Five long conveyor belts serve as critical arteries in moving oil sand from the crushers to Extraction, a key step in helping produce oil at Fort Hills.

So, when the thick rubberized belts, which range from six to eight-feet wide, started ripping before their scheduled three-year replacement period, it stopped the flow of ore and hurt production. Fort Hills launched a task force to solve the problem following a spate of belt failures between January 2019 to March 2020.

“We wanted to get back to running the plant rather than dealing with this issue,” says Shane Elligson, the Reliability Manager at Fort Hills.

But Shane and his counterparts realized the people who operated and maintained the belts could provide some of the answers along with the vendors and counterparts at other Suncor sites in the region.

“Our frontline operators and maintenance people had a lot of experience and brought some ideas because many of them arrived at Fort Hills from different sites that also used conveyors,” says Cole Hubbard, Maintenance Manager for Ore Processing and Primary Extraction at Fort Hills. “Our workforce gave us lots of ideas. Some worked better than others, but they provided some crucial suggestions to help us solve a serious problem.”

Two men wearing blue coveralls holding balloons stand in front of a plant with large conveyors in the background.
Andrew Redding (left) and J.P. D'Amour are two of the frontline workers who helped solve ongoing reliability challenges with conveyor belts that move oil sands through ore processing and extraction plants at Fort Hills.

Two years later, better cleaning and reducing the tension on the belts has helped the five conveyors—ranging in length from 600 to 800 metres (2,000 to 2,600 feet)—meet their three-year run lengths. This has reduced maintenance costs while improving production at the site.

“Cleaning the belts is important because it adds extra thickness to the belt so you are compounding the tension effect as they travels around the pulley,” says Josh Glister, Operations Manager at Fort Hills. “We needed to give operators the right tools they needed to do the job and keep the belts clean. Their feedback on what worked and what didn’t was very important.”

A large conveyor at an oil sands site. The conveyor belt is supported by large steel beams, and it curves upward. There are flat conveyor belts behind it, as well as buildings, grass and trees. The sky is cloudy and grey.
When conveyor belts began wearing out ahead of schedule at Fort Hills, frontline workers who operated and maintained them helped find a solution. 

The success with conveyors were a part of suite of improvements that reduced lost production at Fort Hills by more than seven per cent in both 2021 and 2022. The initiative to improve the reliability of the conveyors and crushers at Fort Hills earned a Suncor Excellence Award in November.

“We reduced downtime in the crushers from 14 days per month to six days. A lot of this was accomplished by using bolt-on components rather than welding them so equipment could be returned to service more quickly,” Cole says. “It’s quicker and safer because you don’t have to cut off the old components.”

Two related measures also helped improve reliability while reducing maintenance costs and downtime in the area.

“We improved the reliability of the wet screens by reducing screen and bolt failures. These are large screens that the oil sand pass through in the Ore Processing Plant to reduce the size of the clumps and rocks before the ore is mixed with water and goes to Extraction,” Shane says. “And we increased the run length of the underflow pump in the primary extraction cell, which pumps out of the heavy solids and rocks, from six weeks to 52 weeks. The pump handles extremely coarse and heavy materials so it wears out quickly, but we found improvements that made a big difference.”

One common theme ran through the improvements—the involvement of the frontline workers who operate and maintain the equipment in finding solutions.

“The people who work at Fort Hills put forward ideas that helped us with these challenges,” says Josh. “We have top-notch people and listening to them is a big part of why we’ve seen this success.”