Swift recovery

23 December 2020

All eyes have been on the USA; its pandemic response and its election have disrupted business and made forecasting and planning more than problematic. How has the market for lifting gear coped? And will 2021 be easier? Julian Champkin reports.

It has, of course, been an exceptional year. Bizarre, unexpected, unsettling, extraordinary—a dozen more adjectives would fail to cover it. But businesses have had to try to continue, despite uncertainties—political, economic and of course in public health—each one of which is almost unprecedented. Any election year brings the unknown. This one has been far stranger, and far more significant, than most. Those trying to chart a way forward are facing what you could with justice call a perfect storm.

Let us talk first of demand: John Paxton is COO and CEO designate of MHI, the body that represents the materials handling industry in America. “Certainly Covid has solidly impacted US manufacturing,” he says, “and it did bring a very sharp and very sudden downturn back in April and May. But it has started to recover fairly quickly. It was a very steep decline, but it has been a steep uptick also.

“Some industries of course were affected more than others. Oil and gas, automotive, and aerospace were hit fairly hard. So overall the hoisting industry will be down quite a significant amount for the year.” “Demand has been on quite a yo-yo this year,” says Vida Novak, vice president of lifting equipment makers Air Technical Industries. “Many industrial markets we serve are in decline. It is not always due to Covid-19 directly, but secondary effects from further down the supply chain are affecting them. Most industrial customers are still active, but they are postponing equipment investments due to the uncertainty.” There are, though, some counterweights to put in the balance: “The industries that are driving the up-side of the demand are distribution centres and, (obviously!) medical equipment.”

Darren Berg is president and COO of Liftomatic, who make below-the-hook drum handling equipment. “Demand is quite soft,” he says, “but with the fourth quarter now nearly half way through there is some purchasing going on. Market conditions are trampled due to Covid and many purchases are just being put on hold to allow companies to hang onto valuable cash reserves.”

“As in most of the world, the pandemic has greatly impacted industries throughout North America,” says Rob Beightol, marketing director of New York-based Gorbel. “While service industries like entertainment and restaurants have likely been the hardest hit, companies that provide equipment to support these industries have struggled as well. From lighting truss and speaker manufacturers for theatres to commercial ovens, all have felt the effects of Covid-19.

“And while some industries have struggled, there is still a general requirement across industries to take the guesswork out of overhead lifting. Prior to Covid-19 one of the biggest challenges among manufacturers was finding skilled workers for many positions. Equipment that is easy to use yet offers multiple ways for workers to be productive continues to be in demand. Education on proper, safe, use of equipment continues to be important.”

“Since the pandemic started to strongly affect the economy, and manufacturing in particular, equipment and technology demand dropped considerably,” says Elyssa Baker, marketing director of G.W. Becker. “The focus was shifted to hold capital investment close to the vest and began instead the recognition of short-term investment in upgrade and repairs.

We are still seeing new equipment is being purchased, but we are definitely seeing significant investment from our customer base in repair and upgrades of equipment they already possess.”

“The US market has been challenging this year, primarily due to Covid-19,” says Dan Beilfuss, Columbus McKinnon’s director of crane sales, Americas. “While essential businesses are investing, capital spending has been delayed or put on hold in many sectors. As more states are returning to work, activity levels are starting to pick up in pharmaceuticals, food and beverage and consumer staples. Entertainment-related businesses and nonessential consumer goods remain soft.

“The current economic conditions certainly have an impact on the industry. Capital spending is being carefully monitored due to Covid and the recent election.”

“Demand varies significantly by market,” says John Lund, VP of sales and marketing for hoist specialists Thern. “Construction and marine continue to be very strong while some capital investments in manufacturing have slowed over uncertainty due to Covid.”

The economy in general is equally non-uniform, he says. “Some businesses have slowed their capital spending, while for others it has been accelerated due to limited human presence giving easier access to sites. It is truly a mixed bag.”

