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Adopting digital technology – a noble cause?

Adopting digital technology

How many times have we heard the terms “traditional” and “conservative” used to described the lifting and rigging industry in the context of digitalisation? Far too many times. But what does it take for the sector to jump on the digital revolution band wagon and is it worth it? Jacqueline Ong finds out.   

Now, this conservative attitude can be considered warranted. After all, it is born out of a need to be cautious and meticulous when offering lifting and rigging services. Interestingly, while the sector may be considered traditional in a number of ways, the clients that it services – the world’s largest oil and gas and mining companies as an example, are early adopters of digital technologies and are pulling the lifting and rigging sector along on their journey. And there are benefits to be had by digitising processes, as proven by Nobles.

The Australian lifting, rigging, service and engineering provider has a history that spans more than 100 years and is an early adopter of technology. Over the last 40 years, lifting and rigging standards in Australia have improved and as a result, regular quarterly and annual inspections of rigging gear have become a requirement. In many cases, users also need to obtain, store and reproduce various certifications and proof of inspections for their own customers and government agencies on demand. As standards became more stringent, Nobles made sure to evolve to meet their clients’ needs. 

Conducting rigging and lifting gear inspections are a big part of Nobles’ business and some seven years ago, the company took the digital plunge, introducing an online register for its clients – a first in the sector.

“The proliferation of lifting gear used by medium to large businesses means these companies may have hundreds or thousands of lifting and rigging gear. It is impractical for them to do inspections by themselves or to keep a register of the various equipment’s compliance – they simply do not have the resources to do so,” Nobles managing director Guy Roberts explained.

“Now, they contract experts to do inspections and we introduced the Nobles “Tech-Inspect” lifting and rigging asset management system, which maintains a register of compliance of lifting gear for our customers. Customers can access that register through a portal on our site and this provides them with a cost-effective guarantee that their gear is good to go.”

The benefit for Nobles’ clients is evident. They have oversight of their equipment and it is an effective solution to an age-old challenge faced by the sector – making sure lifting and rigging gear works when it needs to work. Seven years on and Nobles is not resting on its laurels, recently implementing the third generation of Tech-Inspect that adopts cloud-based and smart phone- enabled technologies.

Partnering with Australian technology firm Loc8, Nobles has launched an app that allows technicians to use their smart phones to record inspections and send updates to a customer’s register in real-time. While the move promises to improve efficiency for its customers, it also bodes well for Nobles.

“The mining boom was a wonderful boost to the lifting and rigging industry but when it stopped, it stopped quickly, leading to challenges for businesses like Nobles. We needed to quickly right size our business and make organisational changes to our people, processes and systems, to bring us back to profitability,” Roberts said.

“Key to that was our partnership with Loc8 to design the app as we had a lot of administration work at our branches that involved manually producing customer lifting equipment registers from our previous system. The app enabled significant labour cost savings as well as greatly speeding up the time it takes for customers to get their up-to-date lifting registers, which are now available online, anytime, on demand.”

Nobles hasn’t stopped there. Over the last 12 months, the company has been working on a fully ERP-integrated, online specialty lifting and rigging store, which it launched in February. The store has more than 1500 SKUs ready to go and the company has promised next day despatch for equipment in stock.

“It’s a great way to transact with small business in Australia, which is the backbone of our country. These businesses don’t have a lot of time or resources and want to check stock availability, prices and buy online 24/7. Going back in history, Nobles had a physical presence at every branch in Australia to sell to trade and retail customers but we found that to be uneconomic for some locations. Over the last couple of years, we’ve shut a number of retail sales counters around Australia, which has made it difficult for some retail customers to deal with us. By opening Nobles Online, we’re welcoming back retail customers seeking speciality lifting and rigging products,” Roberts said, adding that he expects the online store to drive a 5% growth for the business.

Turning to training, Nobles acknowledged that it has been especially difficult for the sector to train and maintain crane operator competence. Not only is training a long process, it is costly given courses are typically conducted offsite or onsite using cranes that would otherwise be productively hired.

At the end of last year, Nobles partnered with American firm, ITI, a specialist in virtual reality training, to exclusively distribute the latter’s virtual reality crane simulators (pictured) in Australia and New Zealand.

“The benefit to crane operators is that they can train their operators to a superior productivity and safety standard and keep those operators at that standard in a very cost-effective way at their own premises without risking any of their equipment,” Roberts said.

More on the virtual crane simulator can be found in the November/December issue of Cranes and Lifting but here’s the take-home message: If Nobles is anything to go by, there is a place for digital technology in lifting and rigging.

“The lifting and rigging sector must continue to digitise its processes to become more productive and efficient in order to match the speed at which our customers are doing the very same thing. Our customers are quite rightly very demanding of the industry, wanting quality products delivered quickly and efficiently, and for us to be able to do that productively and profitably, we need to match that drive,” Roberts concluded.

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