Oil and gas, grain and timber, iron ore, and coal — these are just a few of the raw materials that keep the wheels of civilization turning each day. However, how they get delivered to the mills and refineries that convert them into usable products is something to which few among us give much thought. Kent Phillips does. The president and CEO of the Superior Lidgerwood Mundy Corporation (SLM Corp.), he and his team spend their days manufacturing a host of advanced equipment that makes barge traffic and so much more possible.
Chat for a few minutes with Phillips or his brother Sean Tenerelli, responsible for commercial business development at SLM, and you’ll be left with the impression that this is a very young company, one filled with modern ideas and bold plans. In reality, the Superior, Wisconsin-based provider of winches, hoists, capstans, and barge positioning systems will soon celebrate its 150th birthday.
SLM has been involved in the design and implementation of winch, capstan, and hoist solutions for the US government since the dawn of the war department, a partnership that continues to this day. “Look at any of the military vessels built over the last 150 years, and the chances are excellent that you’ll see our equipment,” said Tenerelli.
Despite this proud history — or perhaps because of it — SLM has begun to transform in recent years. After the retirement of several key employees, the company started looking for ways to combine their unique experience in mechanical lifting devices with modern drive technology. This includes state-of-the-art control systems, hydraulically-actuated leveling equipment, and automated solutions that make SLM products more cost-effective, reliable, and above all, safer.
“To accomplish our goals, we had to find the very best drive technology available and the application support necessary to integrate it with our winches and hoists, said SLM’s engineering and external affairs manager Kenneth Behrman. The company turned to NORD DRIVESYSTEMS, a global mechanical and electronic drive technology manufacturer. “We soon found that NORD has both, with a broad product selection and excellent availability, and the price points we needed to be competitive,” added Behrman.
One of the first examples of this collaboration was on a funicular hoist used to transport personnel to and from a hydroelectric dam located in the southeastern United States. SLM built the original system in 1912, and while it was still functional, the user asked that it be upgraded to modern operational standards. One of the challenges, however, was that the facility is protected by historic preservation laws, so the replacement equipment had to be minimally invasive.
“To design a hoist that would fit into the original space but meet today’s much higher safety factors, SLM worked with NORD to design a CLINCHER gearbox paired with an open gearing set,” said Behrman. “CLINCHERs are typically used for agitators and mixers or conveyors, but the unit they recommended possessed the required characteristics for in-line operation with an open gearing set as well as the capacity to transmit the required power generation, all in a small footprint.”
In another example, SLM addressed the need for more efficient and standardized barge positioning systems. Behrman noted that legacy positioners are often unique to each loading facility, based on decades-old technology that requires a high level of experience to operate. Given the current labor shortage and the fact that many dock workers are approaching retirement age, these skills are increasingly hard to find.
What’s more, much of this work is manual — personnel must hoist heavy lines and walk along the sides of barges and docks, even in inclement weather. “It’s a difficult and unsafe job,” said Behrman. “Because of this, it’s tough to find people today that are willing to do it, and those who are willing are usually only familiar with whatever system they were trained on. We wanted to develop a standardized, largely automated system that someone can operate with minimal operator training.”
Tenerelli agreed, noting that one of the primary challenges to these systems is to balance operational needs with a cost-effective solution. “We found early on that facility owners were asking for better safety and efficiency but usually balked at the price tag,” he said. “This led us to develop our S-Series of standard winches, which is NORD-based and offers a great ratio of cost, efficiency, and the desired safety improvements.”
Engineering manager Behrman added to this, stating that “In this and countless other examples, NORD’s engineering team has provided sizing and application advice that keeps us on the forefront of design improvements. We are now able to apply gear motors in unique applications with the full support of the manufacturer’s engineering team, allowing us to offer solutions that most cannot.”
Similarly, operation of the tripper conveyors used at the tops of these grain, coal, and fertilizer facilities is not for the faint of heart. Here, a worker must manually engage a hydraulic clutch to activate a tripper device, dumping whatever material the belt is carrying into the elevator or railcar waiting below. When the tripper stops, the only thing holding it in place is a series of brakes that are notoriously unreliable given the extreme loads and extended service of such equipment.
Adding even more risk to this scenario is that operators are often required to work hundreds of feet in the air, where any slip or equipment malfunction might send them toppling to a rapidly moving belt or the ground below. On top of this is the constant exposure to grain dust, which is not only hazardous to the workers’ lungs but is also explosive.
“For us here at SLM, this sort of working environment is intolerable. But by using a pair of right angle, vertically-mounted winches equipped with the new gearboxes and an advanced positioning control system, we’ve developed a system that gives operators full control from a remote station. This eliminates the need for personnel to work on or near the tripper and provides much greater accuracy, avoiding the spillage that so often occurs with old-fashioned equipment,” said Behrman.
“Whenever possible, we use completely enclosed gearing in our solutions. This decreases the possibility of human injury, drastically cuts maintenance and inspection time, and significantly extends equipment life. Because NORD products allow us to accomplish most of our solutions without open gears, chains, or belts, we’re able to provide offerings that are safer and have higher ROI than our competitors,” said Behrman.
Phillips summarized the relationship with NORD as follows. “Around ten years ago, we made the decision to take all that we’d learned during our years working with the military and various government agencies and bring it to the commercial market. We wanted to have customizable solutions that are built off a standardized platform, giving us the flexibility to arrange everything the way we wanted and deal with different levels of geometry and environmental constraints, but without the need for a fully customized package.”
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