Back on the road

5 August 2021


Even the best-designed cranes can have accidents. Mobile cranes especially share public roads with other vehicles so are specially vulnerable. Julian Champkin talks to the people who repair the damage.

Terminator Three. A 100-ton mobile crane is thundering down a runway, in full pursuit of savior-of- the-world John Conner. From the jib hangs – is it a man, is it a machine? A bit of both: it is Arnold Schwarzenegger, the Terminator, out to (obviously) terminate. The crane still at high speed, its arm swings round smashing him into a glass building and a passing fire truck. Conner escapes to carry on the struggle.

Except... This was (of course) a film set - though Schwarzenegger really is hanging from the jib; he does his own stunts and described this one as “unbelievable. There were close calls, many times.” And halfway through rehearsal the mobile crane rolls. Schwarzenegger is not on it at the time, so the star is in one piece but the crane is not. Filming has to stop until the crane is on the road again – and this, with a budget of $187.3 million, is the most expensive movie ever produced in Hollywood to that date. They cannot use a substitute crane – this one had its cab specially strengthened. Call for – who else but? – top US crane repair company Wheco.

“The production company’s insurers contacted us.” Wheco director Dave Wood is telling the story. “Can we repair the crane in ten days, because a $250,000 per day lost production claim will kick in on the 11th day of lost shooting.” No pressure, then.

“We moved the crane to our Los Angeles facility; we flew in support techs from other facilities; we worked around the clock; and we delivered the crane to the studio on the tenth day.”

Not every mobile crane repair is quite that breathtaking but the basic principle, of time out of action equalling money and sometimes a very great deal of it, does almost always apply. A crane off the road is a crane not earning for its owner and – worse – is delaying the construction project of its client. “The goal has always been to get the equipment back into the income stream as quickly and as safely as possible” says Wood.

All types of cranes may need repair now and then. Mobile cranes – all-terrains and rough-terrains – tend to need them more, because they are exposed not only to the hazards of lifting but also to the less-regulated and less-controllable hazards of being driven on public roads. Crowland Cranes is the UK’s biggest repairer of mobile cranes. “We have five cranes under repair in the yard at the moment” says owner Peter Issitt. “All five of them are road traffic accidents. They fell over, someone ran into them, or they burst into flames going down the road.

“We have the largest repair facilities in the country for mobiles, we are the only recognised repairers for the insurance industry, so pretty much ninety percent of all mobile crane accidents come across our desk one way or another” he says. “Road accidents are commoner now than the traditional accidents of booms being damaged on site or overloading causing failure.”

The reason is simple: cranes are now better made. They have safety devices: “The protection systems that have developed to warn against overload or tipping or other dangers: I don’t say they are foolproof but they are definitely protecting the operator and protecting the assets far more than they ever used to, that’s for sure.

“And the quality of materials used in cranes now is much better and more consistent. You don’t get bad batches of steel which in the old days might have caused fatigue; you don’t get bad welding practices; we are not seeing many booms breaking or slew rings falling apart. We had a lot of that in the 90s but no longer. On-site failures now are not due to poor crane design.

“But obviously you do still get cases of cranes falling over. Those are due to poor rigging more than anything, or poor planning. The crane itself very rarely causes the accident. What you can get is an unfortunate set of circumstances combined with an overconfident operator: He knows his machine, he has done it this way twenty times without incident, but the twentyfirst time it doesn’t come off.”

Crowland on almost every repair face the same problem that Wheco faced: that time off the road costs money. And, as a UK company, that poses particular problems just now – and, for all we know, into the future: “The biggest problem we have right now – and it is the biggest problem we have ever had – is parts availability and logistics” says Issitt. “We obviously prefer to fit OEM parts from the original manufacturer. But unless the part is already in the UK there is no such thing as next day delivery – and delivery times now can be not even weeks, but months. People are using the pandemic as an excuse, but actually it is Brexit.

"There is the paperwork and the bureaucracy for importing parts, there is lack of knowledge of what paperwork people need to comply with to move goods around, and that is having a huge knock-on effect on repairs. We have an accident machine here in my workshop that has been fully rebuilt and finished four weeks ago, but we are waiting for one component from an OEM that is still outstanding. OEMs tell us there is a three month lead time for a certain part; so you wait two and a half months and then phone the parts department and they tell you there will be another eight weeks on top. So it is very frustrating for service providers at the moment - especially since we pride ourselves on keeping to dates we have given clients.”

Crowland’s solution is reverse engineering – fabricating their own replacement parts. “That is why we do it, and we have a reputation for doing it, and doing it well. We would obviously rather supply and fit an OEM part; but if the OEM part is on three months delivery you need another option. We always keep our clients informed, and 99% of our customers go for the Crowland-made part and the quicker return to the road every time. Quality is not a problem: our testing and certification is as good as the original, sometimes better. It is a viable option, and one that not many people will offer you now because they don’t have the fabrication facilities. But our whole repair-side business has been based on the fact that if we cannot get a part, we will manufacture another one to the same standard or higher.”

Avezaat Cranes hold a similar dominant position in the Netherlands. “The repairs we carry out vary from replacing a few lacings on site up to the complete repair and testing of a crane which has tipped over” says director Bert Avezaat. “Most common are smaller repairs like transport damage or damage during assembling or disassembling the cranes.”

