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Breaking Barriers

Crane manufacturers utilize 3D printing and other smart technologies to meet customers’ needs.

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Image courtesy Heila Cranes

By A.J. Pessa 01-18-2020 12:22:00

(Article originally published in Sept/Oct 2019 edition.)

Growing-up in Boston in the 1990s, the coastal landscape featured a Goliath-sized crane, a 3,000-ton gantry crane at General Dynamics’ Fore River Shipyard. 

“It’s the second largest crane in the world,” my father would tell me. “The biggest one is in Russia.” I don’t know if that last part was true, but it’s a fond memory of my father. What I do know is that the massive Fore River crane was a phenomenal piece of machinery that was also completely unemployed and useless in all the years I looked at it. When I was 20, the majestic beast was finally dismantled and eventually reassembled in Romania at the Magnolia Shipyard, but not before taking the lives of three local New Englanders working on its dismantling between 2005 and 2008.  

As a child, looking up at the Goliath crane was awe-inspiring. As an adult, I consider it kind of depressing – and certainly in a financial sense. During its time in Boston, that crane spent 11 years working, constructing eight LNG tankers and five maritime prepositioning ships, followed by 22 years of sitting idle as a 100-meter-tall piece of art. 

Shipyard owners, terminal operators and vessel owners may well appreciate art as much as anyone, but it’s generally not what they’re looking for when buying cranes for their facilities and ships. In an age of rapidly developing technology, practicality is still paramount. 

For example, smart or intelligent features such as target positioning, sway control, 3D wire monitoring, automatic cooling and many other automated or semi-automated technologies stand to improve safety and efficiency. Likewise, cranes are lifting heavier loads with wider radii under more extreme conditions and with greater mobility and versatility. 

Environmentally friendly options are also on the rise. Yet the realistic goal for marine crane manufacturers is most often to simply find the right fit for the customer. Appropriately, the crane manufacturing industry is advancing in this way, offering sustainable machines and long-lasting value. 

Custom Builds

Dario Ricci, CEO of Heila Cranes, says it’s a matter of knowing what’s relevant in the maritime industry, of being able to offer proven solutions to his customers. Heila competes with larger-sized crane manufacturers by having the expertise to personalize custom marine cranes, fitting them to a great variety of vessels (including yachts) across several maritime sectors. 

Providing quality customization often means knowing what questions to ask of the customer and having the experience to notice opportunities and discrepancies while in the design phase. Fitting a crane to the park space of a vessel, meeting the needs of classification societies, knowing the trade-offs of a design model and taking into account protocols, servicing and revisions – there’s a lot more than just technology at play in the making of a custom-built crane. 

Specifically, the telescopic knuckle boom crane is an area where Heila leads the market. Developed in 2018, the HLRM 1000-6S, a 70-ton foldable knuckle telescopic crane, boasts a rating of 1,000 tons per meter. Dario says this crane “will dramatically change the heavy-duty crane market. It’s equipped with a telescopic arm that can extend to a maximum radius of 30 meters. In a stored position, however, the crane requires only minimal space.” 

Heila offers crane options from stock or with quick delivery in addition to its custom builds. The many types they manufacture include offshore cranes, lattice boom cranes and truck-mounted cranes. With input from customers, these cranes can be customized as to length, lifting capacity and sea-state working conditions. 

Heila’s research, development and manufacturing are all located in Reggio Emilia, Italy, near Parma. Service branches are located in the Netherlands and Singapore, providing quality after-sales service. Commissioning, inspections, revisions and managing spare parts are all part of the Heila package, making it a leading crane manufacturer – proven solutions done right. 

3D-Printed Crane Hooks 

Netherlands-based Huisman is a household name in cranes, and lately it’s been innovating crane manufacturing with the use of 3D printing. The American Bureau of Shipping recently certified a 3D-printed, 36,000-kilogram crane hook from Huisman, and the Netherlands-based manufacturer has more scheduled for production. 

For many, it’s a sensational thing to be able to 3D-print anything. While 3D-printable wrenches and screwdrivers might be considered a technological marvel, 3D-printed heavy machinery starts to feel like we’re living in a science fiction movie. Perhaps we’ll soon be building ships with 3D printing. Perhaps in the galley we’ll soon replace our cooks with 3D printers that can create hamburgers from seaweed. 

