Alliance Engineering Consultants (AEC) knows that more than just a crane, a crew, and some rigging equipment are required to successfully complete a complex lift: a detailed, engineered lift plan is also needed. Director Jeff Kazazi, Principal Consultant Len Sgherza and Lead Engineers Nick Birks and Steve Keating discuss the value of attention to detail in the design, understanding what’s needed for a high-quality lift plan, their lessons learned from decades in the industry and some high-profile cases where the basics have been ignored, producing near-catastrophic outcomes.
Graduating from UWA in 1976 with an honours degree in Civil/Structural Engineering, Jeff spent the first five years of his career in the commercial, industrial and domestic sectors before moving into the oil, gas and resources industries. Jeff and Len have collaborated for the past 32 years and Steve and Nick have been at AEC for more than 13 years. Nick is the nominated CICA representative in AEC.
AEC’s engineering experience has covered lifting and rigging systems, offshore, brownfield projects, front end engineering design, detailed design verification and management of structural projects.
The company also checks cranes for issuance of compliance certificates or certification for maintenance, including the 10-to-25-year major inspections required on some machines. The central aspect of its business, however, is lifting engineering, rigging design and problem solving and post failure subject matter expert (SME) incident reports for when things have gone awry.
AEC has invested considerable resources into software, surveying and inspection hardware and tooling, including an ‘engineers’ toy box’ of typical lifting gear items to ensure that the team can really understand what they are dealing with from a design and practicality point of view.
AEC personnel have developed lifting and rigging standards for a number of global energy companies. Sorting out problems for clients by providing innovative options of lifting and rigging, Jeff says that at the core of many problems are a failure to pay attention to the core principles of lifting and engineering.
“Experience, attention to detail, collaboration and a respect and understanding of the physics involved in lifting heavy objects,” he says. “These are the fundamental aspects of getting lifting right, but we consistently see them ignored or misunderstood as recorded in our incident assessment reports.”
Several noteworthy examples that AEC has seen over the last 15 years are detailed below:
– Valve Access Platforms for LNG tanks:
LNG tanks usually feature large valve access platforms supported on their roofs, where loads can exceed 400 tonnes. In some cases, the project team will look to save installation time by pre-assembling the complete platform at grade and then lift them into place onto the tank roof.
In one notable example, the designer of the transport frame and the valves support module made assumptions regarding the rigging stiffness that was in error by a factor of 10. To make matters worse, the designer of the rigging equipment (a separate company) also assumed loads paths that were not physically possible. The failure in communication between the original parties and the lack of an independent third-party verification (which should have been considered due to the high risk) led to an initial failure that was noted at site at the start of the lift.
Thankfully the client’s reps put a halt to the lift before a potentially catastrophic outcome. Jeff says that when AEC was called in to investigate what went wrong and how it could be resolved, he and Nick were “staggered” by some of the errors uncovered.
“Nick worked on this project assessing the load, revising the rigging set out and designing custom lifting beams to resolve the issues,” Jeff says. “We found a number of what can only be described as ‘schoolboy errors’ because both the module designer and the lifting system designer seriously got it wrong.”
Nick, who has been in his role for nearly 13 years, says that communication is key when it comes to successfully managing lifts with multiple different parties, ensuring that everyone understands proper procedure and who is responsible for what.
“There wasn’t enough understanding between the parties involved before we came on to the project and had a look,” he says. “Each of them thought that some of the potential problems were being covered by one of the other parties, but they weren’t.” The commercial implications of the delay required to fix the problems were significant.
– Incorrect Use of Lifting Beams and Spreader Beams
To the layperson the above items are the same but in reality, they are not. AEC recently became aware that a rigging crew, who were responsible for lifting a variety of heavy cargo items onto a ship, used a designated spreader beam, as specified by one person, but the team that took the job on decided to take matters into their own hands and change the rigging.
Setting up a rigging system that included three spreader beams, they used one main spreader beam with triangular rigging, and proceeded to use the other two as lifting beams.
“The spreader beam identification plate clearly outlined its working load limits, but the rigging crew picked it up in the middle of the beam, went to lift the item, just cleared it off the truck, and then it snapped and dropped the 45-tonne load back on the truck,” Melvyn Lim (Senior Engineer) says. “It was a catastrophic failure.”
Perhaps even more disconcerting was that, prior to the incident, the same crew had enacted the same rigging on a lift that was only marginally lighter – “luck”, as Melvyn calls it. AEC was called out to investigate and advise before any further lifting was undertaken.
Failure of rigging is a common theme in a lot of AEC’s incident assessment reports.
According to Jeff, however, it’s not the equipment’s fault; it’s an underlying misunderstanding for the load path and the capacities of the equipment that drives a lot of these failures.
– Lifting Procedure Errors
Further to the theme of not carefully considering a lift plan, Melvyn also highlights the fundamental flaws in lifting procedures that AEC were engaged to review. Upon discovering that the original installation of a flare tip appeared to have been “completed in a hurry” during construction, further investigation revealed that the initial operation had not been carried out according to the lift plan “at all”. When the facility came due for refurbishment works and the same lifting procedures were proposed to be used, AEC found the original rigging system procedures were “completely unacceptable”.
