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Columbus McKinnon at Rock Lititz

by Nook Schoenfeld • in
  • April 2018
  • Company 411
• Created: April 12, 2018

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At the facility opening, from: Brian Leister, Nick Fleming, Steve Vitello, Mark Morelli, Dale Pate, Ken Tilson and Herb Hart.

On March 7, Columbus McKinnon (CM) opened their latest facility at the Rock Lititz Entertainment Campus near Lancaster, PA. The worldwide leader in chain hoist manufacturing for the industrial and entertainment business invited PLSN to attend. Approximately 100 fellow employees in the entertainment field were on hand as CM demonstrated their latest wares and explained what they had going on at the new facility.

Rock Lititz is a campus shared by different companies that cater to the entertainment business. The town of Lititz, PA has long been the home of Tait, Atomic and Clair audio. They built a state of the art rehearsal facility for tours requiring a large space for setup and production rehearsals. Two years later, a separate “pod” building was added off to the side, and various vendors were invited to join this artistic community as it grew into a cluster of companies serving the live event industry. CM is now on campus to teach rigging skills as well as hold classes on maintaining their products.

Visiting riggers try a little rope training.

‡‡         History of CM

A novel could be written on the 140-plus-year history of a company whose time dates to 1875, when the company made saddlery and wagon hardware as well as chain and crafted hoists. Over the course of the next 140 years, CM would acquire many companies and incorporate their technology with their own to build the latest, superior products. In 1875, one of these companies (Yale and Towne Manufacturers) acquired the rights to the block and pulley technology.

L.E. McKinnon was an Ontario, Canada hardware clerk back then. He hooked up with an inventor named E.Y. Moore who filed over 100 patents in 50 years. Among his inventions were advances in the lines of pulleys, trolleys and cranes as well as chain pulley blocks.

In 1900, a company was formed in Columbus, Ohio that made chain, among other things. Their chain was often referred to as “the chain that built the Panama Canal.” In 1917, McKinnon merged the chain side of their biz with Columbus. The reasoning by both sides was that McKinnon had the superior technology, but Columbus knew how to market better in America. By 1922, L.E. McKinnon of McKinnon Industries sold the chain portion of his business to Columbus McKinnon.

Ownership would change hands over time, starting with the company’s sale in 1927. Herb Hart, a 25-year CM veteran explains, “Over the course of history, CM has acquired technology from many different sources, often refining a great idea or product someone had offered – to an even better product. Some of these well-known brands, such as Coffing, continue to be manufactured and sold today.”

In 1938, the first electric chain hoists were introduced by Krupp Works in Germany. CM followed suit, releasing the Meteor, their first electric hoist in 1941. It ran on low voltage and had a two-speed push button controller. By 1955, the flagship hoist — the Lodestar — was developed. It is still the signature hoist of the company, with estimates that a million hoists have been assembled. Around the turn of the century, CM tried to find the oldest Lodestar that is still in use. They found one date stamped three days after the company started manufacturing them.

Development specialist Herb Hart and CEO Mark Morelli

‡‡The Company Today

Andrea Shirk, GM of Rock Lititz, welcomed the company to the campus during the grand opening ceremony. “CM certainly fits the bill here, a place where production starts,” Shirk said. She went on to introduce the CEO of CM, Mark Morelli, who was visiting the Lititz facility for the first time that day.

Morelli started with a simple line: “They said ‘build it, and they will come.’ So, we did,” he said. “There are people here who have dedicated their entire careers to our business, some people I’ve met have been with CM 30-plus years, and we are fully committed to this great industry. We see the technology advancing in our field and we want to be a part of helping develop the change. We are transforming our company to become more of an industrial leader. Now, I’ve heard people ask me ‘Are you an industrial company or an entertainment company?’ In reality we are both.” Morelli went on to explain that they have 19 factories in the world making their products. Having a strong presence in the industrial world allows them to make investments, such as this new training center, in the entertainment world.

“We stand for safety, it’s one of our core values,” Morelli added. “We are proud to be part of the safety training programs that go on at this campus. The spirit of innovation is here in Lititz.” And with that, he pointed out that it was Steve Vitello’s vision that brought CM to this complex. Vitello is the executive sales and marketing member of the team. Several years ago, he spoke of Rock Lititz to Ken Tilson, CM’s vertical market specialist. Tilson agreed with the premise of joining the Rock Lititz campus and led the drive to open this training facility.

