Mean Machines: Cranes - Friday April 13

mean machines: cranes
(7/10) 19.30–20.00

This entertaining series continues to hunt down the most exciting mechanical beasts on the planet, taking viewers inside the biggest, baddest, strongest and fastest machines around. This evening’s episode looks at the heavy lifters of the mechanical world: cranes.

The first candidate for the Mean Machines stamp of approval is not one crane but two – a pair of roller cranes. A stadium in Liège, Belgium, needs its roof attaching. This requires lifting a load of 360 tonnes and carrying it 100 metres to slot into place, without any buckling, snagging or dropping. The delicate operation demands low winds and much care.

With the all clear from the supervisors, the lift goes ahead, with each crane relying upon massive counterweights to stop them falling over. When an electronics malfunction strikes, the engineers are able to flaunt some technical prowess. The cranes’ onboard computers are linked via wireless modem to the company’s engineers in Brussels, 100 kilometres away. In no time at all, they send back their diagnosis and the problem is fixed. The stadium’s roof is successfully attached.

But cranes are not all about size and strength. Tonight’s show also checks out one of the smallest lifters in the business: the UNIC mini crane. These nifty little cranes can be folded down to just 60cm wide. They come with spider-like legs, an arm that can extend to five and a half metres, and a lifting capacity of nearly three tonnes. Not to mention one other essential design facet – remote control. All these elements make the cranes ideal for working in difficult areas where human beings might not like to go.

The mini crane in tonight’s show is at work in the decommissioned Winfrith nuclear power station in Dorset, shifting a load of radioactive debris that would be far too dangerous for any human to approach. “The crane was first developed in Japan,” explains engineer Marc MacDonald. “Because of the congested areas, they needed cranes that were smaller and more compact.” Not only is this crane tough, it comes with artificial intelligence. “You can’t cheat the crane,” Marc says. “You can’t tell it to do something it can’t do.” Such is the versatility of this little beast, it has been called into action to shift priceless works of art in the Tate Gallery.

So much for jobs on dry land – what about situations where there is nothing to stand on but clear blue water? Tonight’s edition also pays a visit to Montrose harbour in eastern Scotland, where a Mammoth floating crane is being used to build a bridge. It’s an exacting operation that requires precise movements to anchor the crane into place. They must also work against the clock and complete the job before the tide leaves the crane high and dry.

Gordon Skea, captain of the Mammoth, is happy to talk through the procedure: “As the crane rotates you have to be alert to it and make sure that you keep the ship as stable as you possibly can,” he says. As the ship moves around, a counterweight shifts from one side to the other to balance it. “It’s very much like driving a bus,” Gordon jokes. Unlike a bus, however, this behemoth can lift an incredible 250 tonnes. As well as building bridges, the crane can be called upon to salvage trawlers and rescue stranded whales. All of which makes the Mammoth a certifiable mean machine.

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