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Friday, June 14, 2024

Tropic Thunder – Prime Mover Magazine

A chain of summits south of Cairns form what is commonly referred to as the Gillies Range, an 800-meter-high partition that divides the enclave of the Far North Queensland coastal plain from the interior Atherton Tableland.

In this elevated region headwaters flow southeast into the Herbert River Valley where two historic mill towns are located.

The Victoria Mill, established in 1883, on the Herbert River near Ingham was the country’s biggest sugar mill until 1999.

Local family business MAMS Group, still a far cry from the guise it operates in today, got its start here. Back then it was carting mill mud and ash out of the refinery for the Colonial Sugar Refining Company, better known now as CSR. That contract was limited to seasonal work, restricted for the best part to six months of the year.

In the slack season, MAMS occasionally provided work along CSR’s rail network and internal roads. It wasn’t enough, however, to sustain the business long-term.

By the turn of the century, the company had moved into the waste sector having landed a successful tender for a wheelie bin contract awarded by the Hinchinbrook Shire Council. It was its first foray into hook lift and front lift trucks.

That contract, three decades later, is still in service today. The policy writ large for the company, circa 2023, is to consolidate after an accelerated period of growth.

The resulting legacy is five depots across an area the size of Poland, 60 staff, most of whom are permanent, multiple revenue streams and a growing truck fleet including four new UD Quons.

General Manager Josh Lannen has been with the company since 2010. You might say he married into it because that’s exactly what he did. After meeting his wife, Louise, on the Gold Coast where she was enrolled at the university, he set up a successful pool maintenance business which he sold to his two business partners before heading to the tropic far reaches.

Josh Lannen, MAMS Group General Manager.

MAMS Group, by then, had been servicing a major waste management contract on Palm Island. It had included the construction of transfer stations on the island and the purchase of a barge that initially operated one day a week.

“We were the only way to get anything bigger than a suitcase on and off Palm Island,” recalls Josh. “That business eventually expanded to have multiple prime movers and fridge vans running out of a depot in Townsville to Palm Island for freight and food.”

When MAMS sold the business in 2011 to a group of investors, so that it could concentrate on its mainland waste business, it was operating two barges six days a week. The remit of the company today covers both commercial and domestic waste collection.

Revenue is secured in large part from several local government, state government and private contracts. One of which is the Containers for Change initiative launched by the Queensland Government in November 2018. It provides 10-cent refunds for eligible drink containers.

More than five billion containers have been processed to date. MAMS, as part of the scheme, began a logistics contract in Cairns that justified immediate investment in additional equipment.

Work commenced in November 2021. With COVID disruptions plaguing supply chains, acquiring new vehicles promised to be a challenge. Not so for UD Trucks with whom Josh placed an order of four units after he, by his own admission, visited many dealers and tested half a dozen different trucks.

The first three, 8-liter 6×4 UD Quons, arrived within four months. A fourth, the UD 6×4 Quon 11-liter CW26460TAA, has recently, like the others, had a Palfinger hook installed in Townsville.

“UD were unbelievably good,” says Josh. “Our need was to get three trucks really quickly which they delivered on and the fourth one we have just taken possession of.”

MAMS, an acronym for Mud Ash Management System, runs truck and dog combinations on the Palmerston Highway and over the Gillies Range. In one 19-kilometer section there are 263 corners.

The fourth truck — the 11-liter — has a higher horsepower capacity (330kW) enabling it to overcome the snaking and often steep terrain. Hardly monotonous, the spectacular scenery, all the same, can threaten to distract even the most experienced of operators.

UD Quon emerges from the Gillies Range near Cairns in North Queensland.
UD Quon emerges from the Gillies Range near Cairns in North Queensland.

Most of the drivers working at MAMS are required to do a ten-hour shift.

“We’re not doing arduous highway driving by any means but after ten hours in the UD the time doesn’t weigh on you,” says Josh. “All the guys love the new UDs. The comfort it provides is particularly noted and appreciated.”

For much of the wet season humidity hovers in the mid 90s. Venturing outside at times is almost unbearable. Cool rains don’t usually arrive until late afternoon when the work shift is over.

The new Quons, in any event, are holding up well. Drivers can operate the remote control Palfinger hooks without having to leave the comfort of the cab.

