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Sand business preps for modern, innovative circuit

 

A third generation family business with expertise in sand processing has signed off on a major order with a multinational OEM – and now is eagerly waiting for the project to come to fruition in 2022. PF Formation’s Luke Graham and CDE’s Jason Hartmann spoke to Quarry.

PF Formation is a third generation family business which has been trading since 1956. The company started in trucking and transport, with proprietor Glen Graham christening the business with the initials from his wife’s name – Patricia Fay. By 1983, the Grahams’ sons John and Paul had taken charge of PF Formation and begun extracting sand at Maroota, New South Wales, about 90km northwest of the Sydney CBD and on the outskirts of Greater Western Sydney.

Initially, the Graham brothers partnered with the owner of Maroota sand operation Formation Civil Contracting. The partnership was short-lived and John and Paul took the operation on independently. Under John and Paul’s control PF Formation expanded with the establishment of a large concrete plant in Emu Plains and an ever growing fleet of trucks. With the third generation of Grahams eager to join the business, John and Paul thought it best to split the business in 2004, with Paul taking control of the transport and Emu Plains concrete operation and John taking control of the Maroota quarries and concrete business. John’s sons Luke and Joshua assumed control of the business from 2016.

For PF Formation managing director Luke Graham, sand processing has been very prominent
his whole life.

Today, PF Formation operates three sand quarries in the Maroota region: Pit 4 quarry, located on Old Telegraph Road, which has approval to extract more than four million tonnes of sand over two decades; the Hitchcock Road sand extraction development, between Old Northern Road, Ferry Road and Hitchcock Road, which was approved by the NSW Department of Planning and Environment in 2009; and the Pit 5 quarry on Old Northern Road, which was granted a development consent by Hornsby Shire Council in 2009. PF Formation’s HQ is located at Patricia Fay Drive, where the company’s concrete plant and concrete truck fleet is located.

Between the three quarries, PF Formation has an output of half a million tonnes of sand per year. Its products – consisting of sands suitable for readymix concrete, mortar (bricklaying) sands compaction, trenching and pipe bedding sands – have all been used in numerous infrastructure projects. They include Canberra’s Department of Foreign Affairs building, the Olympic Games facilities at Homebush, Star City Casino, Sydney’s F2 motorway, the Northern Road Upgrade, and the Sydney Light Rail. PF Formation is currently tendering with construction engineers CPB for a contract with the Western Sydney Airport.

For Luke Graham, who is now one of PF Formation’s managing directors, sand processing has been very prominent his whole life. His father John built the business’s first sand plant and Luke has worked across all three quarries, including building a 150 tonnes per hour (tph) customised sand washing plant himself on the Pit 5 Old Northern Road development. 

“The original wash plant was sold through Warman (now Weir), which did all the process engineering and sold my dad all of the equipment when he built his first plant,” Luke Graham told Quarry. “The wash plant was a pretty simple two-stage washing plant, it did 200 tph. The plant evolved quite a lot as different technologies came in, there have been a lot of build-ons and tack-ons. The site grew so large that it became logistically not feasible to transport sand to the wash plant. So we put in a slurry pumping station and pumped the sand 2.1km from the deposit to the processing area.”

A 3D render of the PF Formation sand washing plant featuring the L45 feed hopper, a P2-108 scalping screen over a large sump, an EvoWash, attrition cells, and CFCU and AquaCycle modules.

TERTIARY SAND ‘GOLD MINE’

The Pit 5 Old Northern Road and Old Telegraph Road quarries each have 250,000 tonnes per annum (tpa) consents to extract friable sandstone. Both of the friable sandstone sites produce a combination of end products, including mortar sands for bricklaying as well as concrete sands to support the business’s concrete operations.

“Mortar sands are a very big part of bricklaying and Maroota sands are very dominant in that space. If it’s not Maroota brickie sand, then you don’t lay a brick with it!” Graham exclaimed.

The Hitchcock Road quarry is by far the largest of the three quarries, and comprises a group of properties containing eight titles. The combined pits and adjoining parcels of land are on a mega-deposit with the potential to produce up to 400,000 tonnes per annum (tpa) of both tertiary and friable sands. For PF Formation, this mega-deposit was almost the sand equivalent of striking gold.

