The growth of disposable incomes and a rising middle class in a number of countries—especially China—has led to a greater level of international air travel in recent years. On the back of this boom, the aerospace industry has seen an increase in manufacturing sites for new aeroplanes, as well as an expansion in maintenance facilities.

And all of this is good news for suppliers of cranes and hoists, as they play a vital role in moving and manoeuvring the extremely expensive and often delicate pieces of technology made and serviced by the aerospace industry.

Before the rapid progression of the coronavirus pandemic, hoist suppliers to the sector said that sales were growing considerably. However, it remains to be seen whether the economic fallout of the crisis requires airlines to significantly scale back their operations, or if they can quickly recover from a short fiscal shock.

Tried and Tested

One company that has a wealth of experience in the aerospace industry is Valley City, Ohio-based EMH (Engineered Material Handling). “Although we don’t specifically pursue customers in this sector, our dealers bring us a significant amount of business,” explains Dave Comiono, vice president at EMH. “The really interesting thing about this category is that they always want something special.”

The company recently completed a project for aircraft engineering specialist Standard Aero to help develop a unique Jet Engine Test Stand at a GE (General Electric) cold weather facility in Winnipeg, Canada, said Comiono.

“We designed a twin hoist to hold GE jet engines in place for engine manufacturing. The hoist application was designed to be operational in -40°C and therefore required a number of special materials and bespoke solutions.” These include specially-designed heating for the motors and controls, as well as custom-built brakes, coatings, seals and epoxy paint to protect the hoist from cold and ice build-up.

“All metals are Charpy tested to prevent fracturing in the cold conditions, while we also used variable frequency drives that offer power efficiencies and enable the hoists to run at extremely slow speeds,” notes Comiono.

The two EMH hoists at the testing facility run in tandem and were trialled to 125% of their 50USt capacity. “Space requirements were also a challenge for this project, which added to the need for tailor-made solutions,” says Comiono.

EMH has additionally supplied a range of different hoists to a GE repair facility in Cincinnati, Ohio, which have been in service for a couple of months. A single crane runs down the centre bay at the plant that features a mixture of 5-, 10- and 15USt hoists, 12 interlocking monorails and a patented track system. “We’re really good at handling special applications, which is one of the main reasons that aerospace customers trust our technology,” explains Comiono.

The company’s knowledge of such “special applications” was definitely useful when helping Elon Musk’s SpaceX project in California, with EMH completing an installation for the space technology company late last year. The project included double-reeved 5USt hoists crossmounted on a single girder crane to pick up and manipulate rockets from horizontal to vertical positions.

“In general, the industry demands different types of solutions that are dependent on the specific application, but generally we can say that variable frequency drives are popular with the sector as they allow a range of different production speeds,” notes Comiono.

“Drum brakes are also a must for aeroplane engine repair facilities, because they act as a fail-safe and ensure that extremely valuable parts are not dropped, while customers in this sector want true vertical lift and drums cross mounted to manipulate parts more effectively.”

Overall, Comiono says that the market, and in particular aerospace, is performing well in North America at the moment, although he expects a slowdown in the coming months. “There are a number of present challenges,” he confirms, citing worries over the stock market, coronavirus, and the political situation in the US.

“However, the aerospace sector has multiple layers and we are involved with companies that supply this industry, including firms that make parts for landing gear and floor grading, as well as suppliers to big players such as Rolls Royce and GE.”

Comiono additionally notes that the company saw record sales in most categories last year, and had a strong start to 2020. “We remain cautiously optimistic about the future,” he adds.

Space Cadets

Another company that is helping a major US-based space agency with an upcoming launch is Ingersoll Rand, with its Material Handling business unit recently completing a project to install an electric chain hoist at a site in North America.

“We were contracted to do a custom, articulated lift,” explains Mark Koski, North American commercial leader at Ingersoll Rand, which is based in Davidson, North Carolina.

According to Koski, the concept was complex and the customer initially wanted to use wire rope for the lift, which would help with speeds, but not have the required precision when dealing with millions of dollars of high-tech equipment.

“We worked closely with the organisation and decided to use an electric chain hoist, making a number of modifications to our standard unit to fit with the customer needs,” he adds. “At first, the customer also wanted remote controls, but there were some issues with interference around the facility, so we decided to go with a long tethered pendant of more than 100ft.”

In addition, Ingersoll Rand ended up changing gear box designs to allow the hoist to move the rocket slowly enough, but with the right precisely-engineered speed to provide the required accuracy.

“We spent a lot of time on the fine details,” says Koski. “Our system deals with a small part of the project—getting the rocket into its final position—but without our hoist the whole facility could never work.”

The project started in mid-2018 with engineers from both the agency and Ingersoll Rand working together to find the best solution for this final lift. Purchase was completed about a year later, with the technology built over the next few months and finally installed in August 2019.

Commissioning then followed, with major lifts on the project happening in December last year.

“Mobile cranes have been employed for these important heavy lifts, but our system is being used to articulate the rocket and get it into the launch tower. It turns, twists and manoeuvres this huge rocket into the launch bay,” continues Koski.

He adds that this system—which has a total capacity of 12USt but is responsible for just a fraction of the overall lift—has worked so well that the company is currently building a second unit for the space agency.

Ingersoll Rand added safety elements to the hoist, including overload protection, and everything is built to ASME (the American Society of Mechanical Engineers) standards, which have a five-to-one safety factor.

“From a personal standpoint, I love getting to work with all kinds of neat applications across industries like space agencies, mining and also with the military,” says Koski. “To be part of these applications and solve problems with teams of extremely competent engineers is such a thrill.

“People in this industry generally come to us when they can’t figure something out and we get the call when companies and organisations need to fine tune their lifting operations or have ‘specialty lifting needs’.

