Smart technology, smart factories, digital communications, the internet of things, automation, networks, cloud based storage—all of these technical terms are discussed when exploring the subject of Industry 4.0. This concept originally came from the German government as part of its technology strategy and has been described by many as the fourth industrial revolution. Generally however the term is used as a catch-all for new technology development within factories.

“It covers things like upgraded automation within the factory, machine to machine communication, machine to product communication. It basically breaks down into intelligent connectivity of smart devices,” explains Phillippa Oldham, head of transport and manufacturing at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

There are many reasons for this evolution but Oldham says that the main driver is demand for more customised products: “What actually that means is it is helping businesses and shop floors to make better, faster decisions based on evidence, so understanding how things are going through the production line increasing productivity. They know when machines are not being used so they can be switched off instead of idling, reducing energy consumption.”

For industry there are a number of big challenges associated with this, from what data should be collected to how it is communicated, who the data goes to and how it is used. For a traditional industry like the lifting sector, starting at the beginning with data collection seems to be the most common approach.

John Traynor, chief operating officer at C-Labs which develops software products that enable access to data from machines and the Internet of Things, says: “In my experience what tends to happen first is organisations that have deployed industrial equipment such as cranes are likely to first start gathering information from equipment so that they can better understand their environment, for example loads lifted or stress on cables or operating parts.

“As organisations become more comfortable gathering that data and using software to make decisions about the work environment then you slowly move into controlling the equipment and our machine monitor equipment grew out of recognising that sort of important first step of being able to monitor equipment and know what was going on in an industrial environment.”


A company that is moving quickly on this approach is Spain’s GH Cranes & Components, which has evolved its load limiter technology into its CoreBox which is standard on all new products. “Essentially the CoreBox has evolved into a data logger that is collecting the data from the operation of the cranes,” says Pablo Pedrós Solano, director of engineering and research and development at the company. This data includes information about the load lifted at each time—the overloads, the temperature of the motors and information from several alarms, among others. “The CoreBox is the product collecting the data and then transferring it to different platforms like an App or a PC or the Global Service centre here at GH.”

That the CoreBox now comes as standard highlights the firm’s commitment to future smart technology and means that the customer doesn’t have to buy the device as an addon. One of the biggest benefits, says Solano, is intelligent maintenance: “Many maintenance contracts [are based on periodic] preventive maintenance. With the huge amount of data that we are collecting, we can go from preventive to predictive maintenance [based on actual use]. That is a challenge for the industry—to balance the maintenance mix towards predictive actions.”

Complementing this move to intelligent maintenance, GH Cranes & Components has also launched a new customer portal dedicated to maintenance management designed to be a direct link between the customer and the Global Service centre.

“The cloud-based software allows us to get all of the incidents and tasks that customer sends directly,” says Solano. “It will improve the lead time for fixing or materials requirements. It also grants access to the customer in order to review the historical maintenance data and technical information of the crane.”

The system is also linked to the company’s enterprise resource planning system, allowing the customer to schedule in their maintenance requirements directly. “Very few companies have implemented this gateway,” says Solano.

The firm provides customers with a number of options for accessing the information from the CoreBox data logger: 3G, GPRS, wifi, and local USB connection. It has also developed Apps and software to enable connection from tablets or smartphones as well as the PC or radio remote controls.

A key advantage of the collection and sharing of data is that it can be used by manufacturers to update their products more effectively. It also means investment in new processing capacity. “We will need to be on a strong platform to allow our customers to have all of their data ready and available. But also that the data is available to us to keep updating and improving our products because the research and development department will have valuable information about the way that our cranes are used,” says Solano.

Access to this data is one of the challenges for the industry to contend with and Solano points out that GH will only be able to access this with the customer’s permission.

UK manufacturer Street Crane says that it can provide wifi access to the data from its safe working period (SWP) monitor, which has a data logging function, but so far it is yet to see demand from customers. “We haven’t installed it with a communications module yet because a lot of people are concerned about network security. If you have that simple device that is wifi enabled it is at risk if it is connected to your network, so they are just standalone units at the moment,” says Chris Lindley- Smith, director at the company.

Traynor says: “Cyber incidents are real and a challenge for industry but it is definitely a challenge that can be met and there are lots of different ways to address that. It comes down to things like auditing equipment, who is authorised to get to the information. How and who can work with it, ensuring the integrity of the data, where information has gone and who has had access to it.”

This could see the need for nondisclosure agreements to ensure that information is protected, says Thomas Kraus, support centre director for Stahl CraneSystems, which is owned by Konecranes: “For sure that with this information you can give the customers a better service, there is no question, but you need access to the information and this must be solved first.”


There is no doubt however that better information makes factory manufacturing smarter. “Firstly it helps the operators because they have got more of an understanding about how the machines are working, whether there are any problems occurring on the production line,” says Oldham, explaining that for supervisors it allows an overview of how production is taking place across the floor, for managers it gives utilisation information and on the maintenance side, as Solano explained, it can lead to predictive maintenance and less downtime.