And they can be called upon to repair the work of home-grown – and ill-advised - repair attempts: “What we still see happening sometimes is that due to a bad repair procedure or using the wrong materials for repairing boom sections things go terribly wrong. A bad repair will lead sooner or later to failure of the crane and it is terrible to see how some people do not take crane boom repairs seriously” he says.

“I always explain it with a simple example. When a house painter has a bad day and drops a large amount of paint on your new wooden floor or when after two months the paint comes off your windowframes it is unpleasant but that is as bad as it gets. If a repair on a crane boom is done without knowing what you are doing the consequences can be very much worse. If the boom breaks and comes down people can be injured and damage can be serious. Booms and structures can be repaired but it needs to be done by certified and experienced people.”

As materials and technology have become specialized, repairs require more skill than they used to. “It is no longer a matter of welding a stronger piece of steel into place” he says. “That changed many years ago when S690 high-grade steels were introduced in the crane booms and crane structures. From that moment the materials and repair procedures changed fast and experience with the procedures of working with these materials and welding procedures for them became more critical and much more serious. This trend to high-quality materials needing specialized care has developed over the years from S235 materials towards S1300; there is a continuous process of testing and adjusting to keep our people certified and properly trained to follow the changes in working with and welding of these high tension materials.”

And, fortunately, that view is spreading. “The worldwide crane industry in general is getting more and more professional” he says. “We can see that by the increasing demand for certified repair worldwide. We generally have two or three people traveling worldwide to carry out inspections and certified repair works on site; they can be anywhere from the US to Russia and from Africa to Iceland. About five years ago we set up a fully equipped workshop in the UAE which is steady growing every year, and we have appointed dealers in Norway and Turkey to expand our network outside our main office and facility in Holland.”

As for the causes of the accidents his company is called on to repair, he agrees with Pete Issitt of Crowland: it is people, not cranes, that tend to bring them about. “From our experience we see that almost always the cause of the accident is directly or indirectly related to human failure. What I mean is that in most of the situations the accidents are caused by the crane driver or people who are handling the crane or the crane parts, or that the circumstances where the crane is located are not correct. In only a very few situations it is a mistake in the design of the crane or due to failure in the software.

“And what we have seen over the years is that customers who take good care of their equipment, give it regular maintenance, keep it clean, have high quality machines and facilities – those customer experience less damage than customers who care less about these issues.”

One recent repair among many is of a Demag CC 6800 which damaged boom sections after tipping over on wind farm. Dave Wood of Wheco has also had wind-farm damage to set right: “Wind farm work is a high-risk area” he says, “though it has gotten better over the years. But cranes are heavier, ground conditions are critical and of course wind farms are typically located where strong winds blow.” For him, too, damage to cranes and lift equipment typically fall into a few categories, with transport and assembly or disassembly near the top.

“We have been involved with incidents where improper counterweight loading caused the crane to tip over. They can be minor or they can cost several million dollars. With lifting equipment getting bigger the number of pieces are growing so proper assembly practices are critical. In transport, we have seen equipment was improperly tied down causing the load to shift and even fall off on the highway. Damage again can be minor to very expensive and can even involve innocent third parties. We even see where improper chaining of the parts and pieces causes minor to major damages. We have had trucks leave our facilities tied down correctly only to have them arrive at the destination damaged as tie downs were changed en route.”

"And incidents from operation can be caused by many factors. Inadequate ground or site preparation, improper set up for the load being handled and weather – those and many others can play into an incident. With lifting equipment getting more complex training of all involved is of a high priority” he says.

“We approach every repair like it’s the first time. We involve engineers and the OEM if possible, we use third party labs to test the existing materials, we get mill certification of the new materials, and welders qualified to the proper weld procedures. And we use third party non-destructive testing of the welds and final documents for the files. When Wheco started doing repairs OEM involvement was not always available. Today though it is almost a standard as the OEMs have realized it is in everyone’s interest to assure repairs are performed properly and documented. And Wheco also requires the crane be load tested and certified with the repaired structural component reinstalled."

And even without Brexit delays he shares the Crowland frustration with lead times. “The economics of repair versus replacement can be interesting” he says. “Sometimes it may just be a portion of the crane that can be renewed. With the amount of walking a large crawler crane does on wind farm work Wheco has found itself performing complete track frame rebuilds to help extend the life of a crane and to minimize maintenance costs of continually buying new parts. This practice can almost halve the cost of replacement with new parts. Rebuilding hydraulic cylinders is a big part of our work as many assemblies may no longer be available or the lead time is so far out the unit could be down for months. We find this also with many weldment pieces: the same availability issues exist which allow Wheco to bring an alternative to the table. Many times, what we offer is not less expensive than waiting for an OEM part but can get the equipment back in the income stream, thus making an attractive, economic, alternative. The bottom line is that Wheco tries to treat all repairs as unique and important.”

In repair work, the lesson would seem that speed is as important as safety. A piece of lifting equipment that is sitting idle awaiting repair is costing money.

Crowland repair, before and after
Cranes under repair at Wheco
A lattice boom repair by Avezaat
Crowland repair, before and after
A lattice boom repair by Avezaat
Accidents can happen. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)