“Many of the materials used in the aerospace industry are both exotic and delicate, and during the manufacturing process customers will often require some special form of articulation—so that’s where we come in.”

On the whole, Koski says that the aerospace sector is growing, with strong sales in North America and some nations in Europe. “The major winds are coming from the US and Canada,” he confirms.

“What I see is that—in terms of applications—major historical legacy markets are down and have been down, so we’re actively looking to expand into other markets, and this is where these special applications are increasing.”

Interlocking Systems

Germany’s Demag is also currently finalising a series of projects in the aerospace sector, with a focus on flexible systems that ensure slow and safe operations. “We have a lot of projects going on at the moment,” confirms Matthias Berns, senior project manager for the Aviation Industry at the company.

Based in Wetter, Germany, Demag agreed a deal to install cranes and teleplatforms at a major aviation company’s maintenance centre in Singapore, as well as at a maintenance site in Turkey. For the project in Singapore, the installation includes suspension cranes with latching devices, which allow the teleplatfoms to move from one crane to a neighbouring one. For the Turkish project, the teleplatforms are installed on dedicated cranes.

“The cranes run along several runways and a teleplatform moves along the crane bridge close to the aircraft’s surface,” explains Berns. “A telescopic mast connects the top trolley frame with the working platform, where operators stand and can control the complete unit. Lifting motions are performed by two Demag rope hoists that are equipped with safety devices for transporting people.”

According to Demag, the benefit of using teleplatforms and interlocking crane systems is that it gives operators increased flexibility in a maintenance facility.

“These systems allow greater flexibility and nearly every part of the aircraft can be reached,” notes Berns. “They can also be adapted to each type of aircraft, while they enable enough articulation for aircraft painting and MRO.”

Generally, Berns says that aerospace customers are increasingly demanding cranes that can be ‘locked together’, to work in tandem, or ‘unlocked’ to work individually. “These interlocking systems are useful for production and MRO as they allow operators to move loads between different bays, without the need to lower and move them on the ground,” he says.

The benefit for operators is that they can therefore concentrate solely on the load— which is often extremely expensive—and select cranes from a neighbouring bay using a single control system. Not having to lower the load is also said to save time and reduce the risk of damage.

Other key features being demanded by customers in the sector at present include safety enhancements such as semi-automatic positioning systems, smart control features, overload devices, as well as radar sensors and anti-collision systems that give advance information to operators.

“Customers are always demanding higher safety levels,” says Berns. “On the one hand, it’s important to ensure the health and safety of operators and staff. On the other hand, we have to ensure safe and efficient handling of sensitive and expensive loads to support our customers’ tasks and workflows.”

The sector is additionally demanding variable frequency drives, which Demag says provide smooth transport and lifting operations. “Nowadays, this is standard on our systems and most customers in this industry ask for extremely smooth handling, which helps them to prevent big, expensive parts from swinging,” explains Berns.

“Radio controls are also standard these days. Our radio control systems offer increased information for operators, for example data about safe working loads as well as system information, and they support the smart assistance functions of our aviation crane systems. Another demand from the industry is ‘green’ technology, including systems that recover and re-use energy.”

Looking at the market as a whole, Demag expects that—notwithstanding recent world developments—the industry has an increasing need for new aircraft and maintenance facilities. “In general, people are travelling a lot more than 20 years ago. Demag as a global player in the crane business is strong in all regions in the aviation industry. We have our own subsidiaries and loyal, highly-qualified partners all over the world.”

Working in tandem

With a strong presence on the UK market, SWF Krantechnik has completed a series of recent projects for the aerospace industry, with the company working only with dealers and independent crane building partners in this sector.

“We have at least three or four aerospace projects per year, mainly for just one end user, but this year we have also won another project for a second end user,” explains Ian Robinson, area sales manager for SWF Krantechnik, which is headquartered in Mannheim, Germany.

According to the company, these projects are mainly for overhead travelling cranes, 90% of which are underslung and operate at “fairly low” loads of between 1.5 and 8t. “These hoists use inverter control for all motions, radio control is standard, and safety is a big issue,” adds Robinson. “Many of the cranes also have to work in tandem.”

SWF Krantechnik provides a master/ slave radio solution with an interlocking feature for all movements, which is said to ensure safe tandem operation. “Second brakes are also a standard requirement for this sector, while another special demand is transfer hoists that can travel from one bridge to another [across a gap], needed for latching cranes, to transport loads across multiple spans,” notes Robinson.

The company’s projects in the UK usually begin at the start of the year, with installations taking place around early summer. “Our hoists are mainly used for moving wing sections, hence tandem hoist lifting and tandem crane usage,” says Robinson.

“With this type of project, some special design work is usually needed for the transfer hoists, to get across the gaps between bridge sections. An added challenge for one of our recent customers was also the tandem operation between monorail hoists. We equipped the hoists with onboard inverter hoisting and control equipment, as our customer had to ensure synchronised hoisting and communication.”

For a key recent project in this sector, SWF installed four standalone 8t single girder low headroom hoists, including four individual hoists with their own self-contained inverter control systems.

“Load summation and crane to crane communication was handled by a higher level control system, as was the cross travel slowdown and stop limits, and therefore no cruciform or photo-electric limit switches were required,” adds Robinson.

The aerospace industry is “very important” for the company – continues Robinson – who says that it’s worth €1m per year in components. Currently, the company is mainly supplying the UK market, but it also has “a few projects in other countries”.

“The UK is quite constant and stable, and hopefully this will continue,” says Robinson, “and customers are increasingly demanding bespoke or intelligent features, such as microspeed, inching and sway control, electronic safety, and systems to increase production times.”