Moreover, it often seems like the maritime industry is implementing technologies that have already been proven elsewhere. But in this case Huisman’s groundbreaking 3D crane hooks will be used offshore with the maritime industry setting the pace for innovation. 

This particular 3D printing technology was developed by Cranfield University, located about 50 miles north of London. It’s called Wire Arch Additive Manufacturing (WAAM), and Huisman is using it to produce parts that are stronger than those made with traditional casting methods. The technology might be understood as a highly sophisticated application of the traditional use of wire feedstock to weld repairs. 

It’s certainly interesting to think about the implications of being able to 3D-print heavy equipment. Costs for warehousing and logistics and the ways in which designs are sold and delivered are just a few aspects of how the industry could change with this technology. Let’s see what happens. 

Huisman also recently contributed to the creating of a new world record. Two Huisman 10,000-ton revolving cranes, featured on the Heerema semi-submersible vessel Sleipnir, carried out the largest lift ever by a crane vessel. The Sleipnir broke the world record with a tandem lift of 15,300 tons, which was a single portion of the combined 24,000-ton topside installation for the Leviathan gas field off the coast of Israel. The 24,000-ton operation was completed in an amazing 20 hours.

Everything’s Bigger in Texas

Welcoming the challenge of exotic requests for custom crane manufacturing is ACE World Companies. The American company manufactures more than 85 percent of the components used in its machines – they even create their own software – and love it when a customer presents a challenge by asking, “Can it be done?” 

Headquartered in Fort Worth, Texas, the old adage “Everything’s bigger in Texas” may be applicable to ACE’s founding principles. Established in 1987, the company’s vision was to differentiate itself from other American builders by specializing in the biggest and most complicated jobs, manufacturing the designs that no one else wanted to attempt.  

Ace provides crane solutions internationally. For ports, it offers smooth-functioning Electric Overhead Traveling gantry cranes ranging from 10 to 400 tons. Providing solutions to industry demands, these machines are built to be quick and reliable in harsh conditions. Given its size and experience, ACE is able to serve many different industries with proven solutions.

German/Swiss Giant

Another household name in cranes is Liebherr, the Swiss-based company with German roots that makes some of the biggest cranes in the world. The numbers show Liebherr’s Mobile Harbor Cranes (MHCs) of various sizes are in high demand. Liebherr’s influence is far-reaching, and it’s involved in developing new port capabilities in places like inland India and Africa. Recent sales of its world’s largest MHC, the LHM 800, include ports in Qatar, Mexico, Italy and Uruguay.  

In August, Liebherr inaugurated a TCC 78000, a streamlined new rail-mounted traveling gantry crane, at the port of Rostock, Germany. With a lifting capacity of 1,600 tons, the TCC 78000 is a heavy-duty crane and a heavy-duty investment for the port. Before the end of 2019, the Rostock TCC 78000 is expected to install an even more powerful Liebherr crane onto the bed of the Orion, a DEME 216.5-meter offshore installation vessel. 

Bigger, Faster, Safer

In 2018 and 2019 crane manufactures broke several barriers, increasing lift capacities of telescopic and mobile cranes, setting a record for a lift by a crane vessel, implementing 3D-printed, heavy-duty equipment, and providing solutions in developing areas of the world – going bigger, faster and safer. 

There was also the development of fiber line-using cranes, such as the MacGregor FirbreRope Off-Shore crane, which uses a Lankhorst fiber rope that is environmentally friendly in that it requires no greasing. This lightweight and neutral-buoyant fiber rope ultimately increases the lifting capacity of small vessels. There was also the continued development of all-electric cranes like the Liebherr LPS 420 E, which contributes to the feasibility of all-electric port facilities. 

At this rate of innovation, perhaps I will one day be writing an article on marine cranes that feature heavy load-lifting laser beams and anti-gravity technology. In the meantime, here’s to the proven solutions that are safe and reliable as well economically and environmentally practical! – MarEx  

Joey Pessa holds an MBA from Texas A&M at Galveston and is an officer in the Strategic Sealift Ready Reserve Group.

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.