Overhead Cranes: The Right Amount of Technology

Don’t get distracted by whistles and bells, warns Tad Dunville, director of corporate development at Ace World Companies.


Many readers of this blog will no doubt play golf on a regular basis. Those golfers will all know someone at their club or course that has got way more clubs, equipment and apparel than their ability warrants. They might have three sets of sticks, a top of the range bag, personalized golf balls and a designer visor. Further, despite being a member at a Phoenix golf club, they’ve also got a full range of winter gear in the garage at home, just in case.

The equipment doesn’t make them any better; they still shoot the same scores and even blame the kit when they miss a fairway. They frequently turn up at the driving range with new equipment, claiming the older set of clubs no longer suits their swing or long game. As they approach the first tee, their playing partners all look at each other and raise their eyebrows. Whoosh goes the new club, thwack goes the sound of club on ball… but it goes nowhere far.

This isn’t to say the state-of-the-art equipment isn’t worth the money or that the science behind its design doesn’t make the sport better. It just means that there are different types of equipment and a golfer should choose which best suits their standard, ability, goals, strengths and weaknesses. A club head with all manner of angles and grooves to promote fade, draw and spin will be wasted on a beginner working on hitting the ball straight.

It’s the same with overhead cranes. These days, there are all kinds of high tech controls, components and systems that manufacturers provide. However, cranes do the same as they did hundreds of years ago: they pick up a load, move it and put it back down. Just like golfers should remember the game is about putting the ball down the hole in as few shots as possible, crane buyers should be mindful of the role of their crane and what it needs to do at their facility.

Buyers need to step back from overhead crane sales and marketing to retain perspective. Crane marketing teams put pressure on their companies to make their lives easier with a selling point, but cranes are not Corvettes; they’re nearly all the same shape and very commonly yellow in color. Thus, those responsible for selling them ask, ‘Can we put this new drive system on this crane?’ ‘What about that remote control with 50 two-speed buttons?’

At end user level, production and maintenance need to be given greater priority. Constantly ask oneself: is this new device going to make my life easier, better and safer in the long term, or is it technology for technology’s sake?

The extent to which a buyer needs to be inquisitive depends greatly on the relationship they have with the crane supplier. If they have a longstanding partnership and the salesman has been proven to suggest only suitable, cost-effective lifting solutions, there will naturally be less cynicism on behalf of the user. However, if it’s a new sales guy or gal, or a buyer senses there is a need for the crane company representative to compete on price, be careful.

Application is always the driver. If a facility has a crane working to light or medium duty, it’s far more efficient to have a basic package hoist. If it’s a new crane, it’ll have plenty of technology anyway and there’s no need to upgrade to something better suited to much higher duty or a specialist environment.

The onus is on the purchaser to do their research and consider, if a crane has a 30-year life span, how well the technology will last, what maintenance might be required and how readily available new parts might be.

Technological components

A high-tech component that gets old or stops functioning correctly is a worse scenario in most cases that not having it in the first place.

We’ve talked about the dangers of using OSHA as a safety barometer before (often their requirements are just a base level starting point). And it’s worth disregarding them somewhat when choosing technological enhancements. Take load limiters as a case in point: there’s no OSHA regulation that says such technology is required at capacity, yet many hoists have them installed, some as standard. However, if a user was to remove one because it was damaged or faulty and preventing any lifting activity, and a subsequent accident could be attributed to that removal, they will find themselves in hot water.

When we think of overhead crane technology, we often think of controls. There might be exceptions, but for the sake of this blog let’s assume modern remote controls nearly always make operation safer and more efficient. We’ve all met enough remote control salespeople who’ve outlined the advantages of radio remote control, including the principle gains of keeping the operator at a safe distance and enhanced visibility of the load and its path, etc.

When thinking about new automation and technologies for cranes, it’s worth casting one’s mind back to the journey remote control has taken. In the early days, it was infrared and essentially functioned on line of sight between transmitter and receiver. It took time to evolve to the fully functioning, user friendly, long range system it is today. Another example is a German manufacturer I know well; they boast a brilliant, high-tech system today that wasn’t necessarily as reliable as they would have liked when it hit the market. That’s no good to the first few hundred customers who were blinded by science. Consider where the new whistles and bells you’re being presented by a salesperson are on their evolution curve.

Remember the first mobile phones?

It’s clear that technology and overhead cranes is a potential minefield. This article is just a brief overview. Further complexity is added by trends dictated by industries and geographies. Europeans, for example, prefer wire rope guides (they ride up and down drum grooves to ensure the rope fits properly) but they can become damaged and the user is in the same situation as the guys operating the crane with the faulty load limiter, referenced above.

In developing markets and the western states, meanwhile, they want durable cranes with lots of metal and bulk. Conversely, a market in Europe that might be more technologically receptive, will want extra tech. The latter cranes will be cheaper to build but not easier to repair and maintain, as we’ve explored.

Retrofitting overhead cranes is an issue in itself, yet the considerations should be much the same. Will a basic hoist replacement suffice or will it improve production if the user opts for a state-of-the-art system with technology on show at every turn? There’s a clue in the maintenance history and duty cycle of the old hoist. If it operated without problems and kept up with production for 30 years, why greatly alter the technology in retrofit? Remember, we need to be constantly mindful of the ageing process of technology, availability of replacement parts, etc. What happens when the load limiter that you don’t really need breaks down?

Thank you for reading. Next time, we’ll look at buying used cranes.

Tad Dunville
Director of Corporate Development, Ace World Companies
Membership Committee Chairman and Board of Directors, Crane Certification Association of America

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