Taking the weight

Cable compounds and concepts may shift over the next ten years, but the industry will have to wait considerably longer for drastic changes
Cable compounds and concepts may shift over the next ten years, but the industry will have to wait considerably longer for drastic changes
"Within 50 years, in some domains, other devices or ideas, will have replaced copper cables or cables generally," Marianne Schliessmann, Conductix-Wampfler

A lack of research and price pressures could hold back cable and wire development, finds Alex Hughes

When Cargotec executive Ismo Matinlauri revealed the group’s vision of ports in 2060 at TOC Europe earlier this year it was jam-packed with futuristic concepts including ‘flying spreaders’, widespread automation, and artificial intelligence.

He also pitched the idea that by then steel wiring might have been replaced by nano-fibre technology. For this feature, Port Strategy asked him to expand on that forward-thinking cable and wire evolution.

“In the longer term, it is absolutely possible that newly developed devices and/or materials could replace cables,” he says, adding that the development of smarter and more self-aware technology could be the way forward, although there is still much research to be done.

But, he says, that’s not to say that cable technology available today has been found wanting. Mr Matinlauri, Cargotec’s senior vice president, Port Cranes, remains convinced that cable development has kept pace, despite the fact that ship-to-shore cranes are getting bigger and ever more sophisticated.

He says this sector has benefited from investment and research taking place in the offshore/subsea industry, where there are significant heavy-lift and wire rope challenges to be overcome.

“We have already delivered crane winches in marine applications where the wire weight itself is 250 to 300 tons. On ship-to-shore cranes we have not yet seen these kinds of weights,” he says.

Marianne Schliessmann, global product manager for cables at Conductix-Wampfler, takes a different view. She believes that there is not enough investment being made in cable research, as price pressures - especially during and after the economic crises – required ‘technically appropriate, but cost sensitive solutions’ to be adopted.

“The technical development and testing – for example of “intelligent cable” integrating RFID - would require time and money for testing and analysis over long periods of time, thus financing would be needed beforehand.”

As to whether we can expect to see smarter cables any time soon, she says that while many potential development areas exist, most projects have not moved beyond the testing phase.

“Personally, I doubt that, in the future, cables can be totally replaced, especially if we are talking about the next decade. In terms of data transmission rates, which are increasing rapidly, existing fibre optic technology will most probably evolve further.

But when pressed to predict what concrete cable developments we can expect to see over the coming decades, Mr Matinlauri says that, while it is the right question to ask, it is nevertheless a difficult one to answer. “Perhaps we will first see steps in practical applications, such as the use of new materials that will result in bigger kinds of solutions in the marine offshore industry as well as in the port environment.”

For her part, Ms Schliessmann adds: “Looking at the next decade, we will probably come across changes in existing cable concepts in terms of compounds and concepts, fibre optics, and Ethernet for data transmission. Within 50 years, in some domains, other devices or ideas, will have replaced copper cables or cables generally,” she says.

Mr Matinlauri remains open to even more radical technological leaps, referring back to the nanotechnology prospects pitched in Cargotec’s Port 2060 project.

“There are also several serious development projects involving the “space elevator” concept that will hopefully one day present new materials and opportunities in this respect. In the meantime, at Cargotec, we are working on a new fibre rope system, where we have increased crane capacity by adding fibre rope "pieces" - which are weight neutral in water - to the existing steel rope. This is still being investigated and developed.”

Meanwhile, Ms Schliessmann remains concerned about the cost of using copper cables on ship-to-shore cranes, particularly given the high cost of this commodity at the moment. 

Copper cables also have technical limitations in that they have to send power, control and data transmission all along the same conduit, which can also be something of a technical challenge.

“In general, cable development has kept pace with overall crane development, although in some areas - “intelligent cables” for example - we are still very much at the beginning. Also, in ground material, we are still looking at rubber/copper, polyurethane/copper or those with fibre optic solutions. However, very little at the moment is new in terms of groundbreaking news for compounds or transmitting material,” she says.

Handling heavier loads is certainly a challenge for the future. Increasing the number of containers on one lift is already a reality with tandem and twin-lift solutions and the extra load that puts on cables.

In respect of dual-hoist or double-trolley spreaders, Tratos export director Maurizio Bragagni says there are no real problems in producing good quality cable to handle these, because the number of the conductors is the same and, consequently, the weight and self-supporting forces don't change significantly.

“However, you do get a problem when, instead of a group of conductors, an optical cable is inserted, for example, which becomes an effective weak point. You must take extra measures to reinforce such cable,” he says.

Ms Schliessmann says, at least mechanically, preparing cable to handle heavier loads means only that the sheath materials, support element materials must be of higher quality, although some cable concepts possibly need to be reconsidered. Nevertheless, in her opinion, none of this represents “drastic” change.

The tendency in flexible copper cable, she maintains, is for it to get lighter, although this presents manufacturers with the challenge of finding “smaller” cables capable of transmitting higher currents and/or data rates, whilst not increasing the weight/strains on the crane.

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