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The Product of Ingenuity

There’s more to safe material handling in the workplace than adopting state-of-the-art technologies; our future remains in the hands of people.

By: Steve Napieralski, Contributor

Innovations — like the floor-anchoring system that allows the davit in an OZ wheel base to rotate while under load — can only be brought to fruition with a step-by-step approach. Image courtesy of OZ Lifting.

We live in a world where there are constant references to artificial intelligence (AI), automation, and the Internet of Things (IoT), as if human beings were a failed experiment. Proficient hunter-gatherers, but ultimately not as cool as robots, is the suggestion. It’s a myth that is gaining momentum for a number of reasons; enduring labor challenges being a main driver.

We’re lucky to work in a sector that rejects the argument; for a start, we have to be pragmatic. In the lifting industry, especially, we will require interaction between people for generations to come. We need problem-solvers and intuitive minds to continue to deliver material handling solutions high above buildings, deep down mineshafts, miles offshore and many feet under the sea.

At every turn, safety and efficiency is in the hands of people first, technology and product second. I will never sign off on experimenting with automated answering services or replacement of the interaction between the person presenting a material handling challenge and those with the expertise to respond with the solution. You can’t replace experience, knowledge, competence and common sense — and we shouldn’t intend to try.

Nowhere is the relevance of people more obvious than in relation to product innovation. And it’s also an area of our industry where we need to preserve the importance of theories and concepts that have stood the test of time. We remain in a daily battle with gravity, after all; that hasn’t changed since cave dwellers roamed the world’s plains.

AI, automation, and IoT will indeed shape our future, but they will do so hand-in-hand with cranes, hoists, clamps, trolleys and rigging gear — and the people that continue to design and improve them. Radio-frequency identification (RFID)-chipped shackles, hooks, slings and harnesses have been around the workplace for many years; it’s a good example of taking the product of human ingenuity and combining it with technology at the point of use.

BIPEDAL HEROES

Innovation, in all its human-spirited glory, can usually be put into one of two categories:

  • Continuous product improvement
  • Completely new innovations

Companies like mine that provide product that is supplied through channel partners or a distribution network, will likely find that continuous product improvement is mainly driven from within the walls of the company, while completely new innovations will come back up through the supply chain from the point of use.

Given that an in-house team sees product at various stages of manufacture and assembly, they often think of ways to innovate that don’t necessarily lead to a vastly different look, feel or function when the item is put to use.

It may be that a great innovation creates a faster, leaner or safer manufacturing process that results in smoother production lines or reduces the need to stock certain parts. I’ve seen it before where a product is improved but neither the distributor nor user know it’s happened. I get just as excited about innovations that you can’t even see as I do about the ones that result in something that’s obvious from the moment it’s taken out of the box. It’s all incredible innovation.

It’s why I like working with people that never assume things are perfect and never think that something can’t be done. If it later turns out that something is as good as it can get based on present technology, or improving it one way is impractical, that’s ok — at least we tried.

The best channel partners we work with challenge us constantly. They ask about higher capacities and better strength to weight ratios, for example. You’ve got to be nimble when it comes to a dealer network.

Our partners we know through the Associated Wire Rope Fabricators (AWRF) are often rigging professionals that need to deliver solutions to crane applications, while those we meet at the Water Environment Federation Technical Exhibition & Conference (WEFTEC; see sidebar) might provide semisubmersible pumps and railings for wastewater plants. Their needs are very different and the ways that they challenge us to innovate are varied too.

Wheels Up

Image of OZ Lifting davit crane wheel base. Image courtesy of OZ Lifting.

A good example of human-driven product innovation was a davit crane wheel base we recently put to market. Demand for such a solution has steadily increased over the last few years. Our customers try to leverage the benefits of our lightweight davit cranes with the ability to use them in different ways and locations.

The wheel base allows them to move the crane to various points within a facility, and the applications are limitless. The main benefit is that users do not have to permanently mount a base at the pick location. Imagine the benefits in the warehouse and distribution center.

Having previewed the wheel base at the Water Environment Federation’s Technical Exhibition & Conference (WEFTEC) in Chicago, we will show it at the AHR Expo (Booth S10534), which takes place January 22-24, 2024, also at McCormick Place. The wheel base will be showcased alongside the full range of davits at an expo that attracts a delegation of heating, ventilation, air-conditioning and refrigeration (HVACR) professionals. It will reappear at MHI’s Atlanta-based MODEX show in March.

All these events will once again prove the value of in-person interaction that will, in turn, drive future product innovations.

OUR APPROACH

Whether it’s continuous product improvement or completely new innovations, they can only be brought to fruition with a step-by-step approach. Once the central theme gets put on the whiteboard, it’s time to sit down with our sales, engineering and marketing teams. It’s important that they’re all there.

Typically, an engineer will drive the conversation, looking at what the product must have and what it’d be cool if it could do. This is where a wish-list is drawn up and it’s likely that many items will eventually be ruled out because of logistics and viability.

That piece of paper is then taken away by each of the teams to work on their part of the project before we sit down together again, usually in two to three weeks. It will be clear at that point if it’s worth proceeding with a prototype or not.

I recommend making two prototypes, unless a product is especially large. We will rigorously test both, taking one to the point of destruction. That’s important because it tells us what the limitations are and it’s a story to tell a prospective buyer. In other words, if it works way beyond what will eventually be the marked safe working load, there’s peace of mind that it’ll meet requirements placed upon it in the field.

We involve select dealers in this process too. After all, they’re the ones that are going to be responsible for placing it in applications in the field. They might notice something that needs tweaking or removing.

Whatever the type of innovation, human beings will remain at the heart of the process, and that should be celebrated. There will always be more to safe material handling in the workplace than adopting state-of-the-art technologies. WMHS

Steve Napieralski has been in the lifting and rigging industry for 33 years — seven years working for a manufacturer of lifting equipment before setting up his own businesses. In 1995, he started as a manufacturer’s representative dedicated to the lifting and rigging industry, and in 2004 he founded OZ Lifting. He is a graduate of Winona State University and holds three patents. Napieralski has been affiliated with associations since 1992 with his membership in Associated Wire Rope Fabricators (AWRF). www.OZLiftingProducts.com

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