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