Netherlands-based FibreMax has adapted man-made fibres for crane pendants

By Euan Youdale26 January 2010

Rinze van der Schuit, FibreMax president

Rinze van der Schuit, FibreMax president

Netherlands-based FibreMax has adapted the use of man-made fibres to produce pendants for cranes, which, it says, will revolutionize the heavy lift industry.

The lifting industry currently relies on solid steel and wire-based pendants but with loads becoming heavier in almost all applications, Rinze van der Schuit, FibreMax president, says there is a requirement for lighter and more flexible alternatives.

One of those alternatives is fibre-based pendants created using the FibreMax endless winding system. It is an automated process involving the continuous winding of parallel strands of fibres around two end fittings until the right cable strength or required stretch has been reached.

"We started out in yacht rigging making bigger and bigger cables with up to 800 to 900 tonne breaking loads. I thought, if we can use the technique for sailing yachts, we can also use it in industry.

"Then two years ago we had an enquiry [to make cables] for big observation wheels. Everybody was amazed at the weight saving.

"Then the first inquiries came from sailors using our equipment who are in the rigging industry - they said 'this is something we can use in construction.'"

The one-year-old company has already built a machine at its factory in Joure that can produce pendants up to 80 m long. It will be joined by a second unit, producing cables up to 150 m, in April 2010.

"Even when people calculate it on a mathematical basis, everyone says 'this cannot work'. Only when you have built the correct machine, which we did by ourselves, do they see," says van der Schuit

Certification

Although FibreMax is seeking certification from Lloyds, ABS and DNV for its cables, the techniques have been perfected and extensively load tested. This means the company will be ready to fulfil orders as soon as the first of these official standards has been met.

The first will be Lloyds in about two months.

Van der Schuit says this coincides with a high level of interest from the lifting industry, with more than 50% of potential business coming from direct enquiries. They include three major manufacturers that are producing heavy cranes for lifting jobs in power stations and refineries.

This amounts to €10 million (US$ 14.5 million) in possible orders for the first year.

"There are rules that specify if the load drops from the hook the energy recoil in the crane boom should be at a minimum and with the low angle (long radius) of the boom you can easily lift 40 to 50 % more with our pendants," adds van der Schuit.

As far as heavy lifting is concerned, there are two main fibres of choice, those being aramid and HMPE. The former provides up to six million load cycles at 20% loading, meaning it can match the lifecycle of a crane.

This compares to about a quarter million load cycles available from steel pendants in their lifetime, explains van der Schuit

Fibre range

Incidentally, aramid fibre is not widely used in ropes because it is rough in texture, so when you make a braided construction, it shaves the fibres through unless it has a proper coating. HMPE, on the other hand, is quite smooth, making it suitable for ropes.

With the parallel yarn construction of FibreMax pendants all fibre properties are directly transferred into the end product without the need of additional coating.

"We choose the best solution with the client. For very long lasting pendants we use aramid.

"Where weight is absolutely critical we use HMPE, but consideration has to be made on potential creep issues with HMPE on constant load, which is not the case with aramid," says van der Schuit.

The weight issue is one of the main considerations when choosing a fibre cable. For example, FibreMax has been approached to provide 2 m cables with 400 tonne breaking loads, to be used with four modular towers with jack up systems.

The limited space means there is not enough room for a service crane to lift in steel pendants weighing some 350 kg each. "This job can only be done with our cables because they are so light you can take them out by hand."

In this case HMPE is used because the weight to breaking load ratio is critical.

Competition

According to van der Schuit there are no competitors able to produce pendants in this way, meaning that they are expensive and inefficient compared to the FibreMax brand.

"We have a head start of about five years. In that time there will probably be another company in the world able to produce almost the same quality."

At one stage FibreMax had seven patents on its products but chose to relinquish them because they were time consuming, expensive and were continuously outmoded by the development of the technology.

The endless winding process incorporates laser technology to provide a 1/10 mm length tolerance for each metre of pendant.

Van der Schuit explains that it is impossible to reverse engineer his cables and competitors would have to design the manufacturing process from scratch.

"When we supply cables, you can see the fibres are aligned but you do not know anything about the fibre tension we are using. All fibres have the same pre-tension, but that pre-tension is confidential.

"The big advantage is that the end fitting is incorporated in our cables; this is not possible in any other existing production process. There is a threat but we can face that threat."

Apart from the flexibility and transportability of FibreMax products, van der Schuit says the price is also competitive, being 10 to 15% higher than steel plated pendants and about three times higher than galvanised steel wire pendants.

When set alongside all the other advantages, van der Schuit argues that it makes them highly cost effective.

"They are also maintenance free. While steel wire has to be greased, we have a clean cable. And it's soft so it will not damage the crane and the paint job."

Growth

As a result of these advantages the company hopes to see double digit growth each year for at least the first three years. Turnover for 2010 is forecast at between €5 to 10 million ($7.3 to 14.5 million).

"With the crane market as we see it, the average is about €50 million ($72.7 million) turnover a year with two machines. I can see us reaching that in three years - the market is there."

Opportunities can be found across the spectrum, particularly where cranes are getting bigger and require lighter components to save on lifting capacity.

"In the onshore and offshore windmill industry weight is always an issue because of the stability of the crane. When the wind speed is more than 12 knots you cannot hoist because there is too much drag. With lightweight pendants there is less of a problem."

The refit market, while unmeasured at the moment, is potentially even bigger, says van der Schuit. "Our cables are easily interchangeable with steel. We have the same diameters and point sizes, it's like putting a modern engine in an old car."

Despite the potential of fibre-based hoisting rope, FibreMax has no immediate plans to make the leap from pendant to rope production.

"We know that there are companies in the world trying to produce aramid and HMPE hoisting rope, which is also a big saver. A hoisting rope is always a braided rope so we would need other types of machines, although it is very big business. But first we will do what we have set out to do."

The current plans include a joint venture with Netherlands-based sling manufacturer Technotex to produce man-made fibre based alternatives to the heavy shackles used with spreader beams. The new products from this venture will premiere at Break Bulk Asia in Singapore, 26-27 January.

Offshore potential

Apart from heavy lift, FibreMax has also set its sights on the offshore industry, particularly the production of mooring ropes. Overall, the potential in the offshore market is considerably higher than heavy lift, says van der Schuit.

"You can put one or two zeros on the end of figures for this part of the business compared to cranes and the mooring lines are the biggest area. An order for one big rig can be €30 million ($44 million), so it is huge."

Some of these mooring cables can have a break load of 1,000 to 1,200 tonnes and be two miles long. For that reason the company is planning to build a 5 km long manufacturing plant.

"It uses the same process, but has to have a ridiculously long factory and machine. Everything is already engineered and we have two or three [potential] locations in Holland," says van der Schuit.

The factory will consist of an administrative hall with a nearly 5 km long column running out the side of it. This column will be wide enough to house the endless winding machine alone and there will be no room for human traffic on either side. The factory will be built close to the sea for direct transportation by ship.

"We have got the support of Dutch government [for the factory] and when we are up and running we could do €200 - 400 million ($291 - 581 million) turnover a year in offshore mooring."

The plant will cost about €30 million ($44 million) to build, so van der Schuit says it will have to be running at three shifts as soon as possible. "With this technology we can also quite easily produce big cables for suspension bridges."

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