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Buying a Crane, Part 1: Preparing a Crane Specification

Getting the right overhead crane starts by putting together a comprehensive specification, says Tad Dunville, director of corporate development at Ace World Companies.

This is the first of a two-part blog. This article helps end users put together a specification that will steer them through the potential minefield that it can feel like when sourcing a new crane. The second part looks at comparing proposals from crane manufacturers and builders, once they have submitted their bids against that tailored criteria.

The subject is important in that there are very few experts out there when it comes to buying overhead cranes. A purchasing decision maker might only ever have the requirement to buy, say, two cranes in their whole career. In many cases there is only a need to purchase one before they move onto another industry or the lifespan of the crane outlives their time in that role.

It means many end users, with all due respect, lack the experience set to properly write a specification for an overhead crane and are then in a weak position when it comes to dealing with suppliers. Given the variety of quality—in terms of expertise, service and product—in the marketplace, that can be bad news for a buyer.

Lost in translation

The less tightly honed a specification is, the more scope for interpretation it gives to the crane company. If a spec only includes capacity, span, duty and height of lift, for example, imagine the room for the seller to maneuver on other important detail. Look at it this way: every time there is a vague reference to a requirement, or where instructions are lacking altogether, it puts a fork in the process and the seller has to make a choice whether they go one way or the other. They will usually choose the most economical or profitable path rather than the path most aligned with the buyer’s true needs.

Which one they choose depends on the company, their motives, moral fiber, and more. Some will always choose the cheapest option in an attempt to get the job; others will go down the most expensive path. Another crane builder might do their own extensive research and take the option at each fork that works best for the job in hand.

The end result is a number of bids that could range widely in price. One might be $200k, another $650k, with a bunch in between. It feels natural to the buying decision maker to kick out the top and bottom ones, leaving themselves the players in the center ground to fight it out. But that could have been the wrong thing to do at the get go. If it was a low capacity, low duty cycle application, maybe the cheapest option would have worked. Conversely, perhaps the capacity and duty demands meant the top bidder was the only viable option for long-term, safe and efficient production.

This process can be simplified by making the specification as detailed as possible. Start by going beyond capacity, span, duty and height of lift, to explain whether the crane will be used to lift steel, wood or plastic. Furthermore, what will it do with those loads? Is it lifting onto a machine, truck, railcar, platform or somewhere else? Are there any special requirements? How many picks per hour, and how many of these are near capacity, above 50% rated capacity, or below 50% rated capacity? These questions will determine accurate specification more than anything other than basic capacity and dimensions.

In short, give the crane companies a flavor for the plant in which the crane will be working.

Putting in a shift

Also outline over how many shifts per day or week the crane will operate. A lifespan of a crane will be dramatically altered by how often it lifts and at what capacity. We’ve explored duty cycle in an earlier blog and it’s worth revisiting the subject when preparing specifications. If guidelines say a crane will last 10 years, that might be based on an assumption it is only working one shift per day. That can be slashed to three years or less if it is working at capacity over three shifts.

As we’ve also explored before, the Crane Manufacturers Association of America (CMAA), an independent incorporated trade association affiliated with Material Handling Industry (MHI), rates the duty of cranes from A to F. Class A covers cranes on standby or used for infrequent service, while Class F covers continuous severe service cranes. In one case I heard about, a railroad company installed a Class D crane based on guidance from a supplier, which was way beyond what they actually needed based on their actual lifting habits which were perhaps 10% of rated capacity most days.

(The next installment of this blog will also reference the Hoist Manufacturers Institute [HMI] and look at how an end user should look at both crane and hoist guidance when comparing proposals.)

I’d advise purchasing decision makers to engage in dialog with crane professionals whilst compiling the spec. Not only does this help to understand the requirements of one’s lifting operations, but it is also a way of gathering intelligence about the suppliers in the marketplace. For example, are they knowledgeable? Are they quick to respond to telephone calls? Are product and engineers based at the listed business address? Do they have a strong grasp of English? Have they honored other, similar contracts? How might one feel about working with them over the lifecycle of the crane?

Two way street

Reputable crane builders will have questions of their own. They won’t want their eventual proposal to be based on guess-work or supposition and will endeavor to build their reply on detail about the facility and its requirements, not on what suits their own business model or makes the most sense purely from a profit or ease of installation standpoint. This in turn will lead to further dialog and a trusting relationship can form.

See how this more consultative approach is getting us further than writing 10 tons, 15m span, two shits and 5m height of lift on a piece of paper?

Both parties should be interested in how feasible it is for the crane company to honor the facility’s requirements, deliver the parts, install them and fulfill after-sales commitments. It would be a good sign if the crane company were asking: Is it a new or existing building? What kind of access is there to the plant? How easy will it be to get the crane into the building?

A smart crane builder who is engaged in this process on a frequent basis will understand the importance of getting advanced information. If it is a new facility, will other tradespeople involved in its construction be clear from the site or still completing their scopes of work when the crane is due to be delivered? If it is an existing plant, will the end user be prepared to cease production to facilitate smooth access, safe installation and testing? Nobody wants to sit onsite waiting days (weeks, even) for the green light.

A clean slate

If one is seeking a crane for an existing facility they should guard against matching new equipment with old, so keep that in mind when issuing a spec. Just because a 5-ton crane from a certain manufacturer worked for the previous decade, it doesn’t mean a like-for-like replacement is the best option. Perhaps that was the wrong crane in the first place; operation habits have changed; or that manufacturer has completely changed the components or capabilities of that range of cranes.

There are sources in industry that can help. Ace World Companies, for example, offers blank specification sheets (approved by the Crane Certification Association of America) that are readily available. This blog hasn’t been about promoting Ace, but I hope it did get the message across that there is much crane buyers can do to ensure they get bids based on precise criteria about their lifting requirements. Following some of the steps above will level the playing field and make for more informed negotiations.

Look out for the next installment about comparing proposals.

Thank you for reading. Follow us on Twitter at @AceWorldCompany

Tad Dunville
Director of Corporate Development, Ace World Companies
Membership Committee, Crane Certification Association of America