September 24, 2015

By Yossi Sheffi. Unexpected events — ranging from extreme weather to product contamination — can easily disrupt businesses in today’s complex, interconnected global economy. The good news? A company can substantially increase its resilience by improving its ability to detect — and respond to — disruptions quickly. In 2008, the Black Thunder mine in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin — the largest coal mining complex in the United States, owned by St. Louis, Missouri-based Arch Coal Inc. — planned to install a massive new conveyer tube to move coal to a silo for loading trains.

When David Freeman, vice president of engineering at BNSF Railway Co. at the time, heard of the mine’s plans, he wanted to be sure the railroad had input. The mine planned to hire a 2.7-million-pound crane to hoist the 260-foot long, 500,000-pound conveyer tube 150 feet into the air and place it on pylons. The intricate installation process would suspend the tube over three tracks on which 80 BNSF and Union Pacific Railroad Co. trains traveled every day, carrying almost 1 million tons of coal to fuel power plants all across the Midwest and the East Coast. Overall, one-third of America’s transported coal would pass on the rails under that 260-foot long tube.

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