Obituary 13 May 2021

Niko Kleuters 1954 – 2021

Mechanical engineering, and in particular inventing and introducing new rock excavation techniques, was the life enthusiasm of Niko Kleuters. Working for and managing the Wirth TBM manufacturing company in Germany was the majority of his life’s work, and more recently as an independent mine development consultant in southern Africa where he was in March 2021. It was while travelling in Zimbabwe where he was involved in a fatal two cars head-on collision in which a total four people lost their lives. This is the second sudden and shocking death to hit the Kleuters family after Niko’s brother Christoph was shot and died in Caracas, Venezuela, about seven years ago.

Niko Kleuters 1954 – 2021
Niko Kleuters 1954 – 2021

As a Dip-Ing mechanical engineer Kleuters was best known in the tunnelling industry as the head of Wirth GmbH, which he joined in about 1978 as a design engineer. He later became owner of the over more than 100-year-old machine and drilling equipment business and factory in Erkelenz near Cologne, Germany, as the result of a management buy out in 1999 when his younger brother Christoph joined the company as the financial director and as one of three shareholders with Wilfried Kroppen.

While with Wirth and as the majority shareholder, Kleuters was the driver for all the TBM projects and for developing and introducing several new innovations and inventions. Significant among these was the full-face TBM undercutting technology that was used for the first time for the Uetliberg highway project in Switzerland in the late 1990s. With his technical background and experience, he made the Wirth TBM projects a success.

Other notable TBM projects during the stewardship of Wirth by Kleuters include:

  • The Storebelt undersea twin tube rail link in Denmark in the 1990s
  • The Pingling twin tube highway project in Taiwan with the two double shield Wirth TBMs being the largest diameter TBMs at the time
  • The Quinling railway project in China were two hard rock gripper TBMs plus all the backup and full sets of machinery and equipment for the TBM operations, maked it the largest order ever for Wirth at some DM100 million
  • Design, production and launch of a mobile mining machine based on the undercutting technology
Undercutting TBM technology in action at Uetliberg
Undercutting TBM technology in action at Uetliberg

Other Wirth TBM projects include:

  • The Veriena railway link in Switzerland
  • The Lesoto Highlands Water Project Delivery Tunnel North double shield machine
  • The two machines that worked along side two Herrenknecht machines on the Guardarrama twin tube high speed rail project in Spain

The Wirth company, as part of the Otto Wolff Group, was active mainly in oil exploration, foundation drilling and machine tool manufacturing. At the end of the 1960s, the company expanded into tunnel excavation equipment. By the mid-1980s the company was in financial trouble and the tunnelling division was sold to Howden of Scotland. The Howden company, based in Glasgow, had entered the TBM manufacturing industry for its contributions to the Channel Tunnel project in the 1980s, supplying two of the six machines to the UK side of the fixed link under the Channel with France. Supplying four TBMs to the Storbelt project was the highlight for the Howden Wirth era but the association lasted only eight years with the company sliding into deeper financial troubles in the early 1990s. It was when the Howden Group was sold to Charter that Kleuters made the management buyout bid for the Wirth TBM manufacturing devision.

Kleuters, an innovator and driving force
Kleuters, an innovator and driving force

When in charge, Kleuters also saved the Paurat roadheader company as part of the management buy-out from Howden and later set up the Wirth Group to integrate his negotiated financial and business collaboration with NFM of France.

While the management buyout was his greatest achievement and greatest service for Wirth, saving the company from a financial crisis and certain demise, autonomous management of the heavy engineering company was not to last. ln the late 2000s, the TBM manufacturing business was bought out by the Norwegian heavy industry company Aker to become Aker Wirth, and without NFM that took a different track for survival. In 2013, and after another confirmation that the international TBM manufacturing and supply industry was a very particular and quite risky business for the new comers, Aker sold the intellectual property of Wirth to CRTE of China where it remains today as the European operation of the Chinese manufacturer CREG, based as always at the offices in Erkelenz. Kleuters assisted CREG negotiate the buyout and became an independent consultant there after.

For those who knew him, Kleuters was a team leader, a driving force, who would never admit defeat or give up on a mission. His enthusiasm for the tunnelling industry was contagious and his ingenuity for technological development limitless. An untimely loss of an engineer who helped shape the TBM industry during its turbulent and cutting edge project era of the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s.


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