Onboard cranes getting bigger, safer, more efficient


A global rebound in offshore oil and gas exploration is helping to drive demand for shipboard cranes that are larger, more technologically advanced and safer to operate than their predecessors.

Crane manufacturers are seeing their equipment deployed on a growing number of vessels that serve the petroleum industry, from workboats and OSVs to floating exploration platforms. As the drilling has increased, so has the workload for cranes handling jobs above and below the surface.

Dan Lanxon, marketing manager for the Marine Crane Division at Allied Systems, a Sherwood, Ore.-based producer of fixed, knuckle and telescopic boom cranes, said his company is experiencing gains that reflect shifting economic and political realities.

Courtesy Allied Systems

Allied Systems’ K30-30 knuckle boom crane uses active heave compensation to prevent the vessel’s motion from being transferred to the load.

“We are seeing increased interest in marine crane sales in the overseas oil and gas market in areas such as Vietnam, Indonesia, Thailand and the west coast of Africa,” he said. “With sequestration upon us, Allied has moved toward doing more business in (this) sector, as well as the scientific community. We are seeing some activity with research vessels upgrading and new vessel builds throughout the global science community.”

Lanxon said technological advances have led to changes in how shipboard cranes are constructed and how they are used. He cited features such as active heave compensation, which uses onboard motion sensors to raise or lower a load to keep it at a fixed position relative to the seabed.

“In the past, the majority of our cranes were built to handle loads above sea level, and now we are seeing more RFPs (requests for proposal) and orders for subsea units,” he said. “We are doing more work for companies working in subsea conditions, whether it is handling systems to release ROVs or … maintenance and emergency operations on well equipment at the ocean’s floor.”

Reed Okawa, sales manager for Hydra-Pro, said the Seattle-based crane manufacturer has experienced its strongest growth in the Gulf of Mexico. The petroleum industry is behind a lot of that, he said, with installations on workboats and OSVs leading the way.

“We’re doing larger cranes — the average is getting bigger every year,” Okawa said. “In the deepwater sector, we’re doing a lot of ROV and offshore recovery stuff. In the petroleum transport sector, there’s barges, tankers, exploration platforms. As for demand for particular cranes, it’s pretty much across the board.”

The largest of Hydra-Pro’s marine cranes can reach up to 100 feet. Weight capacities range from 2 tons for the company’s smallest cranes to 200 tons for its largest.

In addition to producing equipment that can reach farther and lift more weight, crane manufacturers are incorporating features to improve performance across all environments and industries.

“High-strength steel, boom linkages, more efficient hydraulics, more compact and efficient winches and improved paint systems have made even the most basic marine cranes better,” said Jeff Birchard, technical manager for Atlas Polar, a Toronto-based company whose cranes are deployed on vessels ranging from commercial fishing boats to Arctic icebreakers. “Features and accessories like RCL (rated capacity limiter), anti-two-block systems and radio remote controls are available and becoming more popular with marine cranes.”

Birchard said remote control systems have become so popular and reliable on truck cranes that they are almost standard, but that hasn’t translated quite yet to marine applications.

“The move to remote control systems on marine cranes has been slow, but the trend is there, especially with larger cranes,” he said.

Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard

The use of advanced marine cranes isn’t limited to the petroleum sector or warm climates.  The U.S. Coast Guard icebreaker Healy deploys a range of Allied Systems cranes for Arctic duty.

Shea Nimocks, sales manager for Appleton Marine Inc., a crane manufacturer in Appleton, Wis., said there are more choices for remote control equipment now than there have been in the past as suppliers cater to the evolving market.

“The use of radio units in place of tethered units allows the operators more freedom to move around as they operate the cranes,” Nimocks said. “There are also options now for remote operation equipment suitable for use in hazardous locations. This is important for applications in the offshore (and) petroleum segments.”

The biggest change in remote control cranes in the past few years involves the development of advanced joysticks and controllers that are more adjustable and have a finer range of operation, according to Lanxon of Allied Systems.

“This allows the operator to work with (greater) peace of mind knowing that the controls are not as erratic as some older versions,” he said. “Recently we have also seen an increase in automated operations … where preprogrammed moves eliminate the need for additional personnel supporting the handling (of loads).”

Calling the safety of Allied’s customers and employees its paramount concern, Lanxon said the company often complies with new safety regulations before they are announced to the public. Allied is a licensed American Petroleum Institute manufacturer and — depending on the needs of the client — its cranes can be manufactured and certified to the standards of the American Bureau of Shipping and Lloyd’s Register.

“It is the crane manufacturer’s responsibility to stay current with all safety guidelines and regulations and to inform customers when their requirements are in conflict,” Lanxon said. “We need to constantly monitor the regulations of several different regulating agencies and stay informed. That’s really the difficult part, keeping informed (about) the changes so the implementation is seamless.”

Nimocks, of Appleton Marine, said regulatory changes have resulted in “what are essentially higher safety factors” for the design of cranes. Manufacturers are also giving more consideration to designing their equipment for a wider range of conditions, he said.

“Many of these cranes are being used to handle personnel as well as cargo, which emphasizes even more the need for safe, reliable operation,” he said. “Some customers have developed their own specifications that serve as an addendum to internationally recognized standards. This gives them more input into how the cranes are designed and manufactured for them.”

Courtesy Hydra-Pro

A 60-foot Hydra-Pro fixed boom crane is set up with two winches for handling petroleum hoses on a fuel barge.

The attention to safety can pay dividends not only in reducing the number of shipboard accidents, but also in boosting the bottom line of manufacturers. Okawa said that was the case at Hydra-Pro.

“One of the things we did some years ago is we became an American Petroleum Institute licensed manufacturer,” he said. “We put a quality control system in place as well as minimum engineering guidelines, which gives us more credibility in the marketplace.”

By Professional Mariner Staff