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Blue Sky rises to challenge

PLANT HIRE - Phil Bishop reports on a small company whose products aim to eliminate the abuse of aerial work platforms

IF YOU have ever seen someone installing pipes at height in a building or racks in a distribution warehouse, the chances are that you have seen behaviour that lies somewhere between risky and reckless.

A common abuse involves an aerial work platform ? probably a scissor lift if it can be positioned up close, otherwise a boom lif t if out reach is required. A couple of guys will probably r ide up in the platform, holding on to a long section of pipe or racking that is balanced on the platform's hand rails. A lternat ively, they might sling the load and suspend it from the platform.

This k ind of method manifests all k inds of bad practice that f lout Health & Safety Executive regulations and guidelines on both safe work ing at height and manual handling of loads.

Firstly, the handrails or aerial work platforms are not designed for bearing loads. Secondly, the weight of the pipes on extended telescopic boom lifts present a threat to the stability of the machine. Thirdly, using boom lifts as hoists is not something they are designed for.

Also, operatives installing ceiling-level piping will climb out of the basket because there is no way of holding the pipe in place while they are fixing it ? another risky activity. And f inally, the weight of the load is too great to be lif ted by hand from the platform rails up into its final assembly position.

Safety violations are common practice in the cladding industry, where aerial work platforms are routinely used to transport a piece of cladding up to the required height ? again on the handrails ? and then lifted by hand into place for fixing.

But the problem is that in both of these applications there have not been any practical alternatives.

But now a new company called Blue Sky Access has designed, produced and applied for patents for a series of tools designed for attachment to scissor lifts to improve the safety and productivity of pipe and panel installation.

The two men behind Blue Sky are 56-year-old Paul Cummings and 41-year-old Kevin Gale, who were the team behind the buyout of the Meek Group in 1999. Unfortunately Meek was one of the casualties of the saturation of the access market in the late 1990s and the f irm went into adm inist rat ion in 2003.

In a bid to survive, Mr Cummings and Mr Gale had sought to different iate Meek by adding value with bespoke attachments, and this is where lie the origins of Blue Sky, a company they set up after the sale of Meek.

Blue Sky's attachment for composite cladding was first developed in 1999 at Meek in co-operation with cladding manufacturer Kingspan. Called SkyClad, it is a set of hydraulic arms that positions the panel onto the building, eliminating the need for manual handling. A vacuum attachment connects the scissor lift to the side of the building for stability. Mr Gale acknowledges that others have developed similar systems in the intervening years, but asserts that SkyClad remains the only system that can stack a batch of panels onto its purposebuilt framework that mounts onto the scissor deck. The system slides them across, one at a time, for installation. A nylon spacer stops the seal being made before the contractor has made the final adjustment to the position of the panel.

Mr Gale adm its that put t ing the f irst fou r panels into place is always very difficult but Blue Sky has a solution for this, too. A quick change of modular heads transforms SkyClad into SkyClad '124', which uses vacuum suckers to hold the panel and a winch for lifting into place.

As well as the elimination of manual handling ? and consequent productivity benefits ? Mr Gale says there are also other safety benefits. The cladder has no need to climb out of the basket and the risk of dropping panels is eliminated by the use of vacuum suckers holding the panels.

A third type of head has been developed for cladding soffits.

For pipe and racking installation, Blue Sky has developed the PipeFix system. While the mechanism is different, the principle is the same as with the SkyClad. A purpose-built frame sits on the deck of a standard scissor lift, transferring the weight of the load down the scissor and to the ground. Its hydraulic arms can manoeuvre parts 500 mm (approximately arm's length) over the side of the deck and at any angle, end to end or side to side.

According to Mr Gale, it makes pipe installation a one-man job.

PipeFix was developed with the support of fire protection specialists Wormald and Hall & Kay.

'We worked closely with both of them, ' Mr Gale says.

Blue Sky also works closely with The Platform Company, which supplies access equipment to these companies.

The PipeFix system has been used on more than 20 projects so far, he says, including the B&Q distribution centre in Worksop last year. Wormald has six units on long-term hire and is about to take another 10.

Because electrically powered scissor lifts do not have the power to take big loads, PipeFix and SkyClad require the use of diesel-powered machines. This can be an issue for indoor use, so Blue Sky also f its an on-board f ilt rat ion system.

The business model of Blue Sky currently is to build the equipment and hire it out for £350 a week for SkyClad and £500 per week for PipeFix. It has sold some units overseas too, to Wormald's access equipment suppliers.

But the focus of the company is more on the development of safety and product ivity solut ions rather than on equipment hire, Mr Gale says. It is a small company, with just 10 people.

Other products that Blue Sky has developed include on-board secu r ity keypads as an ant i-thef t device.

Although this is not a new technology, it has not been used on work platforms before. For the end-user, they add about £15 a week to the platform's hire rate.

Then there are on-board generators and on-board fuel managers.

Mr Gale says: 'There is no gauge on aerial work platforms. If you run out of diesel and run dry, you normally have to bleed the whole system.' Blue Sky also offers segmented tyres. Again, not a new idea but new to the access industry.

'We are always thinking of trying to eliminate problems, ' says Mr Gale.

Away from access, it has produced a tool, called SkyZip, to clamp Kingspan's Kingzip roofing panels together.

This project was commissioned on the back of SkyClad, which established a relationship between the two firms.

Most of the focus, though, is on access platforms and attachments for them. The next challenge for the Blue Sky brains is gut ter ing, on wh ich it is work ing with Northampton-based Winvic Construction.

A lso in development is an at tachment for vertical pipe handling, which will use a winch mounted on a scissor lift to replace the current prevalent bad practice of using rope suspended from a boom lift. On an Airbus project in Bristol, Amec used a prototype utilising a jib crane.

'It worked , ' Mr Gale says, 'but it was not flexible enough so we are work ing on improvements.' The ult imate goal is to improve the handling of pipes at every stage of their journey from production to installation.

Mr Gale says that he has tried to interest the aer ial work platform manufacturers in Blue Sky's attachments. 'If you look at Bobcat or JCB, they've got whole brochures on their attachments, ' he says, 'but the likes of JLG and Genie are too focused on making AWPs to look at attachments.' So long as it stays like that, the field is left clear for Blue Sky. All it has to do is get its message across to cont ractors that there are safer ways of working available to them.