Was everything waiting until after the election? Or is it on pause because of Covid? “I think the correct answer here is yes and yes!” says Baker. “Initially it was on pause because of Covid but approaching election day, the economy was being affected from both Covid and the election— or to be more specific, the politics of this particular election. In a normal election year industry would certainly be affected in one direction or another, but we know we are not in a normal time and the effect is being heavily, and negatively, weighed down by both forces.”

Novak of Air Technical agrees with the double ‘yes’: “We are getting a tremendous amount of ‘wait and see’ because of the election and because of Covid-19 for sure.” But Beightol of Gorbel says: “Normally, in election years there is a bit of a pause on some spending as manufacturers wait for the outcome and determine what policies may impact business. However, nothing about 2020 has been normal, including any noticeable pause on corporate spending.”

“In general, industry seems to be holding up well,” says Bret Lussow, director of business development at HSI cranes, “and demand seems surprisingly steady. There has been some uncertainty in the market with the election but the Covid issues seem to be outweighing the election issues.

Many industries experienced a decline in March and April only to rebound this summer, so I think ‘fluctuation’ is a better term than ‘decline’ here. We have not seen the pause from general industry, in fact we are starting to see big demand to ship by year end. Some of this may be due to political uncertainty and a ‘use before you lose’ mentality.

“Many people are looking to use up their budget money prior to year-end which is boosting current bookings, and that seems to be across general industry rather than specific to any one sector. We are hoping a strong year end push will help boost numbers.”

Products of Chice

So where there is spending, what has it been devoted to? “We are seeing big demand for our NikoRail enclosed track systems,” he says. “While this product isn’t necessarily new to the market our on-line quote tool, the Quotinator, and market responsiveness have earned us some nice business.”

Generally, before Covid kicked in, what you could call the normal demands for automation and control systems were evident: “In large winches, VFDs (variable frequency drives) are in high demand,” says Lund of Thern. “Operators are requiring better and better controls of their lifting and pulling devices and are looking for slow/ controlled starts and stops with the ability to run the load quickly from point to point.

In smaller winches and cranes it is all about portability and getting the job done with products that are rugged yet portable.

“So we have upgraded our Liberty Capstan winch to include an integral swivel base that delivers portable strength for lifting, pulling and tensioning at almost any angle. More importantly, it is quiet, which enhances team communication for increased productivity. Among other uses, it is perfect for elevator shaft and cell tower construction projects. With the product upgrade we have developed a heavy-duty hitch mount for use on vehicles with a 2-inch hitch receiver so that you can use the Thern Liberty Capstan anywhere.”

Air Technical’s new portable jib crane models are proving popular for similar reasons: “Customers are finding a great benefit to this product because they don’t have to pour foundations and permanently anchor the cranes,” says Novak. “Instead they can use them in-place where needed; this is a trend where we have found portable jib cranes filling a definite need. And we are very excited about our new self-erecting overhead crane, which was introduced in 2020 to provide a portable overhead system that can be transported anywhere and used any place. The logic here is actually similar to that for the portable jib crane, but on a much broader scale than moving around a factory floor. The key feature is that it can be stowed in a standard ISO container and shipped anywhere in the world, and then erected on-site, without external equipment and with the simple push of a button. It is primarily aimed at military customers who need heavy lifting equipment in all sorts of field locations, but it also has applications in oil and gas exploration and aerospace.”

Despite the challenging economic conditions, the desire for increased technology and smart features in crane and hoist applications is strong. “Automation, analytics, and diagnostic systems are becoming more popular,” says Beilfuss, “as factories are looking for more ways to increase their productivity and improve safety in their operations. Automated systems provide precise positioning capabilities, repetitive motion, and built-in safety features to prevent operator injury and damage to equipment. Smart hoists and adding hoist intelligence to enable diagnostics, troubleshooting, and data gathering from remote locations are increasing trends and a requirement for many of our projects. Electric chain hoists powered by variable frequency drives, in lieu of contactor controls, continue to gain popularity as they allow for precision control and therefore safer operation. And system analytics and diagnostics help to simplify maintenance, troubleshooting, and operation.”

