Protect Your Company from Wire Rope Failures

When most folks think of Texas, they think big - big hats, big guns, big hair. But if you travel about as far south as a car will take you, just one long bridge away from the excitement of South Padre Island, you'll eventually reach Port Isabel, a small town situated just off the western edge of the Gulf of Mexico.

With a population of about 5,000, the town is small, but it's also somewhat lively, and it's not uncommon to see crane booms stretching into the sky above the cerulean waters of the Gulf. The economy isn't necessarily booming by any means - most of it is built on tourism that is spotty at best - but construction jobs are still underway and cranes can be found picking and setting everything from rebar to HVAC units to generators.

But on one particular day in early May of 2009, it wasn't a boom reaching toward the big Texas sky that was causing people to stop and stare; it was one that was lying in a heap just beside the water, lattice sections bent and lacings twisted into mess of mangled steel and frayed wire rope. "I got the call to investigate the cause of loss on a Manitowoc 888 that was being used to drive underwater pilings at a dock in Port Isabel,” says JR Bristow, of Bristow Truck and Equipment Specialists, an organization based in Ridgewood, NJ that provides failure analysis and appraisals, among other things, for heavy equipment. "The operator was hoisting the boom when it just sort of gave out and crashed to the ground. No one was hurt, but the boom was in bad shape. The initial reserve was set at $500,000.”

Though a half million dollars wasn't a total loss - the crane was valued at $1.5 million - it was a pretty hefty price to pay for something that, as it turned out, could have been avoided. On lattice-type cranes, booms are raised and lowered using boom hoist wire rope, and when that wire rope shows surface wear or corrosion, or worse, has broken wires within the rope strand, it can fail. It's usually just a matter of time.

Out of service condition

The subsequent investigation that followed revealed that the wire rope used to hoist the boom of the Model 888 had been in an out-of-service condition for quite some time, due to lack of proper lubrication.

“An examination of the failed boom hoist wire rope revealed that the wire rope had gone without the proper lubrication, which was the responsibility of the insured per the attached lease agreement,” Bristow remembers. “I also noted significant broken wires within the rope strands at an average of six to 12 per strand lay. Clearly, if the insured had performed a daily inspection of the boom hoist wire rope as required, that incident would not have happened."

The broken strand condition that Bristow observed was caused by load cycles that occurred during boom up and boom down functions that were part of the daily operation of the crane. Simultaneous compression and expansion of the wire rope usually occurs as it travels over the hoist sheaves, and that causes the gradual deterioration of the strand wires.

Like many other segments of the crane and rigging industry, the nuances of wire rope are complicated and varied. Considerable time, money and resources have been invested in new technology, new inspection suggestions and new manufacturers. And rightly so. As was the case in Bristow's example earlier, there's quite a bit at stake in terms of both human capital and equipment cost.

Python High Performance wire rope, a wire rope manufacturer that has produced a number of resources to assist people in understanding and ultimately purchasing wire rope, clarifies the structure of wire rope on its website

Python's site explains that a typical wire rope can contain hundreds of individual wires. These wires are fabricated and formed to operate at close bearing tolerances to one another. When a wire rope bends, each of its many wires slides and adjusts in the bend to accommodate the difference in length between the inside and the outside bend. The sharper the bend, the greater the movement, and the greater capacity for stress on the wire rope.

While manufacturers of wire rope are many and varied, each of the wire ropes they produce have three basic components:

  • The wires, which form the strands and collectively provide the rope strength
  • The strands, which are wrapped helically around the core
  • The core, which forms a foundation for the strands

According to Python's site, the greatest differences in wire ropes are found in the number of strands, the construction of strands, the size of the core and the lay direction of the strand versus the core. But what does that mean for the layperson? What should he or she look for when purchasing wire rope?

Tony Fastuca, vice president Python America & High Performance Products, says that most people buy rope based on four ideal standards. "Abrasion resistance, fatigue resistance, flexibility and strength. Those four typical standards often weigh into a purchase decision: he says. "A buyer sometimes has to give a little in one area to get a bit more in another, but a lot of buyers are looking for a good balance of those four standards."

Lifespan varies

Whereas other products usually come with an expected lifespan, wire ropes don't really have an average operational life. "There are records that exist of wire ropes getting two to three years of use, sometimes longer,” says Fastuca. ”But it's about the level of wear on the rope, not the length of time it's been in service.”

Just as the crane itself needs to undergo frequent and period inspections, the wire rope does, too. Fastuca talks of the so called "A,B,Cs" of wire rope abuse - abrasion, bending, crushing.

The principle goal of a wire rope inspection is to find potential problems before they manifest into incidents or serious accidents. Inspections should be performed slowly and methodically, with a keen eye for corrosion or broken wires or sections of rope that look questionable. Because the reality of wire rope is that it will fail if it becomes worn out, overloaded, damaged, misused or improperly maintained. It can lead to huge headaches for companies that try to take shortcuts or don't properly maintain it - a risk that just isn't worth taking.

By Tim Hillegonds, Thrive Creative Services

Source: ACT Magazine, October 2013 Issue

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