Roberto Priolo investigates the world of lifting solutions and equipment, finding that varying price points, a keen culture of safety and legislative compliance each play a key role in defining the sector.
Lifting solutions have been a crucial part of any attempt to build large constructions and raise heavy loads. We might still debate on the details, but it is widely accepted that, for instance, the Egyptian pyramids were built using some kind of lever system that was used to put the blocks of stone in place.
In today’s world, lifting equipment is used by manufacturers and other users in several sectors (nuclear, automotive, aerospace and steel, among others) and environments such as ports and off-shore platforms. In particular, tower cranes, which are a constant presence in urban landscapes, are considered a universal symbol of prosperity and development.
There are many types of cranes, and their use varies with the industry and site they are deployed at.
Tower cranes are used in the construcion industry to erect tall buildings. Other types of equipment have specific purposes, like a nuclear polar crane, that is used to lift heavy equipment in a nuclear plant such as the steam generator.
Another important category of lifting machines is represented by gantry and overhead cranes. They have similar mechanisms and are both used to lift extremely heavy loads — by using a hoist fitted in a trolley and able to move horizontally on one or two rails mounted under a beam.
The supporting beams of a overhead crane stand on wheels running on rails positioned at a high level, on the side walls of a factory, with the hoist moving across the width of the building. This type of crane is most commonly deployed in the steel industry: all by means of a overhead crane, the material is poured in a furnace, hot steel is stored for cooling and finished coils are positioned on lorries or trains for delivery.
A particular type of gantry crane is used to load and unload containers in ports: in this case, the machinery can move along the entire lenght of a ship.
Some gantry cranes are fixed, especially when they have to lift loads that can be easily moved beneath them; train cargoes, for instance.
The strongest crane to date is Taisun, in Yantai, China. It can safely lift 20,000 metric tonnes.
However, not all the cranes are made to lift massive loads: some smaller versions can be used, for example, in workshops to lift engines out of cars.
Taisun may symbolise a problem well-known within the sector. Manufacturers in the lifting equipment industry have been facing growing competition from low-cost economies for at least a decade. The recent economic downturn has added pressure on them.
Companies that generally do better are those that can offer the customer a number of extra services, like modernising and refurbishing of old equipment and support in solving problems.
Derrick Bailes, technical consultant at the Lifting Equipment Engineers Association (LEEA), agrees.
“Those who do best seem to be companies which have a niche market for solving problems. They will manufacture or modify equipment for specific applications which ‘off the shelf’ equipment cannot satisfy. They use a combination of standard equipment and bespoke items. Also in this category are companies which refurbish or modernise older equipment,” he says.
Many customers choose their equipment based on the price. There are considerable risks related to this approach: many suppliers that offer cheaper products for sale, even on the web, often don’t have relevant knowledge or expertise.
To have an advantage over them, companies need to be always up to date with legislation, standards and industry codes of practice, as well as providing extensive day-to-day service and support. “As experts in their field, their added value is their ability to advise and guide their customers rather than simply supplying what is requested,” Bailes adds.
Buying used equipment is a measure several businesses have adopted in a bid to cut costs. This shortcut is not always necessary, however. Belowthe- hook equipment (such as beams, weighing solutions or grabs) and portable lifting machines are not expensive to repair, and even new items are very cheap. Overhead cranes have traditionally a long existence, and are generally worth refurbishing and modernising on site. If they need to be moved and adapted to a new location, however, costs can be very high.
Safety does it…
When it comes to used items, safety is even more paramount. Bailes explains: “There is no fundamental reason why used equipment cannot be moved, refurbished or modernised, but the job must be done properly and the temptation to cut corners to save money must be resisted.” Health and safety are the main concerns in the industry, with ever-changing and strict legislation that ensures cranes can tolerate weights and that they are fit for the job. Before a safety certificate is issued, a crane needs proof-testing: this test is not carried out based on the actual weight the crane is built to tolerate, but on that weight plus an extra 25%.
Equipment that cannot manage 125% of the rated capacity is considered unsuitable for the job.
Steve Wass, Konecranes’ branch manager at Agusta Westland, explains: “You have actually overloaded the crane, but then you check the deflections on the bridge, on the steel work, and certificate it.”
The legal framework
Safety is intrinsically connected to training.
Operating cranes is a high-responsibility job, and it remains particularly important that workers in the lifting equipment industry are properly coached.
Legislation regulating the way lifting equipment is taken into use and safely put in service (the Use of Work Equipment Directive) includes the Provision and Use of Work Equipment Regulations 1998 (PUWER) and the Lifting Operations and Lifting Equipment Regulations 1998 (LOLER).
“They address both the condition of the equipment and they way it is used,” Bailes explains.
PUWER requires the equipment to comply with the Machinery Directive when deployed and to be maintained, while LOLER requires it to be inspected and thoroughly examined regularly to ensure it is still safe (usually every 12 months, but for lifting gear and machines that lift persons need examination every 6 months).
Another important piece of legislation dealing with safety is based on a European Directive. The 1995 Machinery Directive was implemented in the UK by The Supply of Machinery Regulations 2008, which outlines the safety requirement for both power and manually operated lifting machines and accessories (e.g. below-the-hook equipment).
