By John Wolcott HBJ Freelance Writer
SNOHOMISH — For decades, big Caterpillar excavators have been famous for their power, versatility and reliability. Now, the innovative mind of Wendell Malmberg has designed a sensational way of running the big Cats on railroad lines.
In an industrial park south of Snohomish, Malmberg’s company, HPF Manufacturing Inc. (formerly Highline Portafab) is building Caterpillar machines known as Rail-X Excavators for local and national markets, with an eye on future customers in China and India.
A leader in his national niche marketplace, Malmberg has won awards for his innovation and drawn attention to his plans to increase production in 2013 and 2014, “bringing more manufacturing jobs into Snohomish County,” he said.
“Our modifications open up a whole new market for Cats and we’re still thinking of new models for many more uses,” Malmberg said.
His skillfully designed undercarriage with retractable train wheels for the heavy, land-cruising Cats greatly simplifies the work railroad maintenance crews perform. Rail-X lets them clean under culverts, remove trees growing too close to tracks, mow plant growth along tracks and replace wooden ties and worn rails with one machine.
The giant, self-propelled excavator can drive on and off railroad tracks in five minutes or less, has computer-controlled operation from the cab and can be fitted with a variety of buckets, thumbs, rakes and rotating attachments. Many of the machines, each costing hundreds of thousands of dollars, also have steel reinforcements to protect their cabs and a variety of boom modifications and extensions.
Locally, his Rail-X Excavators have cleared repeated slides from the tracks between Seattle and Mukilteo and retrieved a crashed aircraft from a remote rail-side ditch that couldn’t be easily reached by other methods.
“A lot of railroad work is mechanized now but you can’t just put any big piece of equipment to work on the rails,” Malmberg said. “The undercarriage drags, machines can tip over sometimes in clearing shoulder brush from the right-of-way and the unmodified Cats face different weight and balance challenges.”
The undercarriage for the Rail-X Excavators is heavier and wider than standard and has hydraulics that lift it above the rails. The Cat’s tracks straddle the rails. Counterweights allow it to work far down sloping rail sides.
HPF produces Rail-X Excavators for Advanced Rail Concepts LLC (ARC), a company based at the same property as HPF. Rick Johnson, a former mining equipment developer who originated the concept of the Rail-X Excavator, formed ARC and teamed with Malmberg to bring the product to market.
Johnson and Malmberg work together in a partnership to create and build rail equipment for a variety of markets, using designs that have been described by industry leaders as “masterful engineering feats.” Malmberg is CEO of HPF and manages ARC for Johnson.
The Rail-X Excavator’s RotoGripp Bucket, developed by HPF and ARC, rotates 360 degrees. It does the job of several individual tools.
Fortunately for Malmberg, a short-line railroad owned by Ballard Transfer in Seattle runs past his Snohomish plant, making it easy to get a “rail warrant” for access and drive a Rail-X Excavator onto the tracks for testing.
His location also came in handy when Lance Harvey, owner of Lance Harvey Trucking and Excavating and one of the Harvey family that operates its namesake airport in Snohomish, called for help in retrieving a 1946 Republic RC3, a single-engine aircraft that crashed into a watery slough south of Harvey Field.
Malmberg, also a pilot who uses Harvey Field, ran a Rail-X Excavator onto the tracks, headed for the isolated crash site and lifted the crumpled plane from the water and mud.
“Then I ran the Cat down the tracks to Harvey Field, drove off the rails and deposited the plane in front of Lance’s home, where it was displayed for a while,” Malmberg said, grinning.
In recent years, Seattle Business magazine honored ARC in 2001 with a Washington Manufacturers award as its Manufacturing Innovator of the Year and, in November 2012, HPF Manufacturing won a Manufacturing Innovation award from the Association of Washington Business.
“I guess I’m really lucky that my parents always encouraged me in my childhood love of taking things apart to see how they work,” Malmberg said. “I still love it. We fight against heavy government taxation and regulation, we provide health care and benefits for employees and compete hard in the marketplace and we still love what we do everyday. I always thank the Lord for giving me the abilities and the opportunities.”
Malmberg’s fertile mind has also created innovative marketing plans and developed a network of subcontractors and corporate alliances.
“When we started this rail excavator work, I realized early on that Caterpillar was the worldwide industry leader so I began working with them very closely,” he said. “Today we have a relationship that allows us to exchange proprietary information to enable us to make even more improved equipment for the Caterpillar line of equipment.”
That means he’s also able to market Rail-X Excavators and excavator accessories through NC Equipment, a sales and rental representative for Caterpillar in the Puget Sound area and nationally.
“We get orders from Caterpillar dealerships across the country,” he said. “It’s a very good working relationship. Plus, we get orders from the railroads. The CSX line has ordered 100 and Union Pacific wants 75. That’s why, after turning out a dozen of these this year, we’re increasing production to 25 machines in 2013 and 50 in 2014 to keep up with the demand. So we expect increased employment at the plant next year.”
Railroads have long collected scrap metal along the roadway and left it piles to be picked up later. With the Rail-X Excavator, crews can pull a hopper car and put the metal in it, making the whole operation much more efficient. Also, locomotive engines burn up to 275 gallons of fuel an hour, while the Rail-X Excavator is a “green machine,” he said, using about five gallons per hour.
“We’re real proud to say our Rail-X Excavators are ‘Made in America’ products,” Malmberg said.
How it all started
In 1986, Wendell Malmberg started his business with a pickup truck and a portable welding machine, focused on industrial and heavy equipment maintenance work.
“By 1988 I was into the logging industry, manufacturing booms and modifying excavators, then moved into the construction field. An assembly line produces copies of each machine but I got into modification work. Contractors handling forest work and laying pipe have different needs, so I tailored my work to configure each machine differently,” he said.
In 2006, Rick Johnson with Advanced Rail Concepts in Yelm called him about making a new modified machine that became the first model of the Rail-X Excavator. Together they made Johnson’s customer’s request a marketable reality.
He remembers the first Rail-X Excavator sold was a CAT 313CU used for a job in Peoria, Ill., that just happened to run past the home plant for Caterpillar. Soon, two Cat engineers paid a visit to Malmberg to explore his concepts. That formed a close bond with Caterpillar that strengthens each year, he said.
Today, he takes time to spend several days throughout each year with Caterpillar, railroad employees and others who work with Rail-X Excavators, gathering their suggestions for improvements or new Rail-X attachments. Now, he’s also training and mentoring Travis Keppner to work with customers and make those field trips around the country.
Malmberg’s other strengths come from his working partnerships with a variety of companies that support him with welding, machining parts, making gears, castings and supplies.
His networking also supports jobs for a variety of companies, including those working in manufacturing, delivery drivers and others, including NC Machinery, the Cat dealership in Kent; Northwest Steel &Pipe in Tacoma; Spencer Fluid Power in Kent; Danzco Machine, Tenino; Precision Machine, Lynnwood; Shareway Industries, Auburn; Reliance Foundry in Canada; Heco Gear in California; Williams Oil, Tacoma; East Hill Hydrdaulic Repair, Sumner; Fittings Inc., Seattle; Western Fluid, Everett; and many others.
Over the years, he’s bought the acreage his plant in on and bought millions of dollars worth of manufacturing equipment and supplies.
“Now, because of the developing economy and rail lines in China and India and Caterpillar’s involvement in that market, we see opportunities for serving those areas and moving into international trade,” he said.
For more information, look at videos at www.advancedrailconcepts.com, email email@example.com, call 425-486-8031 or visit the plant at 20105 Broadway Ave. SE, Snohomish.