Seriously, putting a ship into a bottle and installing a crane present similar problems.

For a start, the first step in building a ship in a bottle, so I read, is to lay the sea. This is made from tinted putty, which is tooled with acrylic paints to represent the wave-washed water. Ironically, it is this sea that provides the strength and foundation for the rest of the structure.

“Sometimes it’s possible to get a structural engineer in to assess the strength of the building,” says Mark Sidwell, sales director at the UK’s Granada Materials Handling, and it is possible to bolt new steel structures to existing framework, “but this is rare and tricky in itself,” he adds. Inadequate foundations also create problems.

Ships in bottles, with masts, are often constructed to collapse, umbrella-like, and once the ship has been slid through the neck into the bottle, the masts are raised. Okay, so I’ve used some journalistic license here, but is it not the same with cranes?

Ingo Ruehl, materials handling boss at CERN (the European Organisation for Nuclear Research), agrees that the biggest obstacle to overcome is the building conformity, “the dimensions (mainly the height) for calculating clearances and the structure and foundations regarding the SWL,” he explains.

Sidwell recalled a job at a water treatment firm where they had to transport the crane parts across a beach. While they stopped short of taking their shoes off and rolling up their trousers, the shifting sand and incoming tide presented a logistical nightmare.

But try telling a plant manager (who has to answer to someone who probably doesn’t even know what a crane is) that all this needs to be considered before his new production line can start working at full capacity. Not easy.

And when the pressure is on, accidents happen.

Lifting Equipment Engineers Association (LEEA) chief executive Derrick Bailes told me about the case of a new building where, during construction, it was realised that an area needed to be served by an overhead crane. It was too late to make the gantry integral with the building frame so a semi-independent structure was added. This took the vertical loads imposed by the crane but was tied into the building frame for lateral stability.

The building frame was in-filled with brickwork and the structural engineer clearly thought it would be adequate. However the day soon came when the crane hit the long travel end stops and the entire 80ft wide brick gable end shattered from top to bottom. An expensive error, to say the least.

Put simply, whether they are existing structures or new builds, factories often cannot handle the stresses enforced by modern day lifting gear, and the sometimes huge weights they can carry.

Sidwell says installing lifting equipment into existing, and sometimes dated, factory environments dominates the diary around 90% of the time. For US firm North American Industries (NAI), the ratio is different (50/50) but still large enough to present regular problems.

The most interesting part of this process for me is that the people ordering the crane (usually a plant or facilities manager) will rarely be crane-minded and, moreover, the crane will often be an after-thought when the problem of lifting something too heavy to do so manually arises.

Sure, in some cases, like steel service centres, for example, crane companies will usually deal with an experienced materials handling boss, given the nature of the lifting and the specialist equipment and personnel required to operate them. But such expertise is not commonplace, especially where one-off installations in, say, small production facilities are concerned.

But there’s seemingly little we can do to make life easier. After all, end users are just that, users of lifting equipment, which is one small, albeit key, part of their whole production chain, which could span thousands of feet of factory floor.

To find out how to solve your installation problems, look out for my article in the December/January issue.

Richard Howes, Editor