“The deposit that we process at the Hitchcock Road quarry is what’s they call a tertiary sand, it’s an ancient alluvial river bed that’s millions of years old, and it was caught in a high silica sandstone seam,” Luke Graham explained. “That’s what captured the deposit millions of years ago and kept it from eroding. It’s easy winning, very clean, and doesn’t require a lot of processing.”

Graham explained the Pit 4 Old Telegraph Road site was acquired from Maroota Mining, a former competitor. The sale of the site included an old Coral Industries turnkey plant, which “in the best case scenario”, Graham said, has an output of 60 tph. “I think the old owners were disappointed in the Coral plant’s throughput from the get-go,” he reflected. “In a way, however, it suited the deposit at the time – the pit wasn’t a massive deposit and the equipment was best suited to it.”

Having combined the Maroota Mining site and and several newly acquired properties into one operation, and conscious of the mega-deposit at their disposal, Luke and Joshua Graham decided to purchase a new, modern washing sand plant to exploit the site’s potential. The consent they received for the combined site was 250,000 tpa.

“We weren’t seeing anywhere near that potential,” Graham said. “The best output we were getting out of that quarry was about 80,000 tpa, pushing a 20-year washing plant with an output of 60 tph as hard we could. We set out originally to upgrade the old plant because we didn’t want to scrap it entirely. We saw potential in upgrading and making it bigger, better and badass but we quickly realised that renovations would not be the best way to go – it was more efficient to knock down and rebuild plus we believed we would have a better outcome. And because of the height of the demand of the Sydney market for sand, we decided to build a new plant while continuing to operate the old plant. The new plant is going to be matched to the deposit.

“The other key factor with the site,” Graham added, “and something we’ve worked long and hard for, is the ability to import recycled materials and resource recovery materials. We effectively have a no sunset development application, with the condition that we can source usable materials for recycling. So we have a massive resource pool in the ground and there’s a future in recycling, reactivation materials and tunnel spoils as well.”

Graham added that the Pit 4 Old Telegraph Road site is particularly important now because there is an opportunity for PF Formation, whose readymix concrete sand market has been its traditional “bread and butter”, to diversify its products and provide other quality sands to the Greater Sydney Region. It has already begun that process by taking advantage of its friable sands deposits, which are hard to wash but quite clean. Friable sands have the potential to be a “perfect” substitute for the exhausted deposits in the Penrith and Nepean Lakes regions, whose coarse river sands were renowned for their cleanliness. Further, the tertiary sand, which is also clean, can be a lucrative venture and a viable alternative to the manufactured sands and crusher dusts that have been adopted as alternatives to the now defunct coarse river sand deposits.

“It’s important we make our fine sands more compatible,” Graham explained. “It means we have to do more intensive processing to get our sands compatible with that coarse fine aggregate, and it’s why we’ve  started experimenting with attrition cells and sand screws, and been looking at innovative, different ways to process our sand in order to grow into those markets.”

A second 3D render of the PF Formation sand washing plant, with dual CFCU products.

DURABILITY, LONGEVITY

When tendering for a supplier to provide a new washing system, Luke and Joshua Graham were very self-assured and direct.

“We wanted to be confident that the plant was going to be durable and we wanted a long-term solution,” Luke Graham said. “We were looking for a plant that’s going to be in operation for many years. The durability was really important to us. 

“When CDE took us around the country and showed us some of its plants, we saw a lot of things that we liked and a couple of things that we didn’t. CDE catered for us by listening to our concerns and they were open to new ideas and innovations. Even when we had specific requirements, their guys took it on board. They also had good items to raise about the pros and cons of the project and they were open to hearing why I wanted something done my way, or to be tailored specifically to our needs. That’s what set CDE apart from their competitors for us, how they catered for our needs.”

PF Formation’s point of contact at CDE has been Jason Hartmann, the company’s business development manager for Eastern Australia. He remarked that Luke and Josh Graham were both “very discerning characters” from the get-go.

“They own three plants, they know what they like and what they don’t,” Hartmann said.

The PF Formation story is a little unusual from other sand case studies covered in Quarry, as at the time of writing, the plant has been ordered but is still to be installed and commissioned. CDE and Luke Graham himself were keen to discuss the early development of the new plant, which will not be actively running until the last quarter of 2022, with the view to highlighting the project from inception to completion.