He gives as an example the Magnetek Intelli-Lift System, CM’s latest automation solution. “It identifies and prevents off-centre picking of a load with a hoist. Lifting a load that is not directly under the hoist can result in a swinging load, which can cause injury and equipment damage. The Intelli-Lift System alerts the operator that the load is not located directly under the hoist and prevents the load from being lifted. The Intelli-Crane family of engineered-to-order automation solutions, including Intelli-Lift and Intelli-Protect No-Fly Zone technology, is designed so that customers can easily bundle Intelli-Crane automated systems together or combine them with crane and hoist application-based software for a comprehensive automation solution.

“We have also given customers the flexibility to control the Magnetek OmniPulse DDC Series 2 DC Motor Control via Ethernet and remotely monitor the drive anytime, anywhere. This type of control and monitoring is beneficial to our users because it allows a single person to monitor all drives in the facility, quickly and easily. We know companies are having to do more with fewer workers due to restrictions as a result of Covid-19. It also provides visibility to drive performance to allow for planned maintenance and help reduce downtime if service is required.

“The CM Lodestar VS is a new variable speed hoist using a variable frequency drive in lieu of contactor control for hoists running on both single phase and three phase power.

The Lodestar VS can be ordered with the CM Hi Tech Interface allowing a user to connect their hoist to a computer or tablet. The user can then choose the control method of the hoist as well as the operating speeds. The Lodestar VS also comes with electronically programmable limit switches that can be easily set using the Hi Tech Interface. The easy-to-access port eliminates the need to remove the hoist end cover to connect to the hoist.

“Users asked for hoists that are easy to set up to meet their specific needs without requiring them to open the hoist and understand how to program the VFD drive, so we responded to that feedback. It is the only solution of this kind in electric chain hoists.”

Positive Innovation

Automation and control are trends that preexisted Covid and that will continue into the post-Covid world. But Covid is a disruptor; and disruption makes new niches that can provide livelihoods in unexpected places.

And that is a cause for some optimism about the forthcoming year. Dusty White, technical sales manager of Idaho-based Syclone ATTCO Service, explains why: “2021 will be challenging,” he says, “but good companies have always been willing to innovate and respond to challenges, to look and forge new ways to do things. So it has been with Covid. When it struck, in March and April, virtually all industry shut down. Companies were closed, people were working from home, there was lots of uncertainty, an awful lot was unknown. There was not a lot of spending just then, but a tightening of belts because people just didn’t know what was coming.

“Then companies worked out how to innovate, to find solutions that worked round the problems. Social distancing was mandated; so companies began figuring out ground-up ways to protect their employees and still continue to produce.

“As just one example among many: an Alabama company rang us. The governor of Alabama had announced social distancing had to be put in place immediately for companies to stay open. ‘We use twoman lifting to move our products’ said the company, ‘and those products are awkward to handle mechanically. We need a solution that adheres to proximity guidelines, and we need it ASAP.’ We jumped in with a very customised solution for them, designed and delivered at absolute priority speed. The company had ordered one unit; in the end they took three.

“Our Skyhook products replace two man lifts with one-person lifts, and that person acts independently. So we can help companies adhere to proximity guidelines and at the same time save the employees from potentially harmful physical strain. That means we are delivering immediate safety and the ability to continue manufacturing under social distancing, and in the long term we give efficiencies and economies as well.

“So it has been a crazy year—but it has offered us opportunities to work a lot of unique applications for our customers. So many companies now find themselves having to think out-of-the-box to survive, and the more people think that way, the greater the number of truly innovative solutions get found. A very great deal of our business is customised, both in lifting and under-the-hook devices. And now that more companies and more people are re-imagining the ways that they are having to work, the more useful we can be to them. Time and again I get told by new customers ‘We have been looking for something like this for some time now.’ These crazy times mean that more people are looking around and coming to know that our yellow lifting devices exist.”

