Are Structural Composites Coming?

For some time now, I’ve been wondering about the potential for using carbon composites in the structural components of access and lifting equipment.
 
The durable, lighter-weight materials are showing up ever more frequently in structural components for a growing variety of other products, ranging from bicycle frames to high-end cars, bridges, and even aircraft fuselages, so do they have a future in aerial lifts, telehandlers, and cranes?
 
On the face of it, one might think that they would be lighter than steel, which could allow longer reach or higher platform capacities if they would work in the booms of aerial lifts. Also, they won’t rust. Composites have already made their way into parts of aerial lifts. Some manufacturers are using them for non-load-bearing components like cowlings, body panels, and hoods. And crane manufacturers have used composite sheaves for at least two decades.
 
Plastic outrigger pads have been available for years, and recently manufacturers have brought out pads made of fiber-reinforced polymers. But what about using these newer materials for components that move or lift while bearing loads? Niftylift has taken composites into the realm of airborne structures by using them in its ToughCage work platforms, which provide rust-free durability and lighter weight.
 
During ConExpo, Parker Hannifin displayed hydraulic cylinders with composite bodies in the International Fluid Power Exhibition. So it would seem possible that you might one day own or use aerial equipment that has a composite boom, jib, scissor stack, work platform, or turret.
 
I’m not an engineer, but I’ve interviewed a lot of them, so I know that most engineers will tell you nothing is as clear cut and easy as it seems, and that the devil is in the details. There are, of course, all kinds of properties and aspects to consider, like brittleness, stiffness, tensile strength, temperature sensitivity, reparability, ease of manufacture, safety, and ultimately cost-benefit ratio. No amount of cool features and capabilities are worth anything if customers aren’t willing to pay for them.
 
If composites don’t have a larger future in the structures of aerial lifts and cranes, I’d like to know what will prevent them from being more useful.
 
I’ve talked to some industry experts about the topic and plan to talk with more in the near future. Some have told me that they are carefully studying the possibility, but that there are many considerations to analyze. Any use of composites for structural components would require a great deal of testing. Sometime in 2015, I plan to put my findings into a feature article.
 
If any readers have insight into the topic or examples they’ve seen composites used for structural components in any product, or if any experts would like to weigh in, I’d welcome hearing from you, either by phone at 480-329-5773 or by email at mlarson@maxcapmedia.com.
About the Author: 

Mike Larson

Mike Larson has been writing about heavy equipment and construction for more than 25 years. He joined Heartland Communications Group in 2011 as editor of Lift and Access. During his career, he has edited Western Builder and Midwest Construction, and has been a regular contributor to Engineering News-Record and Constructor magazines. Larson also worked in and managed marketing communications for Manitowoc Cranes. He holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Wisconsin–Madison.