The application also poses an interesting hurdle. Installation of a 6.2 meter hook lift on the back of the body warranted a longer chassis, yet the means to back into the sheds, where recyclables are delivered, require four- and five-point turns just to access these locations.

“One of the main reasons we got the UDs was their tight turning circle,” says Josh. “We needed a cabover and something that was exceptionally manoeuvrable. Most of the other trucks I drove didn’t have a chance of getting into some of these places we need to get into.”

In Cairns, where its four UDs are all based, MAMS carries three different product types: aluminum cans, clear PDT bottles, like those used for milk, soft drinks and water; and glass bottles.

The hook lifts are moving 15 cubic meter skips. Materials are sourced across the Cairns and Cassowary coastal region as far north as Mossman, via Tully and out to the Atherton Tablelands.

The trucks are generally fairly light on the road compared to most other trucks. Even so, the new heavy rigid UDs are consuming less fuel than some of the slightly older medium rigid trucks in the fleet.

Six months after the 8-liter Quons were introduced, Louise Lannen was analyzing fuel burn and tire usage, a metric she likes to evaluate regularly. Initially she thought someone had made a mistake entering numbers for the new UDs.

“She told me the fuel usage and tire wear on the UDs was like half of what it should be,” recalls Josh. “My wife scrutinizes all that stuff thoroughly.”

The UD Quons have handled the steep cornering of the nearby ranges with aplomb.
The UD Quons have handled the steep cornering of the nearby ranges with aplomb.

After spending a day and a half going over the data they found, to their delight, that there was nothing missing.

“No one had missed anything,” he says. “They’re just that good.”

All four UDs are rated to the Japanese pPNLT equivalent of Euro 6 emission requirements with an AdBlue capacity of 50 liters. Active safety features include Traffic Eye Brake System, Traffic Eye Cruise Control, Lane Departure Warning System, Electronic Stability Control and Automatic Hill Start Assist.

The fleet currently accounts for six prime movers, 23 heavy rigid trucks and six medium rigid trucks plus an assortment of utes and light vehicles. Tire wear is measured through a partner, Bridgestone, who supplies all tires for the commercial vehicles used by MAMS.

Josh says he knows how many kilometers the fleet gets out of every tire, from every position on the truck.

“We’re pretty adamant about using data and twice a year we will sit down and compare performance and tread to make sure nothing is going wrong or whether a truck needs a wheel alignment.” he explains. “We can tell by that data. We’ve gone to Bridgestone because we get the most out of that arrangement. They’re not the cheapest but they’re the best value for our money — when you look at downtime for changing tires.”

Going up and down winding ranges is tough on tires. The descent, while rarely repetitive, is around 3000 feet.

“Even though we don’t have a lot of weight on board when we’re going up and down the Gillies Range, which is a pretty wild range to go over or on the Palmerston Highway in the UDs, fuel burn and tire wear on those three trucks are the best out of the fleet.”

MAMs Group runs its own maintenance team with a maintenance manager, two diesel mechanics and a boilermaker, all of whom are full time. On the commercial side of its operations, the business removes skips from construction and demolition sites between Ingham and Innisfail.

This also entails house renovations, spring cleaning and green waste. Waste collection, as a sector, is coming through a period of upheaval. The problems of the industry in recent years have been problems of transition. In 2020 federal parliament passed legislation banning the export of unprocessed waste overseas via the Recycling and Waste Reduction Act.

The hook lift unloads one of the bins in Cairns.
The hook lift unloading one of the bins in Cairns.

Up until then MAMS Group had run some successful bailing operations. Australia being a nation that exports more manufactured goods than it produces has, in the meantime, been left with question marks regarding how it will reconfigure local infrastructure to reprocess and re-manufacture recyclables onshore.

For MAMS Group that means having to find Australian-based processors for the likes of agricultural plastics, a commodity not in high demand according to Josh.

“We used to export all of it directly out of the port,” he says. “Now we’re having to freight a lot of that product down into Melbourne to get it processed.”

Josh, who is 40, is covering a huge swath of territory himself managing the five depots. His 2018 Toyota HiLux, which he handed down to a work colleague over Christmas, has already clocked over 300,000 kilometers. Since he was 21 he’s had a pilot’s license. It’s time, he believes, to make more use of it — so he tells Louise.

“I’ve been pestering my wife a lot about buying an airplane,” Josh jokes. “I’m still trying to convince her.” The sky, at least for the moment, really is the limit.

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