Pound for Pound

When Craig Drinnan began building heavy-duty mine-spec water trucks, he standardised on Isuzu vehicles because they matched the toughness of his tanks, pound for pound.

Having relished completing a sheet metal working apprenticeship in his earlier years, Craig Drinnan, Managing Director of Perth-based business Welding Solutions, believes starting his own fabrication business was a completely natural progression.

“I always enjoyed my trade, and I subsequently completed a number of welding courses which included learning gas pipeline welding codes as well as three years of pipe welding which enabled me to reach the top of my game in these critical aspects of the trade,” Craig recalls.

“I’m something of a perfectionist by nature, I guess, so if I can’t find a better way of doing something I tend to see it as not worth doing. I had a burning desire to base a business around the expertise I’d acquired from my trade and post-trade courses.”

It was this determined approach and passion for doing things as well as possible that led Craig to start his own business in 2006, initially doing mobile welding and repairs to earthmoving equipment before specialising in repairs to water trucks for plant hire companies.

Craig says this latter experience gave him a comprehensive knowledge of water truck design and how the vehicles needed to be built to last under extreme conditions, such as those found in the mining environment.

This led him down the path, back in 2008, of building his first water truck.

As the foundation of a water tanker is the cab and chassis unit upon which it is installed, one of the early decisions Craig needed to make was which brand of truck he would go with.

“I needed to be confident with what I was selling to customers – if I didn’t want to buy a product for myself, I wouldn’t be comfortable on-selling it,” Craig says.

“The Isuzu product has a quality of build that is hard to beat and our local dealer Major Motors is very good at supporting the product and helping us out if there happens to be an issue.”

Further to this, Craig says the dealer support and service in remote and regional areas is another Major Motors strong suit.

“There’s a Major Motors branch at Port Hedland and the company also has multiple service agents scattered across the Pilbara and other mining regions in the state,” Craig says, adding that parts availability is also very good, “which is important for reducing downtime.”

Spare parts cost effectivity, Craig says, is also a strong point with Isuzu and he believes this is partly due to the high commonality of parts across the various models in the range.

Perhaps most importantly, Craig says the positive feedback he receives from customers serves, in his mind, to corroborate Isuzu’s status as the overall truck market leader in Australia.

“The feedback from clients has been very good and another strong selling point for Isuzu is that they are not running Adblue,” he says. “The cost of that product has gone up so much recently, along with patchy availability, which is definitely influencing people in favour of trucks that don’t need it.”

From the business commencing to around the following decade Major Motors has been a significant customer as the company commissioned Craig to build and install tanks for its customers who were looking for a turn-key solution from the Isuzu dealer.

Since 2018, however, Craig has bought the Isuzu trucks himself and then sold them to customers as a ready-to-go proposition.

In fact, last year he bought six Isuzus comprising four FVZ 260-300 AUTO MWB and two FYH 300-350 AUTO MWB units.

“We stick with the 6×4 and 8×4 models that we know are ideally suited to the water truck application and all of them feature automatic transmissions,” Craig says, adding that the built-to-go format is popular with customers.

“We’ve found that in recent years the demand for ready-to-go trucks has increased dramatically because many customers don’t get a lot of time to prepare for a contract,” Craig says.

“They might get the go-ahead for a mining contract and then have just three or four weeks to be onsite with the vehicles. Having that sort of availability for our clients is something we’re known for – it helps our sales and it helps their businesses as well.”

Keen to emphasise a distinct point of difference between his products and those of some competitors, Craig says his tanks are fully manufactured in Australia using Australian steel.

What’s more, the ultra heavy-duty construction methods and materials used ensure the tanks are sufficiently robust to endure many years under the harsh and demanding conditions encountered on mine sites in locations such as Western Australia’s Pilbara and Kalgoorlie regions and other remote parts of the country.

“For expediency and efficiency we outsource some of the processes such as laser cutting of components which arrive as a kit ready to be fabricated at our premises in Bibra Lake,” Craig says.

“Many of our customers like the fact that we build our tanks locally – we are one of the largest manufacturers in Perth that still do this. Others are importing them these days. Our customers say they appreciate the quality of our products inside and out.”

Craig explains that the first water truck he built came about because a customer was willing to take a chance on him and ordered it sight unseen.

“He was very happy with the end result and that initial unit has been operating for 13 years and is now on its second truck,” Craig says. “Much of our subsequent business came from people who saw this unit operating in the field, demonstrating the build integrity and longevity potential of our design.”

Welding Solutions tanks, according to Craig, are built stronger than some other tanks, using 10mm gauge sheet steel for the floor and 6.0mm for the rest of the tank.

He emphasises that a lot of the strength comes from the curved shape of the sides which makes them much more resistant to flexing compared with flat sides.

“When a flat-sided tank is filled with water the forces acting on the sides cause them to flex or distort marginally outward, which after many times of filling and emptying leads to work-hardening causing cracks and leaks,” Craig explains.

“But rolling the sides with a slight curve prior to fabrication builds strength into them that alleviates this issue.”

Other measures that add structural integrity to Welding Solution’s tanks include corrugated ends and baffles which are pressed into shape for superior strength in much the same fashion as the sides of a shipping container.

As water on mine sites often contains salts and other highly corrosive elements (it can, in fact, be up to 10 times saltier than sea water), following fabrication the interior of each tank is fully blasted to Class 2.5 standard and then coated with a high quality two-pack epoxy tank liner.

“We use a very effective high-quality paint that provides an impermeable barrier to protect the steel against corrosion,” Craig explains. “Depending on the composition of the water carried, the coating may need to be reapplied in due course and the interior of the tank needs to be regularly inspected to determine when this action is necessary.”

Many hours of time is spent prepping the tank after fabrication to ensure every sharp edge and weld is smoothed off so as not to provide a starting point for corrosion.

“Paint doesn’t stick to sharp edges so it’s important that we take the time with these small details as it makes a huge difference to the longevity of the product,” Craig says.

As the business continues to grow, Craig is expanding into other types of fabrication work. The team recently completed their first tipper body which naturally is installed on an Isuzu cab/ chassis.

“We are also planning to expand into the manufacture of service trucks when our capacity opens up a bit more,” Craig explains.

“Our business growth over the last few years has been very consistent, and has opened up more opportunities for us in terms of increased build capacity.”

Welding Solutions currently employs 15 people and has just purchased another facility that is 40 per cent larger than the initial premises.

Craig says this will enable the company to have a dedicated manufacturing facility while the spare parts side of the business will be able to expand at the original site.