Falls com­pany plays role in Musk tun­nel plan

Su­per Ex­ca­va­tors to con­sult on ma­chine

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel - - BUSINESS - NATHAN BOMEY

Bil­lion­aire in­no­va­tor Elon Musk is known for his Cal­i­for­nia rocket and elec­tric car busi­nesses, but he looked to Menomonee Falls to show he is se­ri­ous about build­ing an ul­tra­high-speed un­der­ground rail sys­tem from New York to Wash­ing­ton, D.C.

In pur­suit of a mas­sive tun­nel bor­ing ma­chine to in­no­vate yet again, Musk struck a deal to ac­quire one from Su­per Ex­ca­va­tors in Menomonee Falls. He also drew upon the 67-year-old con­tract­ing com­pany’s ex­per­tise to get go­ing, with an ul­ti­mate goal of de­vel­op­ing ways to dig tun­nels faster — an ac­com­plish­ment that could dra­mat­i­cally re­duce the cost of bring­ing his lat­est dream to life.

Musk, CEO of both au­tomaker Tesla and rocket maker SpaceX, has qui­etly as­sem­bled a team of ad­vis­ers to aid his lat­est startup, which he ap­pro­pri­ately named The Bor­ing Co. He tabbed Su­per Ex­ca­va­tors as tem­po­rary con­sul­tants to help get the ma­chine up and run­ning.

The pre­vi­ously un­earthed ties be­tween The Bor­ing Co. and Su­per Ex­ca­va­tors re­veal fresh in­sight into how Musk has be­come se­ri­ous about tun­nel tech­nol­ogy. In July, he teased

that he had re­ceived “ver­bal” govern­ment ap­proval to build a “hy­per­loop” rail sys­tem to zip pas­sen­gers in mag­net­i­cally lev­i­tated un­der­ground rail cars through tubes from New York to Wash­ing­ton, D.C., in 29 min­utes — a 226-mile trip that nor­mally takes nearly three hours by the fastest train.

“It’s al­ways good to have an in­no­va­tor look­ing at a process,” said Peter Schrauf­nagel, pres­i­dent of Su­per Ex­ca­va­tors. “We’re ex­cited to see what comes out of this.”

When Musk con­fi­dant, SpaceX en­gi­neer and tun­nels project leader Steve Davis ap­proached Su­per Ex­ca­va­tors sev­eral months ago, the com­pany had a ready-made so­lu­tion.

The bor­ing ma­chine leased to Musk is sev­eral hun­dred feet long and 14 feet in di­am­e­ter. The gi­ant ma­chine, made by Cana­dian man­u­fac­turer Lo­vat, had bored holes for sew­ers in San Fran­cisco and a flood-con­trol project in In­di­anapo­lis.

Schrauf­nagel de­clined to say how much Musk is pay­ing, but buy­ing a used tun­nel bor­ing ma­chine can cost sev­eral mil­lion dol­lars.

“They pretty much knew what they were look­ing for,” he said. “It was the most shov­el­ready ma­chine of the size” they needed.

The ma­chine was shipped to Hawthorne, Calif., where Musk set it up in the park­ing lot of SpaceX to start bor­ing a pi­lot tun­nel.

He has also pitched a plan to build a net­work of tun­nels un­der­neath L.A. to trans­port cars on high­speed elec­tric plat­forms to by­pass con­ges­tion.

Musk was not avail­able for com­ment.

In­dus­try lead­ers said there’s room for in­no­va­tion, par­tic­u­larly if the Tesla and SpaceX CEO can de­velop a ma­chine that can tun­nel through the earth while build­ing re­tain­ing walls at the same time — a feat that most tun­nel bor­ing ma­chines can­not ac­com­plish to­day.

But many re­main skep­ti­cal be­cause of the com­plex­i­ties and un­pre­dictabil­ity in tun­nel­ing and the need to nav­i­gate a thicket of govern­ment reg­u­la­tions.

“The stake­holder ap­proval process is of­ten far longer than the ac­tual con­struc­tion of the project,” said Mike Mooney, di­rec­tor of the Cen­ter for Un­der­ground Tun­nel­ing and SmartGeo at the Colorado School of Mines.

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