Up for grabs
Alex Hughes examines the challenge of balancing technological features and robustness
In the ports industry, grabs, like every other piece of handling equipment, are undergoing almost constant change in a drive to squeeze every last ounce of productivity out of them.
However, deployed to handle some of the harshest materials currently moving through ports, the question remains whether grabs are actually suitable to incorporate much more technology, or perhaps have reached the end of their development.
Asier Susaeta, general manager of Basque-based manufacturer Credeblug, acknowledges the problem. “The main challenge in the grab business nowadays,” he says, “is to achieve a good balance between technological features and the overall robustness of the grab.” He explains that the current market is seeking an evolution in grab control, particular towards more autonomous grab motion and diagnostics. Environmental conditions and operational requirements make it necessary for these new systems to work perfectly irrespective of fatigue and onerous working conditions.
Mr Susaeta points out that, in the past few years, the market has been moving towards designing grabs for specific commodities while also reducing the overall weight of the grabs themselves. “In terms of port activity, specific developments have focused on dust control and also on increasing capacity. Furthermore, in the next few years, our industry will move towards providing more automation and increased safety features,” he says.
According to Sigvard Orts, second in command at Orts Grabs, the overall design of grabs is open to change, either to accommodate specific uses requested by customers, or to reflect a particularly niche use.Improvements, he believes, are possible in the way that they are put together and in the materials used. “Nevertheless, irrespective of what improvements grab manufacturers can make to their products, the question remains: does the market want to pay for these 'features'?” he says.
For Sebastian Brandes, chief executive at manufacturer Peiner Smag, technology is definitely changing the way grabs are being designed and operated.
“As examples, I would, in particular, cite the use of new materials, such as high tensile steel. In addition, there is advanced crane design, which has helped improve performance, especially in respect of better filling of the grab,” he says.
As to whether there are limits to the improvements that can be incorporated, he remains sceptical. As with any product, he says, grabs are undergoing continuous improvement. However, when asked what the incentive is to buy grabs now, when something better might just be around the corner, Mr Brandes says that there are always benefits to buying the latest products that enter the market, despite the fact that further improvements might render them comparatively out-of-date.
“If an operator buys a new grab now, they can immediately start enjoying benefits, but only if they buy products that optimise lifetime costs. In this context, durability and technology are the two key factors,” he says.
For his part, Mr Susaeta says that, compared to older grabs, the latest models – and particularly the smart systems they come with – can generate a faster return on investment in terms of maintenance and operational costs. “Cycle time reduction, better capacity, lower electricity consumption and, particularly, cycle reliability make grab renewal a very interesting investment,” he says.
Mr Orts notes that if a materials handling company needs a grab, it has to buy one to accommodate that need, irrespective of whether something better might be in the pipeline. “It doesn't make sense to always wait for the next improvement,” he says. “The situation is very similar to that of computers or cars: they can often become 'redundant' within six weeks of purchase, having been replaced by a newer model that will do the job slightly better. But we still buy them to meet a specific need at a particular time.”
Yet there are dangers in buying the latest equipment, he warns. “Not every technical improvement promoted as 'new' means it is actually new and really improves the operation of the grab. Not every promoted improvement makes a grab better.”
In terms of retrofits, there are limitations on what is possible, says Mr Orts: “Sometimes, it is not possible to incorporate an improvement due to construction reasons, there being, for example, no space available to do so. However, if we are talking about improvements to hydraulic equipment, then, clearly, retrofitting this to older models is a distinct possibility,” he says.
At Credeblug, the emphasis in recent years has focused on creating a more modular grab design, based around a standard structure and concept. The reasoning is that customers can easily modify their grabs without having to increase the number of spare parts they keep. “We have also refurbished some of our old grabs by replacing the electro-hydraulic unit with the new concept of variable flow motion, which minimises electricity usage and also the need to heat the oil,” says Mr Susaeta, stressing that, in the process, savings can be made.
He also reveals that Credeblug is working on new systems that should be available soon. Based around Pulanfi technology, these additional features will allow grabs to work in deep water environments. The new range also includes improved vision and illumination capability, in addition to positioning sensors.
Mr Brandes says that retrofitting new technology very much depends on the level of standardisation of the product. “This type of flexibility also varies both by grab type and also by the type of crane with which the grab is operating,” he adds. Peiner Smag is currently working on technological upgrades of its grabs.
There are concerns that the additional technology being incorporated into grabs could make them too sophisticated, leading to higher service and maintenance expenditure. However, Mr Brandes does not see this as a problem as long as the right technology is applied to meet the specific needs of each individual customer. “In fact, in our opinion, through the incorporation of better technology, the lifetime performance of grabs has definitely improved.”For his part, Mr Orts suggests that there is always a compromise to be struck between what an owner might want to achieve and what it is possible to do, especially in terms of maintenance. “At Orts, we therefore try to keep our grabs as technically simple, reliable and as maintenance friendly as possible,” he says.
In finance terms, return on investment is claimed to be better on modern grabs, although it remains specific to each project. But the key to manufacturers remaining competitive is continual innovation in what is ultimately a very niche market.
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