Helping Hands

29 June 2017


Manual lifting equipment is increasingly being designed to improve ergonomics and assist the operator, thereby enhancing efficiency, precision, and safety. Daniel Searle reports.

Technology to assist and improve manual lifting—in terms of efficiency, precision, and health and safety—has progressed and become more widely-used since the turn of the millennium. Assisted lifting and the application of ergonomics both have the capacity to reduce the potential for work-related injuries and strains, as well as making lifting faster and more accurate, which brings operational benefits.

There was a distinct focus on such technology at the recent ProMat exhibition in Chicago, where Gorbel was showcasing its G-Force actuator. The assisted lifting system can be used with the company’s Easy Arm, together representing Gorbel’s Intelligent Lifting Devices (ILD) group of equipment.

An ageing workforce and increased focus on safety regulations in North America have driven uptake of the products, says Mark Grandusky, product sales manager for lifting devices at Gorbel.

“There are several factors that drive the need for any ergonomic lifting solution. An increase in the number of older workers as the result of people working longer and a demographic shift in the overall population is one factor. ILDs (Intelligent Lifting Devices), such as Gorbel’s G-Force and Easy Arm products provide maximum ergonomic benefit and allow any worker, regardless of age, gender, or physical capability to perform the same task at the same level of productivity.

“The past US administration gave more power to OSHA in the form of more inspectors and significant increases in fines. This also drove more spending on ergonomic lifting solutions such as ILDs. An ILD will provide the most ergonomic benefit of any lifting solution. This is due to the fact workers are much more likely to use these devices over more traditional lifting solutions like electric chain hoists or floor mounted manipulators which tend to slow the worker down.

“If a lifting solution is perceived to be slower or more difficult than lifting a load manually, workers tend to put the lifting solution aside and not use it. The ILD however, operates seamlessly with the operator, giving them a quick and nimble solution they like to use.

“Safety is also a key differentiator between certain other lifting devices and ILDs. As an example, air balancers offer high speeds but are not nearly as precise or controllable as an ILD. The air balancer uses compressed air to counterbalance the load but due to the compressible nature of air, there is much more bounce and overshoot. In stark contrast, the ILD’s all electric, processor controlled, servo motor drive system will never recoil in a loss of load situation.”

The technology is still relatively new, but with this solid foundation, the area is now expanding, says Grandusky.

“Gorbel pioneered the ILD technology and sold the first G-Force ILDs in 2000. There is broad market acceptance today compared to those early days. Many major companies, and an even greater number of smaller companies, are now benefiting from the use of ILDs.

“There is, however, much more room for this technology to grow. I recently spoke to one of our bigger distributors who was commenting on the shift their business has experienced to more light ergonomic lifting where the G-Force ILD technology thrives. We have been selling the G-Force ILDs for almost 20 years with excellent growth and you would think everyone is aware of this technology and it benefits. I’m constantly amazed however, be it at a trade show or an on-site customer demonstration visit, there are still many people experiencing this technology for the first time.”

As well as increasing general efficiency and safety, the business benefits of assisted lifting systems can be more specifically quantified with return-oninvestment (ROI) analysis.

“The combination of speed and precision directly contributes to the compelling ROI of an ILD. It can be realized through increased productivity, reduction of product damage, and maximum ergonomic benefit. An independent study, based on Gorbel’s G-Force ILD was done by the Rochester Institute of Technology which helps quantify ROI.”

Custom solutions

Sky Hook, part of Syclone Attco Service, manufactures lifting arms from its Indiana facility. The company has seen an increased focus on ergonomics and welcomes the trend—but continued emphasis on training and education is important, says Thomas Christensen, design specialist at the company: “From working with our customers we find that, for some companies, the concept of ergonomics is highly promoted, accepted and even encouraged peer to peer. We love to see the industry moving this direction as operators are noticing the benefits to health and safety when ergonomics becomes a way of life in the workplace. “Many companies however are still in the early stages of integrating ergonomics, simply combining it with their safety department’s responsibilities which can sometimes lead to overlooked ergonomic opportunities. A lack of promotion and training leaves the employees to feel like manual and sometimes unsafe lifting is easier or more efficient than any lifts available. Our goal at Syclone Attco Service is to educate safety and ergonomics departments about how the Sky Hook is more efficient and easier to use then the most people realize, saving both time and money.”

