That’s done through staging of pumps and flows and different pressures to make sure that we don’t overcook the batteries or the motor.”

With the design work that went into the Power Packs, the hydraulic heads could also be improved.

“In doing that design it’s allowed us to redesign the boom connections, all of the different workheads, as well as making the hydraulics smarter so that we draw less power from the batteries,” said Melvelle.

As a designer and fabricator of rail maintenance equipment and machinery based in Newcastle with just over two dozen staff, Melvelle Equipment can use its size to its advantage.

In addition to its work designing electrically powered hydraulic tools, Melvelle has also manufactured battery powered inspection and emergency response trolleys, as a direct response to the requirements of rail operators and construction authorities.

“Quite often, innovation is driven by customer need,” said Melvelle. “The electric inspection trolley and the emergency response trolley was driven through inquiries from two customers. Both agencies had a similar need or requirement but with different twists. Sydney Trains was looking for a track inspection trolley so that track workers don’t have to walk along the track, they simply put the trolley on track, and they drive.”

In addition to the base requirement, the trolley had to have a 20-kilometre range, be set up by a minimum of two people in three minutes or less and be able to get on and off track in three minutes.

For the other customer, Melbourne Metro, the trolley was needed to be a safety vehicle that would allow workers to easily access elevated sections of track. Overseas buyers have also expressed interest in the technology, and once Melvelle can get on a plane again the technology will be showcased to rail operators around the globe.

Being a small company has enabled Melvelle Equipment to be nimble in response to these and other customer inquiries.

“Most of our competitors are very large companies that are very reluctant to change from a core product, whereas there’s only 26 of us with a dedicated design team and a depth of knowledge of the rail industry,” said Melvelle.

“If a customer is looking for something special, we’re quite open to developing that for them within the realms of our ability. We’re able to modify something specifically for a customer at the drop of a hat because we do the designs and then manufacture in- house, we’re not reliant on other people.”