Contractors in the middle

14 May 2019


Jack Hinsdale, president of South Carolina-based Material Handling Solutions, looks at the issues surrounding procuring cranes through contractors and how to address them.


If you build and sell bridge crane systems, you'll have been asked to quote cranes by general contractors that are providing bids to end users as part of their total. The information is often vague, unrelated to the true need, and most often a rush. Their comments may be along the lines of "it is just a plain 5-ton crane", and "we put up cranes all the time".

To get to the root of the problem I believe the issue lies in the fact that runway support steel is technically just steel. Since it is just steel and it is attached directly to the building it is easy to argue the contractor could provide it. They are already installing steel and have all the necessary equipment on site to erect it. They are also already providing a large quantity of steel for the building itself, so why not maximise the efficiency and have them provide the support steel for the cranes?

There are two distinct problems we encounter year-in and year-out with this philosophy. First, general building steel erectors are not installing steel to the tolerances required for a bridge crane to run trouble free for years on end as should be expected. There are often corners cut to get the crane to run well enough to get paid and move on to the next project. This leaves the end user with wheel issues, gearbox issues, rail wear, and general avoidable issues which may not surface for several years.

The second and probably more important problem is that contractors are doing everything in their power to be competitive. When you are talking concrete and steel, you are talking about things that are easy to compare in a bid situation. When you are referring to actual equipment, which cranes and hoists undeniably are, you are talking about a much larger range of the calibre of equipment that can be provided yet technically will lift five tons and pass a load test.

The second issue is said to be addressed by means of a detailed specification. However, this is a complete fallacy. Contractors are no better at specifying cranes than they are at policing the products they are sold in this process. Time and time again lower-tier crane and hoist companies completely ignore the specifications—if they exist at all—and hide behind the statement "they meet the intent of the specification". Since there are crane companies willing to make this statement and due to the fact there have been very few examples of crane companies held to a standard, this cycle continues.

The reason this continues without change is that the issues are far enough down the line where contractors are not required to hold the crane companies to a standard. It is often 1–3 years later before there is any understanding they were sold an inferior mis-applied piece of equipment.

To further explain the crane and hoist world, it is important to note there is as much variance in the durability and lifespan of various cranes and hoists as there is in a pick-up truck, as one example. If you purchase a 1/2-ton truck and load it every day with a full payload of 1/2-ton, how long do you expect it to last? However, if you know you will be hauling close to 1/2-ton day-in and day-out it is understood there is a definite need for a 3/4-ton truck if not a 1-ton truck. The argument is pretty easy to justify. If you have to buy three 1/2-ton trucks to get the same life span as one 1-ton truck then it does not take a math genius to know a 1-ton truck is the answer.

The reason this capacity and durability issue exists is because cranes and hoists are built to different sets of needs. If a crane is only used periodically to pick up its full capacity, then why would someone pay the money to buy a crane that could withstand a much heavier work load? The problem is there are enough companies willing to sell the weakest and lowest duty cycle equipment into every application where they can get an order and get paid.

There is really no difference in a company allowing the general contractor to purchase their injection molding machines, metal stamping equipment, extruders, and the list goes on and on. The fact is the overhead cranes can play equally as important a role in a company's widget-making process as the specific industry equipment they must have in place, yet since they are more experts in their field and not in cranes, it is easy for them to fall prey to the belief that a crane is a crane and a hoist is a hoist.

Consider this belief when specifying production equipment and how much effort goes into qualifying the best equipment for the overall need. Some of the leading questions are "is it easy to maintain?", "is it a proprietary design?", "are parts readily available?", and "can anyone work on it?". Unfortunately if the crane purchase is left to the contractors then these questions often go unanswered, or if they are asked at all then the answers are not truly vetted or qualified.

The answer to this problem is pretty simple. If you need your cranes as much as any other piece of equipment in your process then take the procurement of them very seriously. There are many options on the market which may cost 15%–25% more at the initial purchase yet save twice to triple that amount in as little as five years. Do you want reliable, durable, and long lasting crane and hoist equipment—or do you want to play roulette and take whatever the lowest bidder can offer with no understanding of your true needs?

Jack Hinsdale