The Sky Hook range is customisable, so each piece of equipment can be altered to suit the operator, says Christensen: “Our goal is to maintain a simple, easy to use lifting device that operators are encouraged to use to prevent lifting injuries during their daily activities.

In order to do this, we’re continually modifying our Sky Hook model designs to best fit the customers’ specific applications. We work with the required height, reach and base size dimensions provided by the customer to produce a design that not only meets their application’s physical needs but also achieves ergonomic goals like proper hand wheel height, ideal gear ratio to balance speed and ease of use, as well as caster choice for ease of manoeuvrability. “The Premium Sky Hook product lines are utilized for applications focused on ergonomics due to the ease of use of their new LoadLock clutch brake mechanism, used for controlling the raising and lowering of the load. Soon to be hitting the market will also be our Ergo Sky Hook product line that will not only incorporate the LoadLock clutch brake but also bring the hand wheel down to an ergonomic 48” (120cm) from the ground, allowing customers to benefit from the lowered hand wheel option without needing to create a custom design for their application.”

Wepco is a system integrator that typically designs solutions, then sources and integrates the equipment from OEMs. At ProMat, the company showcased the second generation of its selfmanufactured SmartLifter, a vacuumbased assisted lifting system for pails, cartons, pallets and more.

Christopher Paulsen, chief executive at Wepco, says: “A customer challenged us to solve an ergonomics problem and we couldn’t find anything in the marketplace that met all of the requirements. Since this customer had over 80 plants across the US and committed to buy many systems if we came up with a solution, we decided to develop the product ourselves.

“After a collaborative design and prototyping effort with the customer, the SmartLifter was born. It is now patented and in use across the US at the original customer’s plants as well as many others. “Based on another customer request, we adapted the SmartLIfter to handle 5-gallon pails as well. And, as showcased at ProMat, we have just launched our second generation SmartLifter.”

The drivers behind the development of the system included meeting practical requirements as well as satisfying safety legislation, says Paulsen: “The lift assist category of ergonomic products is mostly driven in the US by safety concerns. OSHA imposes limits on how much people can lift repetitively in the workplace.

“There is also the issue of reach—such as being able to stack or unstack tall pallet-loads of even lighter boxes. The main challenge with these applications is not slowing down or otherwise impacting productivity. The special and patented features of SmartLifter make it very fast and easy to use. In most cases, it is at least neutral from a productivity perspective with many users seeing a positive impact in both productivity and safety.” Use the force

Demag launched its KBK Drive Assist system in late 2016, designed to reduce the manual power required to manoeuvre loads suspended from overhead cranes. It converts a small amount of force from the operator into full movement of the load, explained Thomas Boenker in global product management at the company. It was developed partly due to projected changes to the age demographics of workforces and an increasing number of older employees predicted to be working between now and 2050.

The system detects when the pendant is pulled in a lateral direction by the operator, and provides mechanical assistance to drive the crane. Movement is restricted when the handle is not being held— detected by a light sensor on the inside of the handle—so the crane cannot be controlled by pushing the pendant. Vertical motion is controlled with a push button. The result is that unwanted inertia is eliminated, with the crane coming to almost a complete stop when the operator ceases pulling, rather than potentially running on and requiring manual force to counteract. Using Demag’s friction wheel travel drive, speeds of up to 50m a minute can be reached. No other specialised equipment is required—the system can be integrated onto standard girders.

As well as improving efficiency— the system saves up to 60% energy consumption—it also provides operators with more control and increases accuracy of load positioning.

The sky Hook range of lifting arms are customisable to improve ergonomics.
The astrochemistry lab at NASA’s Ames facility uses a Sky Hook to lift a vacuum system, designed to recreate the ultra-low temperatures of outer space.
Wepco’s second generation smartLifter was launched at ProMat
Demag introduced its KBK Drive Assist in 2016