Heavy Transporter Wins Control Design Innovator Awards Competition

Size and Shape Matter in Material Moving: Doerfer Designs and Builds Innovative Transporter to Move Enormous Loads in Plant Environments

By Mike Bacidore

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July 2010Innovation can come in a variety of shapes and sizes. And sometimes, it's figuring out how to build a machine in a certain shape or size that makes it innovative.

Such is the case with Doerfer's Wheelift heavy transporter in Waverly, Iowa. Because of its ability to take an existing technology, modify it and customize it through collaboration with a customer and the use of available machine automation, Doerfer is the winner of this year's Control Design Innovator Awards competition.

"The Wheelift was originally patented in the '90s before Doerfer acquired it," explains Craig Schmeiser, program manager, Wheelift. "The original was driven by hydraulic motors. There are only two or three of the original transporters with that hydraulic drive still out there, but we had nothing to do with those. The inventor came to us around 2005, and he was looking for a company to partner with, build the transporters and maintain the engineering."

Even though Doerfer is a custom automation company, it saw the potential in Wheelift, hired the inventor and bought the patent. "We tried to sell it, and potential customers said they were nervous about the hydraulics, so we did a total design with electric drives," says Schmeiser. "We looked at Allen-Bradley, and its equipment was way too big. When we could go to customers with an all-electric transporter, they were much more excited."

Size Up the Options

Before Wheelift, three primary alternatives existed for moving heavy loads in a plant environmental. "In-floor rails and rail cars create paths that are laid out and restrictive," explains Schmeiser. "You can't change them. Another way is frictionless air-bearing transport, like a hovercraft. But they make a lot of noise, and your floor has to be super-flat. They can be trouble-prone, but they can carry heavy loads." The third method includes moving materials on dollies with caster wheels.

Solar Turbines in San Diego produces turbo machinery that is assembled on very large I-beam frames that can be up to 8 ft wide and 45 ft long. "They're quite large machines that we're moving around our plant from when we receive the skid off a truck to the assembly area and building our product on that and moving it to a test facility and then to a paint facility and then to shipping," explains Phil Brehe, principal quality engineer/Six Sigma black belt at Solar Turbines. "There's quite a bit of movement. These are gas-turbine-powered generator sets and compressor sets. Through the existence of our products, the skids or frames were on wheeled dollies with wheels that can rotate. One dolly would have four casters, and the other wheeled dolly under the frame or skid would have rigid wheels that don't rotate."

Solar would hook up a tow bar to the caster set of wheels and use a heavy-duty, high-horsepower tugger to move the dollies. "We'd been using those for a long time," says Brehe. "We'd done alright with those, but they have their own challenges in terms of maneuverability and wear. We'd have wheel failures. Because of the weight on them for extended periods, they'd get flat spots and that would accelerate their wear. It wasn't uncommon to see a small path of urethane down an aisle, and then we were stuck. We've had tugs overheat and casters break. We've also tried diesel and propane tugs, but they've all had their own challenges, as well."

New Sizes, New Shapes

When Solar Turbines planned to introduce the Titan 250 gas turbine generator set—a new product line that was larger, heavier and longer—it knew moving the new product around would pose significant challenges, so a Six Sigma project was launched to determine the viability of moving the equipment or to find something new.

"That's where I can in as the black belt on the project," explains Brehe. "Through my Six Sigma project, it became evident we needed a new way because of the weight on the wheels of the dollies, because of the maneuverability issues with this new bigger product and because of the spaces we'd need to move it in. I looked at designing our own and put a couple sketches together. I also did a lot of searching on material-movement sites and came across Doerfer. They sent some reps to see our challenges. We basically then put our heads together, and they said it was doable."

The project went out to bid, but ultimately Doerfer won with its product because it was customized. "Nothing existed like this at all," says Brehe. "Nothing else gave us the capabilities that Doerfer offered. One challenging factor was the size. We needed something very low. The wheeled dollies we'd been using were 19 in. tall. From a safety and hookup standpoint we couldn't go higher than that, and the 18.5-in. deck height was customized for Solar. We wanted a headless version that was completely flat so we could line up our packages. You can't do that if you have an obstruction. We had some unique needs that Doerfer responded to. It was a collaborative effort that was not an off-the-shelf design. Doerfer engaged us throughout the design process with weekly review meetings, and my team was involved in regular discussions on the basic functionality. The product doesn't say Solar Turbines on it, but there's a lot of Solar Turbines in it. The end result was what we needed."

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