Cranes build in remote controls

13 July 2007


Remote control manufacturers stand to gain from a greater technical connection between the crane and radio remote control, reports Will Dalrymple

As remote control systems have developed, the link between them and a crane’s onboard control system has grown tighter, and the amount of data shared between them has increased. This trend is set to continue, argues Gregor Leuschen, product manager for crane load moment and safety system manufacturer PAT. Traditionally, there have been three parts in a crane remote control system: the remote control box, the device that receives its commands, and the central computer unit that controls the crane. "There is a trend that remote controls become standard on every mobile unit. In the future, the separation of the control unit and the mobile data receiver will be no more. In two to three years, a feature in the [crane] control unit will be doing the job of receiving signals from a remote control."

For Europe and North America, Hiab has built remote controls into the crane’s control architecture. In new cranes, it has united its loader crane brain 'Space' with XSDrive and CombiDrive2 remote controls, built by itself and Olsbergs Hydraulics. "The customer benefit is a safer product, combined with excellent performance as we provide full control of the radio signals," says Hiab product development manager Bengt Söderholm. "In many cases, it is easier for a bodybuilder/OEM to tailor a crane equipped with remote control to specific customer needs than a basic manual model," he adds.

Austrian loader manufacturer Palfinger has also designed its remote control unit to work as an extension of the crane computer. New generations of remote controls from Scanreco and Hetronic display crane error codes on a display mounted on the remote control. Armed with this error code, customers can alert maintenance technicians of the nature of the problem, so they can pick the right spare parts.

There are still many manually controlled loader cranes sold, primarily of small loaders under 20tm outside of North America and Europe, according to Söderholm from Hiab. But the Swedish loader crane manufacturer is so sure of the uptake of radio remote controls in these regions that it has launched a remote control retrofit programme.

Even in these less-industrialised markets, remotes have some potential, argues Bruno Da Re, engineer for Italian radio remote manufacturer Imet. "When a market has become used to installing poor radios, and isn't sensible about safety matters or with respect to EU directives, then it can be quite hard to introduce EU-designed radios. But it is also true that the trend is favourable for high standard quality radios."

Price pressures

Germany-based manufacturer HBC-radiomatic argues that the best systems result from close cooperation between crane and remote manufacturer. Unlike the other manufacturers interviewed for this article, HBC-radiomatic director of product development Siegfried Kehl says that remotes and crane manufacturers share the job of integrating remote controls in cranes. "A close collaboration is essential to develop a trend-setting system that is easy to implement and enhance," he said.

The close connection of cranes and remotes may make it more difficult for low-cost remote control providers to find business in the loader crane industry, at least. "Low-price radio manufacturers have their market share due to the fact that poor applications are not so demanding in terms of safety and heavy-duty use. Pure low-price factors are not compatible with safety requirements and norm compliance," says Imet's Da Re.

Radio remote manufacturer Cavotec predicts that crane manufacturers will begin to invest more money in their remotes. "Some applications need innovative customised solutions: innovation and ad hoc studies involve even higher prices. In the future we expect that many manufacturers will be willing to spend more for a higher performing product, but service and assistance are a must," says Cavotec sales manager Morten Bjerkholt.

How much prices go up depends on how much custom work is required. Lacking economies of scale, custom and one-off jobs tend to be most expensive. Mass produced products' prices tend to sink as their production, and the technology, mature. "Only for large scale products will there be a decrease in the price/performance and price/functionality ratios, that is to say, more performance and functionality for the same, or less, money," Bjerkholt says.

Even the prices of mass produced lines are rising, because their manufacturers have to pass on increased costs of their own, says Da Re from Imet. "The price problem can be quite serious because costs of good materials—plastic, metal, wiring, energy—and human resources are increasing, despite large-scale purchasing."

HBC-radiomatic sales director Karl-Heinz Günther plays down the importance of competing with rivals on price. "Price levels are relative. Performance matters." He argues that remotes play a key role in brand value, which manufacturers ignore at their peril. "In our opinion, it doesn't make sense to sell a high quality crane together with a cheap low quality radio control. The radio control is the tool to control the machine and the end user is working with it day by day. So, if the radio control creates problems concerning reliability or operating comfort, the end user would probably blame the crane company."

Opening communications

In the last few years, advances in electronics have led to networks of devices mounted on cranes that communicate using standard protocols such as CANbus. If they work properly, sensors and devices made by different manufacturers, with different feature sets, and sold for different prices, can talk to each other. If radio remote control users set up a common language for all remotes, then users would be free to mix and match handsets as they buy new mobile telephones.

The remote control manufacturers interviewed were generally against any shared protocols that would allow users to mix and match remote controls from different manufacturers. "I believe that it won't be easy for different radio manufacturers to share their technical knowledge in order to develop a standard communication protocol. Such an operation is convenient only for those who do not have a lot to lose," says Da Re from Imet. Kehl from HBC-radiomatic asks another question: “Who would take care of safety functions? Every manufacturer uses its own safety technology. By mixing up two different technologies you could endanger users."


A Hiab operator uses a CombiDrive2 radio remote control A Hiab operator uses a CombiDrive2 radio remote control Scanreco remote control for Palfinger loader crane Scanreco remote control for Palfinger loader crane Hiab's own-developed XSDrive radio remote control Hiab's own-developed XSDrive radio remote control Hetronic remote control for Palfinger loader crane Hetronic remote control for Palfinger loader crane Imet Zeus Imet Zeus

A Hiab operator uses a CombiDrive2 radio remote control A Hiab operator uses a CombiDrive2 radio remote control
Scanreco remote control for Palfinger loader crane Scanreco remote control for Palfinger loader crane
Hiab's own-developed XSDrive radio remote control Hiab's own-developed XSDrive radio remote control
Hetronic remote control for Palfinger loader crane Hetronic remote control for Palfinger loader crane
Imet Zeus Imet Zeus