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Look – no hands!

18 Dec 19 An Australian company has developed what it claims is a safer, quicker and more efficient way of handling suspended loads. David Taylor reports

The R-Series is controlled remotely, doing away with the need for tag-lines
The R-Series is controlled remotely, doing away with the need for tag-lines

Lifting operations are inherently hazardous. After all, a suspended load embodies plenty of potential energy and, when dangling from a single hook, it is not easy to control.

When lifting a large, cumbersome load, tag-lines are usually used to prevent unwanted rotation and allow the load to be properly oriented so that it can be set down safely and accurately.

But the use of tag-lines brings its own hazards, especially if the load must be lifted beyond a moderate height. The lines must be held by people on the ground – people in direct physical contact with the load and often directly below it.

Many attempts have been made to come up with a safer, more reliable, method of controlling the load during lifting operations but with little success. Now, however, an Australian lifting specialist has developed a technique that it says makes tag-lines a thing of the past.

Brisbane-based Verton says that its R-Series system “significantly improves safety” by eliminating the need for tag-lines. It can be applied to suspended loads of all sizes in all applications, and no-one needs enter the danger zone beneath.

According to Verton managing director Trevor Bourne, the R-Series is “a world-first, remote-controlled load management system” and has already been adopted by crane companies and mine operators in Australia. Now the company has set up a European office in Rotterdam and is talking to companies globally. “Our lifting solutions will be used around the world and we are looking forward to working with UK partners in the coming months,” says Bourne.

Verton has already captured the attention of Sir Robert McAlpine, whose plant division recently hosted a demonstration of the R-Series at its yard in Kettering. Bachy Soletanche is another early adopter and is using the device on the Thames Tideway Tunnel site in Wapping, east London. 

Verton recently demonstrated its R-Series at the Kettering yard of McAlpine Lifting Services
Verton recently demonstrated its R-Series at the Kettering yard of McAlpine Lifting Services
 “Tideway is a very restricted site where people are constantly having to work over each other,” says Bourne. “Our equipment alleviates that problem because there are no tag-lines.”

Indeed, tag-lines cannot be used at all in some instances and the Verton device is the only way that loads can be correctly positioned before being lowered into place. “We’re solving problems that couldn’t be solved before,” claims Bourne. 

Dominic Lovelock, Bachy Soletanche marine manager on the Thames Tideway Tunnel project, says: “The Verton equipment showed me the potential for new ways of safer lifting on our construction sites. I joined my team in reviewing the lifting beam technology in operation at the King Edward Memorial Park Foreshore Tideway site and we could all see the positive applications which the Verton design could bring.

 “Main works contractors on major infrastructure projects must continue to innovate in the way works are planned and executed. There are a number of exciting companies creating innovative technologies for the construction industry with a view to improving health, safety and productivity and Verton is one of the companies leading the way.

“Verton’s new design has the potential to radically improve certain lifting scenarios so that manipulating loads with tag-lines is no longer required,” Lovelock adds.

Bourne says the Verton system offers three main advantages: safety, productivity and efficiency. It is operated remotely, with the user positioned out of harm’s way, and the company claims that the device can deliver a 50% reduction in hook time and a 25% reduction in downtime during load handling.

And it’s not just limited to tricky infrastructure projects, either: “Anywhere there’s a crane, there’s a benefit,” says Bourne.

Craig Hook, chief engineer with McAlpine Lifting Solutions, is inclined to agree. He believes that the system will increase efficiency on the development and construction of high-rise buildings in central London where space is at a premium.

“We’ve undertaken trials with the R-Series to demonstrate how a load can be controlled without the need for tag-lines, particularly useful when working at height and in built-up areas,” he said.

“It was really interesting to see the Verton system in action at the demonstration. I was impressed with the ease with which a load can be turned remotely, meaning people are removed from the zone where they could be crushed. The days of the reliance on tag-lines could be a thing of the past.”

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 Ingenious though the R-Series undoubtedly is, the device employs nothing more sophisticated than gyroscopic precession to work its magic.

Externally, the device comprises a spreader beam which is attached to the crane hook with the load suspended below on slings or ropes. Inside the beam are two electric gyroscopes, a battery and the control system. Orientation of the beam is controlled using the gyroscopes. 

“It’s basic physics,” says Bourne. 

The idea for the device originally came from Stan Thompson, Verton’s chief technology officer. “Stan’s been working with me for about 30 years and he’s a great engineer,” says Bourne. “He came up with the concept and we started developing it together. We did a lot of modelling before we came up with the first prototype in 2015,” he adds.

The R-Series is operated through an industrial remote control with cameras to live-stream the operation. All models connect to smart software which interprets real-time load movement. It is available in various models capable of handling loads of up to 20 tonnes, although Verton has also developed solutions up to 400 tonnes.  

The company’s latest range, dubbed the Everest, is a modular concept that allows the user to configure the spreader beam to suit different loads. Bourne says that this range will be officially launched in January and that he has already received a number of orders.

Having established a presence in the European market, Verton is now intent on growing the business globally. “The Australian market is very widely spread out, geographically,” explains Bourne. “Everything’s a lot closer here.” He also plans to open a US office soon.

Bourne believes that his device, as well as delivering better productivity, efficiency and safety, is part of a wider movement towards modernising the construction process.

“There have been attempts to solve this problem before, but none of them have worked. We hope we’re smarter,” he says. “We have an enormous amounting of computing power these days and I believe we’re only three to five years away from seeing automated construction processes on our sites.” 

Wireless load orientation could be a huge step towards that goal, he says.

Wind power

One of the most promising markets for the Verton concept is renewable energy – more specifically, wind power. Lifting wind turbine blades is an especially delicate operation as the loads are very long and are, by definition, installed in locations subject to high wind speeds. 

Bachy Soletanche is using the R-Series to lift materials and equipment into confined spaces on the Thames Tideway Tunnel site in Wapping
Bachy Soletanche is using the R-Series to lift materials and equipment into confined spaces on the Thames Tideway Tunnel site in Wapping
Tag-lines used in this context are very long and the people controlling them need to stand well off from the base of the turbine – so far, in fact, that it is not uncommon for large areas of tree growth to have to be felled around the base of a land-based turbine, says Bourne.

The company has recently signed a memorandum of understanding with marine contractor Van Oord and heavy lifting specialist Mammoet to carry out further development of a safer lifting method for wind turbine blades.

Verton was approached after being selected to participate in PortXL, a Dutch maritime innovation platform in which both Van Oord and Mammoet are partners.

Verton is one of a number of technology start-ups involved with the PortXL accelerator programme, which offers mentorships from established companies such as Van Oord and Mammoet. “We are very excited about partnering with these two great Dutch family-owned companies to develop a new and safer method for installing wind turbine blades,” says Bourne.

Both Van Oord and Mammoet have committed to engage in the first of three phases of the development. The first phase is the kick-off phase, to have the technical assessment and requirements developed. Turbine supplier Vestas will provide the project partners with the technical information and expertise required for the development of the new product.

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