Thorough examinations must be carried out by a ‘competent person’. They include all the tests that person considers necessary, and a record of the results must be kept. As a widely-accepted rule, equipment that has been stored for a period of time needs to be inspected before being used again, and extra care must be taken when machineries are outdoors, as the environment around them might cause them damage. In the offshore industry, for example, salt water can ruin components relatively quickly due to its corrosive effect.
The examination requirements date back to the Factory Acts, before current lifting equipment regulations came into force: there is no official licensing system or appointment to determine who a ‘competent person’ is.
Looking to the future
To tackle this problem, LEEA came up with its own qualification scheme over 50 years ago. It is still recognised worldwide. Employees of LEEA members can take the association’s Diploma Examination.
Once they pass the exam, they are entitled to the TEAM (Test Examine And Maintain) card — a credit card-sized photo ID card proving they are fully qualified to carry out examinations on equipment.
Bailes comments: “Well trained and qualified personnel working within a proven legal framework of inspection and examination has ensured a high level of safety. Since the LEEA qualifications started, many thousands of persons have qualified and their track record to date is second to none. Regrettably, most lifting equipment accidents occur as a result of the way the equipment is used rather than because of any failure on the part of the equipment examiner.” Compliance to health and safety regulations and the offering of a wide array of products and services represent a successful strategy. It is important to help customers to save money and avoid down time (which is an inconvenient that can cost tens of thousands of pounds a day), by offering a full-time assistance or being able to supply replacement parts quickly, for example.
Being able to provide customers with something more than the mere supply of products is an effective way of dealing with a competitive industry.
When asked how the lifting industry is coping with the recession, Bailes says: “It’s hard to say. Most companies are managing to survive. Many are long established and have had previous experience of managing economic downturns. Before the current recession, there was already considerable rationalisation going on due to the effects of globalisation, and that is likely to continue with acquisitions and mergers.” A good example of how a cranes and lifting equipment manufacturer can overcome many of the most common problems in the industry is offered in the Konecranes profile below.
Konecranes Case Study: Checks and balances
Konecranes’ way of dealing with its customers is one of its biggest assets. The company doesn’t stop at the supply and initial inspection of cranes and other lifting equipment, but also offers a range of services specifically designed to meet customers’ needs.
Headquartered in Finland, Konecranes is a giant within the industry, present in a total of 43 countries, with 500 sites. It employs over 9,700. In the UK, Konecranes has 15 crane service branches and a crane manufacturing factory in East Kilbride.
The company provides a wide range of lifting solutions and equipment for a number of sectors, with general manufacturing, ports, pulp and paper, steel and automotive being its main markets. Its customers include Cummins Engines, Rolls Royce and Siemens.
James Bow, marketing manager at Konecranes UK, says: “Keeping costs down is very important.
We register the cost of downtime our customers can incur in and work to minimise it. We also make sure the machinery works efficiently to maximise their productivity.” Steve Wass is Konecranes’ branch manager at Agusta Westland, the helicopter manufacturer. He says: “Sometimes you need to be more than a crane manufacturer, offering more than one service. We always find new ways of assisting our customers. It’s very competitive out there.” Service represents 37% of the Konecranes’ business. The company can rely on thousands of technicians and other employees to deliver the high-standard performance it promises, which includes providing spare parts, repairing machinery, maintaining about 370,000 cranes (25% of which are manufactured by Konecranes), offering a 24/7 on-call service and five different levels of service a customer can choose between: contact, condition, care, commitment and complete.
Wass explains: “We can install a crane in China and monitor it from Finland, thanks to our round the clock Global Technical Support. This way we give the customers something more: we service their cranes, we inform them all the time about their machinery. For some of them it is very important, because their cranes work 24 hours a day and they can’t afford for them to go down.” Despite the success, the economic downturn had an impact on the business. Bow comments: “The recession has hit our customers. They use cranes, and therefore our services, less. But we are happy that the demand for our maintenance services hasn’t dropped, which means we not losing them. Our advantage is that we don’t rely on a single industry.” Last year, Konecranes focused on savings costs (its operating income went from €248m in 2008 to €98m in 2009), and yet the company’s investment in R&D was €22m – 1.3% of net sales. Its large number of customers means the business can easily have an understanding of the market needs, and come up with effective solutions accordingly.
The Smarton is an example of what Konecranes’ R&D division does: it’s a crane designed for small environments, that can lift up to 500 tonnes.
An environmentally-friendly solution (made of 98% recyclable materials and with its braking energy returning to the power grid), designed to raise productivity while cutting lifecycle costs, it monitors its own condition, suggesting preventive maintenance tasks.
According to current regulations on safety, one of Konecranes’ biggest concerns is that crane examinations need to take place at regular intervals. Together with his team of 20, Wass inspects a total of 11,000 items a year at Agusta Westland. “Inspections generally come every 12 months, we do two for the cranes at Agusta, first the visual one and then a major preventive maintainance. The reason why we do the visual one is that it gives the customer the heads up, and spots problems when it’s still cheap to get rid of them,” he comments.
The possibility to plan investments ahead of time is a great advantage for companies, as it will avoid suddenly having to face unexpected costs that can compromise the business’ overall well-being.