The original installation had been done by using a large crane and the replacement of an item at the top of the tower using the documented procedure had never been done before.
Working alongside those with practical knowledge of the cranes and other lifting equipment is at the core of AEC’s operations; after all, combining theoretical knowledge with practical experience is what produces the best results.
“Twice we’ve had our people go down to a site to inspect the lifting procedures and be told to ‘butt out’ essentially,” he says. “Unsurprisingly, they got it wrong. So, combatting these attitudes of ‘I know better’ is something that we stumble across regularly, and they’re only fixed when people see how wrong it can go. Engineers ignoring sound advice from those more experienced does happen. Collaboration by all parties is considered key to a successful lift”.
– Nature does not read procedures
One of the more recent high-profile out of control lifts that AEC has been contracted to resolve (for future lifts) was an out-of-control large swinging load.
Crane operations on barges or ships are subject to motions that can magnify under certain conditions which are not always apparent or foreseen. Procedures that state a maximum roll angle, period etc. are usually experience-based, and for good reason, but a rogue wave is not a predictable event.
The problem arose at a critical time of lifting when a load was about to be released from a fixed marine structure when a very long period swell passed through the operation.
It’s through the experience of its engineers that AEC can provide a range of well-informed, practically proven solutions. Steve speaks of AEC’s experience at an LNG plant where the company’s services were engaged from the outset.
After being approached by the client because of its previous experience in performing engineered lift plans for the exact same type of equipment before, AEC was able to direct the client down the correct pathway to complete its lift.
“The job was for multiple large lifts in a marine environment, and the client wanted to use a heavy lift vessel for the job,” says Steve. “Immediately, we were able to show them photos and videos of a job where a heavy lift vessel was used, and that project was a near disaster. Because of the rolling motions, it was not a sufficiently stable lifting platform; for this exact job, you need a very stable lifting platform, such as a Jack-up Barge, because the last thing anyone wants is a crane that’s bobbing and moving around.”
“When the client sees what we show them, they’re instantly relieved, and thankful they’ve engaged a group that specialises in these jobs,” he continues. “Companies want to avoid delays, mistakes, incidents, and by employing AEC to complete the engineered lift plans they do exactly that.”
After all, according to Steve, who holds over 20 years of experience in the oil and gas sector specialising in lifting engineering, that’s where AEC is of most assistance; putting in recommendations for lifts and jobs that they’ve witnessed before, because they’ve investigated the exact failures before.
“When people employ our lift engineering services earlier on, we’re able to suggest certain pathways and we can design customised lifting equipment perfectly suited to the job at hand,” he says. “The result is that critical lifts go smoothly, without incident and client feedback is always positive.”
“For a typical offshore project, operators will send a team of around six-to-eight guys offshore, with the right skills in the right equipment to do that project within a specific time frame,” Nick says.
“It’s all driven by this requirement to plan really well, with extreme attention to detail,” he continues. “If you don’t have the right people planning these operations, the delays can result in cost blowouts and increased downtime; they’re just so, so common, which is why it’s so important to engage with a lift plan that pays attention to every detail.”
Steve concurs with Nick’s sentiments. Highlighting the value of engineered lift plans in mining site shutdowns, Steve points to the millions of dollars per day that can be lost when shutdowns go over schedule.
“Every activity needs to be planned with a magnifying lens, because one day of delays could amount to millions of dollars of lost or deferred production,” he says. “Often the clients spend a lot of time in procuring various replacement components, such as mechanical components, turbines, rotating equipment and control systems, but they sometimes give a lower priority to how they’re actually going to lift these items in and out, which is where we come in.”
After all, as Nick points out, when it comes to lift planning, crane hire companies make their money through exactly what they advertise: hiring cranes out for an hourly or daily rate. And that is where the value in AEC’s input can also come forth: applying customised, tailored, unique solutions to large and logistically complex tasks.
“There’s a difference between what we can do and what crane hire companies can do,” he says. “We come at things with a different focus and apply engineering solutions – not necessarily crane solutions – to all problems. Ultimately, we’re just trying to help our clients achieve a quicker, safer, better result, whether that be offshore, onshore, or during construction.”
An important point that the AEC Team is quick to note, however, is their desire to operate in a manner that encourages participation from all parties in their associated fields of expertise. Crane hire companies possess practical experience in the field of lifting things, engineers possess a deep understanding of the physics involved in the lifting process, and OEMs hold the inside knowledge to its equipment and how it should operate.
“Engineers working with crane operators and lifting crews is the best way to go about it,” says Nick. “We don’t say we’re the experts in everything; but we are there to help avoid some very unnecessary and catastrophic failures that we have seen in our time.”
“When planning a high value lift, it is critical to ascertain the needs and expectations of everyone involved,” adds Len. “Often handling considerations for a single package need to encompass several locations including the workshop, the wharf and the installation location.”
“A clear understanding of the requirements of client specifications, multiple design codes, verifier focus, lifting equipment availability, site set out constraints, weather limits and site work practices is important to prevent hold ups through the various planning and execution stages,” he continues.
“It is only when you talk to the key personnel and step back and look at the whole process that you can see the best fit for the task at hand.”