The smarts taking our industry to new levels of safety performance

After more than 40 years in the crane and construction industry, I still find there’s never a dull moment. Why? The engineering solutions and technological innovations which continue to evolve offer inspiration and endless opportunities to advance as an industry, particularly in keeping our people safe. 

Through appropriate application of the technology at hand we have an opportunity to drastically reduce human plant interactions, reduce lift cycle times and improve quality outcomes, in turn working toward reducing those 200 serious incidents per year down to zero. 

So, what are the technologies available to us and how should we be utilising them to provide a safer workplace and better safety outcomes? 

It was back in 1977 that I recall the first major leap forward in innovative crane technologies, when Robert Way started the Robway Crane Safety systems business in Adelaide, Australia.  Bob and his team produced a crane load indicator system which was world leading technology at that time. Bob was a crane owner himself facing challenges such as overloading and other crane accidents due to the nature of the machines of the day, which lacked suitable safety systems. Over the past 40 years, Robway Safety Systems have been fitted to over 10,000 cranes in Australasia and around the world. Robway has also been a specialist supplier of standard load safety systems to several major manufacturers since 1983 and has made a significant contribution to crane safety in Australia and around the world. This technology has been legally mandated equipment in cranes for many years and is now available from several independent suppliers and via every crane manufacturer in their new equipment. After various international ownership and branding changes, Robway has recently again become an Adelaide owned and based company. Today, Robway is well known for their RCI and Load Indicator product range both on-shore and off-shore, dating back several decades. They have also developed capability in hydraulics controls, integrated highway instrument panel data and video camera systems. 

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The next notable progression in crane technologies was from Liebherr, who led the charge in terms of manufacturers to introduce new technology into production model mobile cranes. In 2007, Liebherr released the Liebherr Computer Control (LICCON2) to the market. This is said to be the most modern computer system in the world for controlling and monitoring mobile cranes. This technology enables crane movements to be controlled safely from outside the cab with greatly improved visibility. With the aid of Bluetooth technology, a crane driver can remotely control the majority of crane setup and operation. Then, in 2013, Liebherr introduced Vario-Ballast and Vario-Base as a feature on many machines.  Vario-Ballast features an easily adjustable counterweight radius using standard mechanically adjusted ballasting cylinders. This solution enables flexible use for both constricted conditions and large radius. The Vario-Base enables each individual crane support to be extended to an arbitrary length, which also allows for safe crane operation in construction locations.  These technologies provide increased safety and ease of use, thus eliminating strain on the crane driver who can then concentrate fully on the hoist. These features also significantly improve capacity, productivity and safety of mobile cranes and will become standard features of all mobile cranes over time. 

Monitoring systems have also come a long way in my 40 years in the industry. We now have systems to monitor location, speed, load cycles, loads and configurations, and many of the daily maintenance checks on the cranes in real time using combinations of GPS technology, cellular communications and internet-based data management. These features all improve safety and productivity and are becoming an essential “stay in business” tool for crane owners and operators. 

The most recent wave of smart technology being developed in Australia is in under-hook devices. The Verton R-Series is a great example. Verton is a Brisbane based technology company who have developed the world’s first remote-controlled electromechanical under-hook load rotation system. This device can be utilised under any free swivelling crane hook.  It does not require any cables or oil supply hoses connected to the crane or suspended to the ground. It also does not induce a reverse rotational torque on the hook. The R-Series is remotely controlled, which improves safety outcomes by removing riggers from the lift zone. It utilises a similar concept to a gyrocopter, with high speed spinning fly wheels electronically adjusted to rotate the crane load under the hook.  This enables precise rotational manoeuvring, including the ability to pre-programme lifts to a specific load orientation relative to the crane boom or to structures or co-ordinates.  Verton’s R-Series innovation negates the need for human held tag lines, and further eliminates the need for workers to stand under loads. It is particularly effective for use on extremely high lifts when tag lines to personnel on the ground are not possible, and where reconnection of tag lines to personnel on the top of the structures near the landing point is unsafe and impractical. The Verton rotational device also provides huge benefits in single hook ship loading applications where fast and safe rotation of the load to the correct orientation for stowage position is critical. Verton estimates this technology will deliver a 50% reduction in hook time for repetitive lifting such as ship loading or precast panel placement. 

