Economies of scale

28 January 2010


A really big crane needs a really big potential market. ALE Projects managing director Michael Birch talks to Will North about developing the 134,000tm SK120, and building a global business big enough to use it effectively

ALE (Abnormal Load Engineering) was set up in England in 1984 by engineer Roger Harries to provide heavy transport and lift engineering services to the power generation sector. Harries’ son Mark Harries was appointed managing director in 1995. In 1988, it secured a long-term deal to transport GEC manufactured power equipment.

One of the company’s first moves to becoming a global business came in 1992, when it set up a full scale operation in Abu Dhabi, servicing the oil, gas and power industries in the UAE. In 2000, the company purchased six cranes with capacities up to 1,500t in South East Asia. Two years later the company made of Alstom Power Service UK; in 2007, it acquired fellow UK-based specialist John Gibson Projects. The company now has more than twenty offices around the world, from Russia to South America, Australia to Africa. The company employs 70 engineers and has more than 700 employees around the world.

At the same time that ALE was building a business that could reach around the world, it was developing its own unique range of new lifting equipment that could service the world’s biggest projects. Key to this strategy is the company’s research and development division in Breda, the Netherlands.

ALE Projects managing director Michael Birch says, “We set up our own research and development business in Breda, the Netherlands. We’re able to handle all of our engineering and design for our heavy lift systems in-house. We set up the team in Breda from scratch, using our own engineering resources and expertise that we brought in. We now have some of the best people in the industry working for us.

“Having an in-house research and development team allows us to make modifications and adaptations to our equipment as needed, which are carried out in accordance with international standards and regulations. It allows us to carry out our own engineering and design work, without having to go to a third party manufacturer. That means we can be a lot more responsive and react quicker to finding solutions for our customers. We can also provide bespoke solutions, where commodity equipment manufacturers are more interested in production line manufacturing.”

One of the Dutch team’s most notable projects has been the SK (Sliding Krane) lifting system. The first configuration of the SK lifting machine, the 4,300t capacity SK90, was launched in 2008. ALE is currently building an even bigger lifting machine, capable of lifting up to 5,000t, the SK120.

At first glance, the SK cranes look a little like a crawler: they have twin tall, luffing, lattice main booms and a lattice ballast derrick. However, while a crawler slews from the base of the main boom with the counterweight swinging behind, on the SK the centre of rotation is below the ballast, with the foot of the mast sliding over a specially designed track.

The lifting mechanism employed by the SK lifting machines is different to standard crawlers too. Even the biggest serial produced crawlers, such as Terex’s Twin or Manitowoc’s Model 31000, use essentially the same sort of system of winches as the smallest 25 tonners. The SK does have a quick winch, capable of lifting up to 600t. However, it achieves its biggest lifts using a strand jack system.

Birch explains, “During the design of the SK lifting system we noted from some areas of the market a perception of how a crane should be that it should have a slewing ring and winches. We feel that design has reached its limits in certain applications. Just think how much winch capacity you need with 120m of main boom and 40m of jib for lifting 3,000 tonnes at 26m outreach. That’s why we came through with this design. It offers much bigger capacity and outreach than any other land-based crane. It’s fitted with a 600t quick winch for handling lower weights, but also has the strand jacks so it can perform super heavy lifts that a conventional crane design cannot achieve effectively.

“The size of the drums and winches on a super-heavy crane isn’t just a problem when you’re lifting, but when you’re transporting the crane. This machine can be fully containerised. On competing systems, you may need to ship over 3,000t of crane and Counter weight. On our system, 40 of the containers that we use to ship components have been designed to hold up to 100t of bulk material each, and then used to ballast the crane. All of the sections either fit in a container, or, with some attachments, can be handled as standard ISO size containers. There are no oversize or out-of-gauge components, so we can mobilise quickly and effectively.”

The SK90 recently finished its first job, in Saudi Arabia. Birch says the company now has three firm projects agreed for the cranes, in South East Asia, Northern Europe and North America.

The SK isn’t the only innovation coming from ALE. Birch says, “At the moment, the team in Breda are designing and fabricating our new Megajack system. This will lift 40,000t structures up to 30mhigh. This lifts heavier loads, higher, than any existing system. It will be used to lift very heavy components such as deck sections and semi-submersible top sections ready to be mounted on to load out support frames and lower structures. The deck is then taken to the offshore installation site and floated over the jacket.

“As the height you’re lifting to goes up, the stability capabilities of the system become more important. We’re at the design and fabrication stage with the system, and will launch the Megajack in 2010.”

As well as developing its own equipment, ALE continues to buy standard equipment from third party manufacturers. Over the last 18 months, Birch says, it has added 250 axle lines to its SPMT fleet, bringing the fleet size up to 1,000 axle lines. It recently purchased a 1,600t CC 8800-1 from Terex, and will take delivery of the crane in January 2010.

How then does a company growing so fast cope in a collapsing economy? Birch says, “We’re still investing. Some projects haven’t been immune to the current economic crisis, we have seen an impact in some markets, but we work on longer term planned projects. They have continued as planned and overall our business is continuing to grow at a rate that allows us to make the investments, but so we can manage the business properly.”


The crane rotates around the ballast containers, rather than around the base of the mast The crane rotates around the ballast containers, rather than around the base of the mast
ALE's SK90 at work in Saudi Arabia and under testing ALE's SK90 at work in Saudi Arabia and under testing
ALE strand jack towers, crawlers and SPMTs at work around the world ALE strand jack towers, crawlers and SPMTs at work around the world
ALE strand jack towers, crawlers and SPMTs at work around the world ALE strand jack towers, crawlers and SPMTs at work around the world
The crane rotates around the ballast containers, rather than around the base of the mast The crane rotates around the ballast containers, rather than around the base of the mast
ALE strand jack towers, crawlers and SPMTs at work around the world ALE strand jack towers, crawlers and SPMTs at work around the world