I spoke with Tilson, who explained that this wasn’t just something they just thought up on the spur of the moment, but a decision that was three years in the making. “A few years ago, some reputable friends of ours in the business came to us and suggested that if we wanted to keep up with the technology business, we needed to step up our game.” Not willing to rest on their laurels as the world’s largest manufacturer of chain hoists, they listened. Tilson remarks, “We are not copying others and building our versions of things that exist. We are developing products that are hitting the market for the first time. The response to some of our new ideas has been well received.”

The new facility

‡‡The New Facility

CM’s main headquarters is in Getzville, NY, outside of Buffalo. They have been training technicians to work on their hoists for years, so why open a facility that’s only 300 miles away, one might ask? As Tilson explains, “the Entertainment campus they have assembled in Lititz brings all kinds of creatives to this part of the country. While we have always offered training, including at our Niagara Training Center and across the country at customer locations, we felt the time had come to offer a facility dedicated to the sole responsibility of educating students in the proper ways of rigging our products for entertainment applications. This includes safety and technical expertise in rigging equipment and how to manage its upkeep.”

CM Entertainment Technology (CM-ET) offers training on everything from basic rigging skills to motor maintenance and fall protection. This one-of-a-kind facility provides on-site application and product expertise to touring companies. They offer these specific courses offered listed below.

  • Basic Introduction & Maintenance School
  • RTC Motor Certification School
  • Pro Level Motor Technician
  • Mega School
  • SPRAT Level 1, 2 or 3 Certification
  • Hoist Workshops
  • Rigging Workshops
  • Rope Access Workshops
  • Fall Protection for the Authorized User

The courses in the facility are taught by Brian Leister, an entertainment rigger who was brought into the CM-ET fold in recent years and now lives nearby the facility. He had been recruited by CM because of his reputable skills as a rigger as well as a trainer and brought on board for the purpose of running this facility. Tilson noted to us, “Our sole intention is to help others in our field. We opened this place for that reason and are flexible to hours and times that suit your needs. We encourage everyone to call us and or pop in here at most anytime and Brian will be here to help with your training.”

Brian Leister

As we walk past the opening showroom, we enter the rear of the building, where the training is done. A large ground supported truss structure dominates much of the floor, allowing students to rig points, practice rope access exercises and safety techniques as well as emergency procedures for lowering personnel or gear to the ground from an elevated place.

Leister designed the truss structure, which was then purchased from Xtreme Structures and Fabrication (XSF). He explains, “I designed it to simulate environments relevant to entertainment, for rigging and rope access training. I sketched it out on paper and XSF made it happen. It is a ground supported structure, fastened to the concrete floor. Complete engineering was provided by Clark Reder Engineering. We also have two freestanding audio truss towers that were supplied by Applied Electronics.”

“I have always had a passion for training.” Brian adds. “While at Disney, I did a lot of training on truss safety, rigging loads, and the proper ways to attach synthetic slings or whatever you are lifting a load with. We have taken all that a step further here. Besides the classes that anyone can schedule at any time convenient to their schedule, we offer Rigging Seminars once or twice a year. Guest riggers come in and talk about some of the basic skills as well as the complicated engineering feats on projects they have been involved with. Truss manufacturers come in to talk about gear and answer questions specific to their area of expertise, including things like “How does a dent in a truss affect its strength and durability? Or why is it unsafe to wrap synthetic slings around a particular truss in a certain manner? I talk to the attendees after they have gone through a seminar and nobody leaves without getting a bit of an education, no matter how long they have been at their craft. The beauty is these same seasoned pros that come teach often bounce ideas off each other and leave more knowledgeable as well.”

Rope Access Training is a big part of what drives Leister’s work these days. He teaches potential climbers and riggers safe ways to traverse above truss and I-beams as well as below them. The best ways to clip yourself in while safely lifting or lowering motor points, lifting gear as well as personnel such as performers who need to be tethered to a set piece for instance. “We also teach the proper ways for staff to wear and use safety harnesses, which ones are proper for our industry and which ones we avoid. Safety consciousness all around starts with your riggers and we stress that at our seminars. The riggers need to be educated and teach others on the crew the proper way to do things on a stage, even if it’s just choking a truss for lift. Often enough other departments need to be schooled in proper safety procedures.”

Off to the side is a truss with each of the models of hoists that CM makes. In this same facility, Brian can field strip any CM hoist down to its bare bones and teach a class how to inspect, maintain and reassemble it. Hardened work tables, tools and all models and versions of CM hoists are provided for hands-on maintenance classes. CM-ET has, for many years, offered the most in-depth, safety-driven motor schools available to the market. Dave Carmack, the company’s veteran ET trainer, has taught CM-ET RTC schools all over the world. If a rigger can’t get to Rock Lititz, Columbus McKinnon can conduct training on site. It’s part of the company’s commitment to the safe and proper use of its products.