Gorbel also have products that play into the new opportunities: “When it comes to ergonomic benefits and keeping productivity at extremely high levels, our G-Force can play a huge role,” says Beightol. “It fills the niche between manual work and complete robotics by acting as an extension of the worker.

We are continuously adding increased functionality to this popular product, and in 2020 we included many more standard programming features and visualisation options to make the units even more intuitive and easy to use.”

There are lessons here: “There will be some spots in which you can find the right niche industry: e-commerce, for example, is booming,” says Paxton of MHI. “We are seeing that space doing very well. So if you service those who service that sector, if you are involved in building new distribution centres, or automating existing ones, you are in an upside.”

With which Berg of Liftomatic agrees: “The only ‘trend’ we see is an attempt to bring some structure back to the logistics industry,” he says. “Covid has changed how many companies work—the social distancing factor has been hard on companies where workers are generally in close proximity to one another. Even to a small company like our own, it is obvious that parcel delivery companies have been affected.

Our experience would suggest shipping replacement parts to a coast has been a three–four day delivery in the past. It is now five–seven days, with no guarantees and a higher rate of delivery errors than in the past. In August it was nearly impossible to get a package sent overnight. Thankfully that is getting better, but the delivery errors are high.

“The economy is trying to stabilise as we see it,” he continues. “Some activity is detected—this is usual for year-end and those trying to use budget dollars—but with Covid now ramping up again due to rallies, the election, and a general social unrest with the overall situation it is highly possible another round of containment and state closures will follow.” Perhaps wisely, he makes no predictions for the industry. “Covid has to be contained before any sense of ‘normal business’ can be conducted.”

“But everything is relative,” says Paxton. “The hoist and lifting worlds are heavily tied to manufacturing and to expansion of manufacturing. Oil prices are significantly down and 30% fewer people are getting onto aircraft. Aerospace is in deep trouble; if they don’t build the plant you don’t get to supply the lifting gear. If traditional heavy lifting is your business it is harder to see any upside there. Exports from the US are significantly down, the dollar has been strong; Covid in Europe has not helped the US export market.

“On the plus side, supply chain disruption means people are looking to bring their supply chains closer to home, which means they are looking at making more in America, which in turn would be helpful to cranes and hoists. So these are uncertain times at best.”

Even so, having survived this most extraordinary year, hoist-makers seem unitedly optimistic—and even more than optimistic—about the prospects for 2021. “Given the strength of the market in the early stages of 2020, it is anticipated that the lifting equipment industry will regain momentum in 2021,” says Beilfuss of Columbus McKinnon.

Novak at Air Technical Industries says: “We expect many of the hesitations of 2020 to break loose in 2021 because the need to improve ergonomics and safety is not going away.”

“2021 should be a strong year due to pent-up demand and greater access to decision makers and project sites,” says Lund at Thern. G.W. Becker’s Baker is even more emphatic: “What was just a short time ago guarded optimism is now quickly turning into high optimism and orders being placed. The change is not pinpointed into one market or particular end-users. We are seeing the high optimism and orders coming from all sectors.”

And even Paxton of MHI is far from doom and gloom. “We do see a bright side coming back, if the second wave does not delay things. By the end of 2021 we expect the lifting industry to be back to where we were at the start of 2019—that’s the timeframe we are looking at.”

Taking two years to get back to where you were might be thought a little discouraging. Not so. “2019 was record-breaking. It was the industry’s best year ever,” says Paxton. “Getting back to that—is that bad? I think not!”  

The Easy Arm manipulator from Gorbel
HSI’s NikoRail enclosed track system appeals to the market.
Air Technical Industries’s RBC6 system
Variable frequency drive on a Thern winch
Liftomatic specialises in drum handling equipment
CM’s Lodestar VS with variable frequency drive