No innovation without direction
The Flannery family recently took the traditional Canadian trip to Florida, complete with a visit to the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral. I was expecting the visit to be mildly interesting, but actually found it amazingly eye-opening and thought-provoking. I highly recommend it to anyone traveling on the east side of Florida.
By Patrick Flannery
The technological achievements on display can’t be properly appreciated until you see their size and complexity firsthand. The crawler that carries the rockets to the launch pads weighs six million pounds and can only travel at one mile per hour, getting a thirsty 40 feet to the gallon. The Saturn V rocket that took astronauts to the Moon is on display, lying on its side in a huge exhibit hall. It’s 363 feet long and each of its five engines generates 7.5 million foot-pounds of thrust – more than all three main engines on the Space Shuttles. These are all just numbers. When you stand next to these mighty artifacts, you realize you are looking at one of the crowning achievements of American civilization, if not our entire species.
The Saturn V becomes even more amazing when you reflect on the fact that it was built in the 1960s using slide rules and transistors. The idea of initiating a similar program today, even with our far more powerful computers and manufacturing technology, does not pass the laugh test. We lack the energy and urgency that the Cold War lent the project. The will simply is not there.
It was with these thoughts in mind that I looked at the surprising numbers of new lift platforms, AWPs and telehandlers launched at the spring shows and asked: Why? Or more specifically, why now? There has been a competition on lately to see who can build the highest boom lift, and some of the results are becoming downright alarming (at least, if you are as afraid of heights as I am). So I asked some lift suppliers at the shows why we are seeing this explosion of longer and longer booms. Is it something we have always needed that we can only now build? If so, what is the technological change that has made 180-foot booms possible? The question caused a lot of head scratching, but some were willing to hazard a guess or two.
On the economic front, contractors are finding that using mobile, flexible lift technology can justify the extra up-front expense versus scaffolding or fixed lifts. As the costs of manpower rise, the time lost in setting up and tearing down fixed access becomes more important. The rental industry obviously plays a key role in this. When the lift can be rented for a fraction of the purchase price, it changes the equation when deciding how to approach a job. The rental industry is indirectly driving technological change – who knew?
Another factor that came out of my conversations at the shows was the difference in how machinery is used around the world. Telehandlers are everywhere in Europe. Even most farms have one. But here, we prefer boom cranes, forklifts or loaders with various attachments. In Australia, I’m told, people use excavators for almost everything, including lifting. Using small scissors instead of ladders or scaffolding is much more common in Europe than it is here. Perhaps in our shrinking world, North Americans are seeing how others do things and rethinking their own approaches.
Finally, it was pointed out to me that one of the main applications for super-long booms is wind turbine work. Perhaps our desire for emission-free energy is creating a new imperative that will prove as motivating and transformational as the Cold War.