Another Brisbane company continuing with the development of under-hook technologies is Buildvation. They have created a hook verticality device known as “Rigger Assist".  This newly-patented electronic device is attached to the hook of the crane and accurately measures in real time the angle deviation from vertical of the hook. This is used to assist the crane operator in ensuring the deflected loaded boom tip is directly over the centre of gravity of the load at the point of lifting to eliminate load swing on lift off. This information is transmitted to an output screen in the crane cabin and to a smart glasses view screen which can be used by the rigger while in the field working. Rigger Assist is intended to reduce load swing and increase the speed of rigging and lifting loads.  Smart glasses open up an entirely new area of technological innovation in the crane and construction industry which I won’t cover here, but no doubt we will further explore in the future. 

We can’t really talk about technology in the crane industry without facing the conversation around automation. There are some fearmongers in the industry who claim automation will do humans out of jobs – but I believe companies and contractors who think that way are about to get left behind.  We have to approach smart technology and automation capabilities as an opportunity to improve the way we do things, including our safety outcomes. Automation is on the rise. The job description of a crane operator has already changed and will continue to change as the technology advances. 

I believe automated technologies will release significant pressure and energy off our field workers, enabling them to instead focus on more critical lift decisions. For example, CAT has designed a hydraulic excavator with ‘E-Fence Technology’.  The E-Fence automatically stops the machine’s movements within defined boundaries in front, beside, above and below the machine. In the event of an operator’s lapse of concentration, the machine can automatically freeze before hitting an underground service for example. It also reduces operator fatigue by reducing over swinging and digging. This technology can also be used for cranes to prevent boom collisions on multi crane sites, and to protect against accidental slew into power lines and other obstacles. 

Manufacturing industries have led the charge in terms of automation. Both fully- and semi-automated cranes are now integral to automotive manufacturing, food and consumer goods production, shipbuilding, metals processing and the like. Fully automated gantry cranes are revolutionising the maritime industry and container handling practices. This has improved safety outcomes for the personnel involved in these works and allows for the elimination of manual handling.  These industries involve standardised and repetitive processes. When it comes to more diverse and complex construction activities, we are yet to fully harness the remote operation or automation capabilities. 

There is a huge opportunity for the crane industry to partner with and support constructors. Within the building sector, erection of structural frames is one of the highest risk activities on a construction site and for the majority of high-rise developments there is still a large requirement for human effort. This human effort puts our people in close proximity to the lifted load, and at risk of injury due to falls from heights and collision with the loads. Lendlease are working tirelessly to improve safety, sustainability and efficiency within the construction sector. They are leading the Australian market in engineered timber buildings, maximising pre-fabrication and designing for efficient onsite assembly. Crane companies have a role to play here in collaborating with companies such as Lendlease to design for construction and design for safety. 

I believe the next steps for us as an industry will involve looking beyond our own backyards to other industries and other applications to uncover the best ways to combine and integrate these technologies. Integrating technology across the entire project lifecycle will be key to maximising safety and productivity outcomes. What excites me are the engineering challenges the latest technology presents. Those who can leverage the technology on offer for maximum benefit will win. Jobs abound for the technology-savvy engineers ready to adopt and integrate the tools at their disposal.  engineering of complex lift plans both now and into the future is a moving beast. 

Through this renewed and refreshed Lifting Matters my sincere hope is to see many more innovations and safety initiatives shared across the industry. Together we can improve safety for all workers. By simultaneously improving productivity we will not only thrive as an industry but prepare ourselves for the imminent construction boom.

Sally Austin