The challenge of maintaining a high employee retention rate is not a new one. Baby boomers have been retiring for years – the oldest of the demographic have been leaving the job market since 2011. Filling their shoes hasn’t been easy.
While offering a competitive salary helps, no amount of money will suffice if the work conditions are poor. And besides, happy employees are more productive employees. Creating a positive work environment, however, doesn’t always mean bringing in a ping pong table or adding on a nap room. It can be as simple as giving employees the best tools to do their jobs.
With a freestanding workstation crane, operators can be positioned further away from the machine while it’s in action.
An unconventional tool
Typically, a factory overhead crane is considered more of a fixture in the building than a tool. But when it’s a freestanding workstation crane, the nature of its role in a facility changes. When a workstation crane is assigned to each workcell and, therefore, each machine operator, it can be one of the best tools at their disposal.
For starters, they don’t have to share it. Unlike a fork truck, for example, which is a common piece of material handling equipment, anybody can jump on at a moment’s notice, leaving the other operator twiddling his thumbs until it’s returned. The same goes for overhead cranes.
“A traditional overhead crane might run the length of a building, at least a couple hundred feet, and just like the fork truck, anybody can run off with it,” says David Comiono, vice president and general manger at Engineered Material Handling Inc. (EMH). “Conversely, these workstation cranes really become the operator’s own tool – just as much as their machine or anything else that they might use on a regular basis.”
Giving operators ownership of this day-to-day piece of equipment can keep nagging frustrations, like waiting around to use the fork truck, at bay. And it keeps operations in the shop moving in a productive manner.
Unsurprisingly, there are other benefits to relying on workstation cranes over fork trucks. Those benefits address safety, maintenance and space issues.
“You have to have a lot of room for fork trucks – space for them to drive – which some smaller or medium-sized companies don’t have,” Comiono says. “You also have to deal with maintenance, such as batteries, propane and all of the other ancillary elements that come into play with running a fork truck. And they can also be dangerous for other people working in a facility because they’re constantly moving around, whereas a workstation crane remains in a fixed area.”
Workstation cranes are easy to install and, therefore, easy to reconfigure or relocate.
A safe place
A recurring theme with workstation cranes is the safety that they bring to a facility – and not just by reducing the chances of having toes run over by a fork truck. They keep workers from having to manually lift heavy loads and they position them safely away from machines and cutting tables.
“One of the simplest issues that workstation cranes address is taking the backbreaking work out of the equation,” Comiono says. “At so many facilities, a couple of guys are tasked with picking up a plate or a 35-lb. piece and putting it in the machine. While that might not sound heavy, it can add up when those tasks are repetitive.”
Even when fork trucks are involved, injuries can happen. Setting materials or parts on a worktable can be a clumsy and awkward task, and more often than not, additional manpower is required to slide the material off of the fork.
In addition to reducing the amount of manual labor required, a typical workstation crane is motorized and often radio controlled, allowing the operator to run the crane while standing in one corner of his workcell. Essentially, that means he doesn’t have to be tied to the machine.
With traditional overhead cranes, an operator often has to push a button on a cable from a fixed spot to load something onto a laser table or on a machine tool. Typically, the cable is close to that machine or table.
“Overall, it’s surprising how often workers have to deal with pinched fingers, broken toes, all kinds of stuff like that on a fairly regular basis, all in the name of material handling,” Comiono says. “And without the proper tools, people will revert to doing things manually if the equipment is too slow. And that’s when people get hurt.”
The easy life
Ease of use is a main selling point for almost any piece of equipment. And the workstation crane is no exception. Just like with a fork truck or an overhead crane, training is involved, but the learning curve is short.
“While some workstation cranes are motorized and operated with a remote control, some smaller systems don’t even require a motor,” Comiono says. “They can be manually pushed and pulled around a workcell, and in some cases, that’s a better scenario because the operator doesn’t have to fight with the machine. This also reiterates the concept of it being more of a tool in the operator’s tool belt.”