“It’s a very bespoke plant,” Hartmann said of the design on order. “It consists of standard CDE modules, but tinkered with a lot to exactly what Luke and Josh are after. I think we’ve ironed out everything, it’s been a pretty extensive process and there’s been a lot of collaborative design reviews. We’ve been through the process with them and they’ve seen all our gear. The plant will come together nicely on-site. I don’t expect many challenges at the commissioning stage.”

Hartmann said the new sand and gravel wash plant consists of largely “standard gear but at the front end of the plant Luke and Josh wanted a different arrangement to our normal M-series. What we’ve done is put a screen over the top of a large sump, which is typically a dredge-type application, but given the throughput that PF want to achieve then really having a decent size sump at the front end works quite well”.

Hartmann said the plant will consist of an EvoWash unit with an additional set of cyclones, which are configured slightly differently to a standard unit, cyclones for desliming and increasing density, and ShearClean attrition cells for breaking up that material and liberating fines, aided by a density control and a by-pass capacity for less demanding uses of the end product.

“At the back end,” he continued, “there are up-current classifiers – the dual CFCU modules – that polish the product, and allow it to achieve that really high specification Sydney market sand. The CFCU modules also achieve the final product dewatering. There’s some pretty cool functionality in the plant, in terms of the attrition cell bypass to make that dirtier product when it’s required, such as compaction and trenching sands, so we’ve already built in capability for the plant to make that material. The plant will be able to make a really clean, high-spec material or when the market requires it, it can be configured to develop the heavier trenching sand.”

While the plant is modular in design, the equipment will be delivered in module containers. Hartmann said the plant itself will be fixed and installed on a slab. “It will be built in the factory and many base elements such as the EvoWash and the attrition cells will arrive to site as complete as possible and lifted into place,” he said. “After that point, walkways, ladders, steps and other components will be connected. Modular design means it can be assembled on-site quite quickly.”

LIGHTSPEED OVERDRIVE

Luke Graham is excited by the prospect of the plant’s features which are going to be light years ahead of the old, improvised plants on his other quarry sites. “It’s going to be a fully automated plant, and will rely on the programmable logic controllers (PLC) and the human machine interface (HMI) to operate,” he said. “There are too many functions for it to operate in a manual mode, it’s going to rely on the programming and the brains of the PLC to get all the components to work together. It will have self-monitoring functions, where it controls feed breaks and water flows to meet our requirements. The key thing is the way it monitors the density in the attrition circuit. It’s not something that can be done manually, it will rely on sensors and on feedback from the torque that’s generated to turn the attrition cells, and tiny, instantaneous adjustments by the computer. 

“And that’s the same with the tailings treatment as well, there’s no possible way it can be operated manually, again because of its density. Pump speeds can be varied, and dump times, durations can be varied, the floc dosage rates, it’s all live because every bucket of sand that’s poured into it can be different from the one before it. It will be changing minute by minute, and this plant is so sophisticated and clever that it can adapt and make those changes instantly to meet all of our product requirements.”

By comparison, Graham added, the equivalent of the AquaCycle on PF Formation’s old plants – the thickeners – are chalk and cheese. “We have thickeners in our plants, and we use polymer dosing units, but they don’t have the AquaCycle’s autonomous capacity, they’re ‘set and forget’, and there are major shortfalls, so we waste a lot of product and have lots of overs.”

Graham also expressed confidence that the processes engineered into the plant will exceed the usual expectations of a construction sand plant. “It’s going to set our products well and truly ahead of our competitors,” he said. “Our final product is going to be really high demand. It will meet what the Sydney market is calling for. It will allow our customers to use more of their own manufactured sand. The CFCU is the culmination of all the processes, it’s that final polish, it’s the desliming through the attrition circuit. There are so many stages of washing and so many different types of processing to get the product to this super high quality state. 

“The quality of the end product has been our key consideration from the beginning of this project,” Graham said. “Josh and I weren’t motivated by massive volumes, our focus was on quality and what we had to do to process our sands to get that high level.”

Hartmann told Quarry there will be a three-month build for the new sand plant, followed by two to three weeks of commissioning time. Training will also be incorporated into the build and commission process. “We’ll have guys there building the plant and at the same time Luke and his operators will be involved at some level, to get a familiarisation of the plant as it’s assembled and certainly during commissioning. We’ll then be back several times over the following year (2023) – about three or four times – to ensure the plant is working perfectly and address any maintenance queries the operators may have,” he said.

