Moving On Up: Advancements in Overhead Material Handling Improve Safety and Efficiency

Liz Cuneo, Contributing Writer

Overhead Material Handling
Overhead material handling can save space, increase safety in the workplace and even boost productivity. (photo courtesy Demag)

Moving product, equipment or other heavy items around the warehouse can be tricky business. While the main goal is to move product from point A to point B, it’s essential to do so without damage to the product, the facility and—most importantly—without injury to workers.

There are many ways to do this, from forklifts and conveyor belts on the floor, to overhead cranes, monorails and hoists. Looking at your needs, you may find that solutions on the floor may not be ideal for a specific project due to weight constraints, worker shortages or even space limitations within the facility. So, where does that leave you?

With today’s equipment, you can move the system up, overhead and out of the way. In fact, space savings is one of the main reasons companies choose to move their material handling equipment overhead, as opposed to on the floor. Overhead material handling can save you space; increase safety in the workplace; and even boost productivity.

But, what do you need, specifically: a crane or a hoist? And, what are the differences between the two?

A hoist is a relatively simple device used for lifting and lowering loads, and it can only move loads vertically. A crane is a little more complex and is used for moving loads in different directions, as it can move both vertically and horizontally. Overhead cranes suspend from a beam or move along a rail. These cranes, also referred to as suspended cranes, are normally used in factories and can lift very heavy loads.

“Overhead cranes don’t consume floor space like other methods of lifting. The crane can cover a wide area versus a tow motor and has the capability for higher capacities and lifting heights,” said Laura Antenucci, Demag Marketing Manager.

As you look to add these systems, know that there are solutions for various projects that range from simple, manual hoists to fully automated systems with software-directed movement. There are different cranes and hoists for any job. It depends on the performance needed, the process and the product being moved.

Beware: Dangers Ahead

Regardless of the equipment you choose, it’s important to keep safety top of mind. The equipment should carry the bulk of the work. This is especially important, as you consider the safety of the equipment, workers and the warehouse as a whole. Safety is also critical for equipment located in the middle of the warehouse space amongst people working. There could be any number of dangers when lifting with a crane or hoist, including a load dropping, swinging or a hook snagging.

The important thing is to stay ahead of these dangers and work to ensure that the proper safeguards are in place to prevent injury.

According to Antenucci, there are a series of things you can do, including:

  • “First, there is the regular inspection and maintenance of the equipment. Regular maintenance can find issues before they become dangerous. By completing regular maintenance, it not only increases safety; it can help the equipment last longer and keep your productivity higher.
  • Second, training is imperative. Whether it is the operator or maintenance technician, knowledge is power. When training is lacking, the operator can not only damage the equipment—he puts himself in danger.
  • Third, overhead crane and hoist manufacturers have different features they can design into a project. These features include anti-sway and anti-snag software, or anti-collision and travel limit switches for runways with multiple bridges. All these features increase the safety of the equipment to help prevent accidents to operators and others within the area of the crane and hoist.
  • Fourth, well maintained rigging equipment is essential. Rigging equipment is anything used to hold the load for lifting, including wire ropes, slings, hooks and more. Using the proper rigging devices for each load and using the proper rigging technique ensures safer lifting. Sometimes, calling in a certified rigging technician is necessary,” Antenucci explained.

Don’t Forget Efficiency

Safety is definitely the major consideration as you explore utilizing hoists or cranes in your warehouse. But, you also want to invest in systems that will boost productivity. Luckily, there are new technologies out there to make material handling equipment run more efficiently. One major thing that can negatively affect productivity is downtime.

“One component many users don’t consider when looking to increase efficiency is maintenance software. This could be predictive or real-time software. Downtime is a big deal when equipment stops or slows down processes. Many times, periods of downtime can be prevented simply through maintenance of the equipment. The emergence of predictive maintenance and real-time status software can communicate when maintenance is required,” stated Antenucci.

Antenucci advised: “With wear items like brakes, the operator may not see or feel the signs of wear, until it is well past the maintenance point. When software gives warning about maintenance needed, this can be completed in a timely manner, when you can schedule it around your daily processes, rather than hitting a point where the equipment stops working to interrupt workflow.”

Adding Smarter Features

Konecranes Remote Operating Station
Konecranes’ remote operating station for overhead allows employees to operate one or multiple cranes from a safe, central location off-board the crane, away from the crane bay and in a remote location. (photo courtesy Konecranes)

One of the biggest misconceptions of overhead lifting systems is that they are complicated. But, the controls for overhead lifting solutions are simple and have fewer electrical and mechanical components than other systems, like conveyors. In general, crane operations are simple, and advancements today are making it even easier (and safer) to lift heavy loads.

In basic crane operations, a worker controls the crane from an attached cab, while another uses hand signals to instruct the operator on directional movements. However, more modern systems today allow one operator to use a push-button pendant system, which is attached to the crane.

A big advancement in the segment is the use of wireless controls, which can allow cranes to be remotely operated. And, one company is offering just that, adding that extra layer of safety by keeping workers far away from the materials being lifted.

Konecranes’ Remote Operating Station (ROS) for overhead lifting allows employees to operate one or more cranes from a safe, central location off-board the crane and away from the crane bay. ROS features the same controls as an operator’s cabin and uses monitors that display real-time camera views and pertinent information. The station allows workers to operate from a distant control room, away from the crane’s operating area and without a direct line of sight to the crane. This is a real advantage in industries operating in areas that are hot, dirty or difficult to access. The station greatly improves worker safety and has some less obvious benefits.

“Facilities can save on capital expenses, as there is no need for an operator’s cabin on the crane, or walkways and platforms to access it. Even better, multiple cranes can be operated from the same ROS station, without the need for crane-specific operator cabins or the need for operators to be in harm’s way on the shop floor with a radio or pendant controller,” said Juergen Gieske, VP, Industrial Crane Sales for Konecranes.

Hoists and cranes are important workhorses in various types of facilities and work areas, since they literally take the weight off workers’ shoulders. Advancements in the segment today mean you can buy anything from simple hoists to remote operating cranes, depending on your project.

As you look for new equipment, keep worker safety in mind through proper training, equipment maintenance and added safety features. Remember: moving material handling equipment up can mean more space on the floor for other machinery; improved worker safety; and even an increase in productivity. WMHS