Pro choice2 October 2003
Factory cranes are more adapted than ever before to fast maintenance. It's no surprise that the pros are taking over. Will Dalrymple examines how to choose a service provider
Ten to twenty years ago, all the bigger companies had their own electricians or mechanical person for maintaining equipment and cranes. In recent years outsourcing of these activities has become standard," says Ralf Teichmann, chief executive of German used crane vendor and maintenance provider Teichmann Cranes.
Specialist crane maintenance firms claim to be able to do a better job of maintenance than factory engineers. Typical is the comment of Tony Apted, electrical maintenance co-ordinator for the Australian Pasminco Rosebery mill concentrator in a testimonial for KCI Konecranes in Australia. "We really don't have expertise in this area, so we are much better to outsource the work," he says.
At its most basic level, maintenance consists of repairs of worn or broken components. But today crane maintenance is more about 'replacement' than 'fixing', argues JD Mitchell, principal of consulting firm Crane and Hoist Engineering in Oregon, USA.
"Skilled mechanics in general industry are becoming scarce," Mitchell says. "The design of the hoist equipment has been changed in recent years in order to allow more 'parts changeouts' which require less mechanical skill than older repair techniques." Less skill probably means faster repairs, even if the repair consists only of swapping new for old. That point might suggest that even a generalist mechanic would be capable of swapping out parts 'repairing' a modern, modular hoist.
"There has been a push to make old style highly engineered customised cranes with standard components and less engineering. Standard designs have been pushed toward modular designs. Modular designs are almost commodity based," says Konecranes Australia managing director Edward Yakos.
Still, having a specialist engineering company supporting the production facility would be a great help. To make sure it will have the skills to be able to make these sorts of repairs, Mitchell advises that customers check out the supplier's repair facility. "A walk through the prospective vendor's shop is the best way to determine which types of work the service department is able to do. Look carefully at the work in process and the machine shop, fab shop and testing equipment that the shop has on hand." Specialists can also provide help from afar. In special cases, German vendor Teichmann Cranes offers back-up to factories too far away to use it as the primary maintenance service provider.
Whether the work is done internally or externally, repairs often require a speedy supply of spare parts. Exactly how available those parts will be may depend on the age of the hoist. The more standard the product and the newer it is, the greater the chance of parts. Product marketing cycles can render a hoist obsolete in 10 years, after which point spares can be difficult and/or expensive to source, Mitchell says. Users might consider stockpiling common parts or considering used crane dealers like Teichmann, who will stock many spares of older cranes (see article, p.11). Of course the manufacturer such as Konecranes would have access to these parts as well.
Selecting a supplier
Breakdown repairs are in some ways the least skilled part of maintenance, because the work that needs doing is probably obvious. And the criteria of successful repair is equally obvious they did the job if the crane works again. Of course a significant part of maintenance is using inspections to make sure that breakdowns and accidents do not happen. When the criteria of success are less obvious, it is harder to tell if you have outsourced maintenance to a competent person.
Professional standards can help here, says Mitchell. He recommends the new Crane Manufacturers Association of America's Specification 78 (see Hoist 26, p9). "This specification outlines fairly stringent standards for the qualifications of crane technicians and crane inspectors. However, the standard is voluntary and whether the requirements would be applicable to the purchase process would probably depend on the written agreement of the parties involved," he says.
Finding a maintenance provider can take some time. KCI Konecranes, for example, whose maintenance arm has had record growth, will not take on the support factory's cranes until after a trial period, Australian managing director Edward Yakos says. "It's like a customer coming in with a car who says, 'Here's $20 a month to maintain my car.' We need to know how it's been used in the past."
Other factors he wants to know include the age of the crane, its environment and its maintenance history. "We normally ask for one year to service the cranes on a regular basis, and they may require some modernisation," he says.
Konecranes' business model, in which it sells new cranes under 20t capacity, hoists, parts and attachments through its maintenance operations, has proved very successful for the company. Since 1998, the maintenance business' share of revenue has grown 30%. "What we've found out is that the concept of pushing product through distributors is not as successful as pulling product through the maintenance services business," Yakos says. "A customer will say 'I have a need for chain hoists.' We can sell them, because they need them."
Naturally that money is coming from somewhere. Mitchell argues that potential customers understand what they are getting into. "Parts and service departments are usually high profit areas of any company, so the buyer needs to know what is included and what is not. This can be ascertained by asking the appropriate questions and, if acceptable to the buyer, the answers should be made a part of the purchase documentation."
What Konecranes offers, Yakos says, goes beyond breakdown maintenance and beyond scheduled maintenance, which includes a time element. It includes predictive maintenance, where engineers aim to swap a 2,000-hour life product at hour 1,999. But it goes beyond that too, to estimate the production efficiencies of different combinations of crane repairs and upgrades.
"If a brake lasts 2,000 hours, we would ask 'How do I go about making it last 3,000 hours?'" Yakos says. "If you put in a frequency inverter and let that control the hoisting, then the brake doesn't stop the load, it only holds the load like the handbrake in a car. Then the brake lifetime goes up." He claims that customers see their maintenance bills fall by 20% on average using this service, though he admits that figure excludes sales of new parts such as the frequency inverter in the above example.
Yakos claims that the Konecranes maintenance service uses a coding system that eliminates the inspector's subjectivity during inspection and prioritises the most urgent repairs. Then the company sets up a regular meeting to work through the data. The end result is better predictability of crane repair costs and less downtime, he claims.