PF Formation is anticipating a delay in site civils which means the construction and commissioning process may not occur until later in 2022. “We’re building the plant on top of a reclaimed silt pond,” Graham explained, “which seemed like a fabulous idea at the time because it doesn’t isolate any of our resources and it geographically works in the quarry, especially because the loading area is so close to the road, our customers’ trucks will be in and out in no time. However, there’s some engineering dilemmas building a plant of this scale on top of a reclaimed silt pond.

“We’re going to have do some specialised load testing but it’s adding some costs to the site civils,” he continued. “We have to bring in some specialised tech equipment for load testing, shear vane testing and Shelby tube sampling. The engineers have a greater understanding of the substructures and they can devise engineering solutions to accommodate the loads that will be imposed by the plant.

“The plant and its components will arrive from April next year but we won’t have the concrete slab ready at that point because of these engineering issues. We will have the plant commissioned by the end of 2022.”

Another Australian sand washing plant set-up in Kingscliff, Northern NSW.

THE MAGIC PUDDING

Graham said that while the plant is still 12 months away, he and his brother are pleased with the project’s progress. “Obviously the whole journey with Jason and CDE has been really good,” he declared. “From my perspective, I’ve enjoyed it, Jason has facilitated all of our wants and needs, he’s answered all of our concerns. Jason has a really good technical background as well. But the plant hasn’t made one grain of sand yet so the proof is going to be in the pudding. For me, our focus has been on the quality, so it’s going to be fascinating to see all this planning and technology come together and deliver us a product that is far superior to anything else in the Sydney market.”

Hartmann has little doubt that his company can – and will – deliver an outstanding plant. “I feel much the same as Luke. I want to see the plant come to life and I want to see it take a challenging feed and create a really high-spec product.

“Most importantly, it’s going to be all OEM kit – from the feed receival hopper to the product stacking,” he added. “We design and integrate and deliver the whole thing. Not a lot of other people can necessarily do that. It helps give Luke and Josh faith that we can be relied upon. We’ll own it all the way through to producing that high-spec sand that Luke and Josh want.”

“CDE have written performance guarantees into our supply contract to assure us that this equipment will perform to this standard,” Graham added. “It gives me and Josh a lot of comfort to proceed with the investment. Collaboratively, everyone [from PF Formation and CDE] has invested into it. The engineers and the process guys all had something to contribute, which makes this plant so interesting and unique.”

Beyond 2022, PF Formation has no immediate plans to upgrade all of its sand operations. The old sand plants in the other quarries will continue to process friable sandstone while the company ensures the new CDE plant lives up to its high expectations. “Obviously we need to get this project up and running and we need proof these technologies are as effective as we believe they are, and when our projects can cater for it, we would consider buying more CDE gear and adapting it to our existing plants,” Luke Graham said.

However, he does not rule out further modifications to the Pit 4 quarry. “The friable sandstone has to be all crushed,” he explained. “We’re using mobile crushing equipment to do all our pre-screening and crushing and pre-conditioning for the wash plant. Something we considered when we just approved the switchboard and the new power supply is to have the capacity later to add a fixed crushing plant to feed the circuit. It’s not in the budget this time round but it’s been timed and configured on the side. 

“We have the real estate and the capacity to add a fixed crushing circuit at a later stage, maybe five years down the track. We don’t want to cut any corners with the washing, though. We know we can do it tough with our mobile gear – we have seven mobile crushers – so we’re confident that we can achieve the throughputs and outputs with the equipment that we have.”

Luke Graham’s advice for other quarrying producers keen to install a washing circuit is to do their due diligence. 

“These plants obviously represent a significant investment,” he said. “Every site is different, so every business needs to be clear about their expectations and do their research. 

“They need to see other examples and plants, compare how other operators are doing it, and speak and communicate with the other operators, and find out what their shortfalls were, what works and what doesn’t for their operations. 

“It’s a lengthy process and someone’s got to be prepared to do the investigation. For me, it was a no-brainer, I was very careful about what we could spend on this plant and I wanted enough information to make the right choices.”•

For more information about PF Formation, visit pfformation.com.au

For more information about CDE  washing plants and products, visit cdegroup.com

This article appears in the December issue of Quarry Magazine. 

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