These types of non-motorized cranes sometimes come with a self-centering feature, too, which allows the operator to pick up the crane, move it to where it needs to be and then just let go, knowing it will return to its original spot. This saves time and, again, removes the physical labor from the equation.
Obviously, it isn’t just the operator that benefits from a workstation crane. The shop is also able to take advantage of the productivity and safety that these types of cranes afford. From improving throughput to reducing workman’s comp costs, there are many compelling reasons for a business to invest in the tool.
Additionally, workstation cranes can be helpful during a plant redesign. For companies with product mixes that are prone to change, having a flexible floor layout is crucial. This is especially true for Tier 1 and 2 automotive suppliers that must cater to the revolving door of new car models and upgrades.
“It’s basically all bolted construction,” Comiono says. “The only tricky aspect is the floor, but generally speaking, you could put most of these – up to a 3- to 5-ton capacity – on a traditional industrial floor. As they get a little bit bigger, then they need to start thinking about installing footers, but overall, the concept of the workstation is freestanding and, therefore, mobile. You can take it all apart, unbolt it, get a few new anchors and put it somewhere else.”
The mobile nature of workstation cranes also comes in handy for shop owners that are leasing their space. Some landlords might not approve of the installation of large overhead cranes while others might simply not have the building structure to support them.
“The concept of workstation cranes is a recognition that a lot of the buildings today are not really designed to handle cranes,” Comiono explains. “They’re putting up cheap metal buildings – if they can build it with sheet metal, they will. And so, where traditionally you might build the crane into the structure or support it from the building, a workstation crane is leveraged instead.
“Additionally, plant layouts change on a fairly regular basis depending on your customer and your product mix,” he continues. “So, the need for flexibility is significant. Business owners need their cranes to be able to move around and not be stuck in one place. For those leasing their building for, say, five years, they can take the crane with them when it’s time to move into a bigger building, for example.”
Heavy, cumbersome parts are easily handled with a workstation crane, removing the need for operators to manually lift or move them.
For the workstation cranes from EMH, a variety of sizes and configurations are available: footprints range from 5 ft. by 5 ft. through 60 ft. by 60 ft. They also come in a range of tonnage capacities from 2 tons to 10 tons.
The cranes aren’t limited to standard sizes, however, as the company also produces a fair amount of custom orders. Custom orders can be delivered in as few as four weeks.
“The concept for workstation cranes has been around for a long time, but we were really the first ones to take it into bigger capacities,” Comiono explains. “We were also the first ones to standardize a range of heavier capacity cranes.”
The only other piece of the puzzle is choosing the right workstation crane. Once an owner has decided to invest in one, they need to know a few additional details, such as whether they want one with the hoist motion going up and down or otherwise. To determine those specifics, it’s key to first assess what type of material or parts need to be handled. That could dictate whether hooks or grabs, magnets or vacuum are needed.
Workstation cranes from Engineered Material Handling come in a variety of configurations and sizes and can also be customized according to a shop owner’s needs.
“There’s a boatload of different attachments available, and when you choose the right ones, that’s what really makes a workstation crane run safer and even faster,” Comiono says. “But you don’t have to go it alone. The companies that sell freestanding workstation cranes or other material handling equipment are adept at offering suggestions and advice.”
Mital Steel, Northrup Grumman, Boeing, Caterpillar, Siemens, Steel Dynamics, Honeywell, Kia, Lockheed Martin, ABB, GE Power Systems, General Dynamics, Nucor, and the U.S. Army and Marine Corp. are just a few of the customers that rely on EMH for their cranes, be it overhead cranes, workstation cranes or custom material handling solutions. The industries the company serves range from automotive to shipbuilding and everything in between.
“In the end, though, it’s really about the employee and employee safety, offering good working conditions and putting people in a position where they can take great pride in what they do,” Comiono concludes. “To provide a good working environment, a company needs to provide its staff the right tools to do an easier, safer, better job. So it’s not really about the workstation crane; it’s really all about the employee.”