There are also important advantages for operators of having more information about their cranes. Lindley-Smith explains that the latest health and safety legislation in the UK requires operators to know that a crane is safe to use, and that it is being operated within its safe working period. Although the use of load monitors are not yet legislated for in the UK—it is in Australia—Lindley-Smith says demand is increasing. “People are asking us to fit these as standard now. We have had the product over the last three-tofour years, but only fitted it on six-toten projects. It is not terribly expensive and it also has a data logging function and gives other information. It records overload events, emergency stops and a number of other key functions.”

Kraus points out that another advantage of load monitoring is that it enables comparison of operator performance and enables factory managers to determine how this might be improved.

Looking ahead, firms are exploring how, and what, new data might be used and communicated. “Another bit of smart technology is anti-sidepulling equipment,” says Lindley-Smith.

“Sidepulling is one of the biggest misuses of cranes and it can be quite dangerous—a number of people have lost their lives in sidepulling incidents involving overhead cranes in recent years. You have a crane, a load on the floor, if you haven’t got the hook directly above then when you try and lift the supporting hook is at an angle. So if you lift that load off the floor, the first thing it will do is swing so we now have quite simple technology available that prevents the hoist operating if it detects that someone is trying to lift a load where the hook or load rope is not vertical and prevents any dangerous lifting. That is considered to be a big safety advantage by a growing number of crane users globally.”

Street Crane is also looking into more standardised automation solutions. “Fixed position locations can be preprogrammed into the crane controls to set up series of rows and columns in the operating area and the crane will automatically move to that position on a single command,” says Lindley-Smith. “Automatic storage and retrieval has existed for a while but we have seen people asking for more semi-automatic applications, so asking the crane to take it to the right area and then the operator drops it under manual control to reduce the general level of operator input.” For this kind of automation, site-specific location control of the down shop travel motion of the crane and the traversing motion for the hoisting unit is required together with the vertical positioning of the hook. This means 3D location control using laser positioning systems or an encoder bar that runs the length of the travel and a scanner on the crane that knows where the crane hook is typically to the nearest 5cm. “These products have been available on special applications for years but people are increasingly asking now for it on much more standard products. Typically used for applications like waste to energy plants, we believe that this technology will remain for top-end process cranes for some time to come, as many users will struggle to justify the additional costs associated for more standard hook service use.”

Other firms too report that highend manufacturing and world leading businesses are leading the way on smarter cranes and lifting equipment. Elebia Autohooks makes a unique automatic crane hook that allows attachment and release of load without manual handling. It is currently in the second year of a new three-year investment programme using radio frequency identification (RFID). “We at Elebia are developing an RFID system integrated into the hook, so the Elebia hook has an RFID antennae reader. You have the tags on your loads and the Elebia crane hook can read the tag at a safe distance and know exactly what you are moving,” explains company founder and CEO Oscar Fillol Vidal. “We have already working prototypes and next year we will be presenting the first solution.”

The solution has multiple parts, one is the hook with the RFID reader, the antennae and the electronics. The other part is the remote control, a hand held computer that acts as an information hub and user management system. This management system involves having individual log-in functions for each user so that owners know who is lifting what, when and where. “The third part is the software that is in the cloud. You have a database and it is where all of the information is sent and the smart factory can use this information to track loads and processes and so on,” the Elebia CEO says.

Vidal is pragmatic about future demand. “There will be specific customers who are world leading companies that need flexibility in an efficient and safe way. Right now we have three big companies that have showed interest in being part of the project so the first prototypes will be adapted to their applications in 2017. One of them is for the oil and gas industry for containers that have to be delivered to platforms. Another one is the steel industry. And the other is machinery rental,” he says. GH Cranes & Components agrees that the more advanced features and sensors for condition monitoring are currently only used on specialist applications. We have recently installed a complete set of accelerometers and other types of sensors on a crane for one customer and we have already set up a predictive maintenance system to allow us to predict the behaviour of the gearbox, the bearings and so on. The main challenge will be to get the sensoring of the special cranes into a standard feature. In order to meet that we need to go further in detail and invest in more research and development into that,” says Solano.

Other areas that the company is working on include features such as anti-sway systems, regenerative energy, frequency inverters and anti-collision systems. “The more automatic the crane is the better for use in the customer premises and we are overall working on that,” says Solano.

Turkish manufacturer KM Kumsan Crane Systems has been offering a black box data logger to its customers for three years now and it has plans to offer more smart features in the future. “There are eight or nine functions that can be added on to the crane to work smarter and safer so this is our future plan,” says Inan Gökyer, assistant general manager At KM kumsan crane system.

It is clear that the overhead lifting sector is working hard to update their products and be even more useful to their customers. But do they think that the industry will move towards an Industry 4.0 vision with machine to machine communication and automated processes?

“My vision of a smart factory in the future is that it is fully connected at different levels with the help of the Industrial Internet of Things concept, both in terms of machine to machine, human to machine and machine to the manufacturing execution system,” says Solano. “I think that it will happen as it has in other industries. But it is not straightforward, step by step we are implementing these options for that.”