Rigging supplies forged by CM

‡‡The Future

While this facility does not include all the various industrial products the company makes, the staff possesses all of that knowledge. This knowledge is at the forethought of the company as they grow their lines into the future. Herb Hart expands on this, “Live productions as we have known them, continue to get larger and push the boundaries. Shows now take up entire arena floors, ascend 100 feet in the air and require engineers to design them. We have been in the business of custom building devices that can lift anything and move it on a trolley somewhere else. Designers or fabricators themselves often come to us for advice on the best way to design a system. But what the customers are all wanting now is SMART machinery.”

Ken Tilson expands on that. “In this day, the consumer is used to buying technology that can communicate back and forth with the end user. We realized that installing load cells right into our motors and being able to monitor them constantly though all live truss movements was something that will become the norm soon. We also realized we needed a quieter hoist. We were among the first hoist manufacturers to install encoders in our motors to stop them at the same place on programmed cues.”

That was great, but CM-ET knew they wanted to remain a leader in this business and not simply add new features to an existing product. One of the major advances CM offered with their electric hoists some years back was the change from a four pocket to a five pocket lift. This brought the resonance of the motor down to nothing. They switched from an AC to a DC brake for quieter stops and starts as the contacts were closer to being silent. These advancements removed 22 decibels of audio noise from the units. While the electric hoists themselves increased in length by a couple of inches, they proved much more suitable for automation.

Displayed in CM-ET’s Rock Lititz training center is a fully operational automation system provided by Motion Labs. This system controls multiple automated Lodestars, New Generation ½ ton models, that are capable of 100 fpm lift speeds. These automation units provided by CM are equipped with two encoders located on the motor and limit switch. They also feature double dc brakes, double limits and an integrated load cell offering end users load positioning, load monitoring and variable speed operation. The most popular models are the ½ ton displayed at 100 fpm and the 1 ton model at 54 fpm lift speed. These base models can be modified to work with most any variable speed control system offered today and are currently in use across the country.

The Prostar VS series, with multiple speed pickle attached.

Along the way CM-ET has developed a line of hoists called the Prostar VS (Variable Speed) models. These smaller sized hoists can lift from 300 to 1,000 pounds, depending on the model, at different speeds. Patented 10 pocket oblique lift wheels make it extremely quiet and they can run at 100 volts and either single or three-phase operation. Low voltage units are also available for quiet and smooth operation. The variable speed motors utilize a brushless DC motor along with a Microdrive developed by their engineering team. These hoists are made from lightweight aluminum housings, significantly lowering the weight of each motor. The small Prostar models weigh 30 pounds total.

The Lodestar VS series is just coming into its own as well, with variable speeds up to 60 FPM.

They showed me one of their new smaller Prostars that ran with a 3-speed pickle. If you pressed the up button once, it ran at 10 feet per minute. Pressing the pickle button multiple times increased the speed to either 36 or 63 feet per minute as well. Where has this function been all my life?

Jeff Armfield, executive director, Global Product Strategy and Development, explained what they are coming up with now. “Our engineers have developed a system where we can program the motors ahead of time, connecting a laptop through a USB connection out – into a 6-pin connector on the hoist. We can accelerate their start and dampen their brake times as well as the speed with which we want each particular hoist to run. This was all invented because of a need we saw in the future. We felt all operators and departments could benefit from changing speeds and limits on each individual hoist. It was time the whole system of setting limits on hoists was made digital as opposed to the old trusted mechanical way that took time and tools.” They expect to add a blue tooth wireless app to this as well.

These days in the U.S., CM maintains hoist plants in Wadesboro, NC, Damascus, VA and Salem, OH. They have a plant in Lexington, TN that makes their chain and another in Chattanooga, TN that looks after their metal forging. The size of CM’s portfolio of companies has expanded considerably since the late 90’s with the purchasing of several companies such as Coffing, Budgit, Chester Hoist and others here and overseas.

Globally, CM has built quite a presence as well. I spoke with Steve Sherwin the regional director for the European, Middle East and Africa markets. “CM has proven technology. They have a reputation as a company that makes products that are reliable and just don’t break under normal conditions. Our industrial presence is bigger in volume than the entertainment side, as we just started importing Lodestar hoists into the U.K. 30 plus years ago.”

There are now three plants in Germany building products. CM recently added Stahl, a manufacturer of chain hoists and wire rope to their umbrella of companies. They now make ATEX hoists, a line developed for explosion-protected crane technology (as in for use in chemical plants). “The entertainment standards in Europe still need to be harmonized as different countries have different regulations,” Sherwin adds. “We work with these countries to expand our products to fit their needs whenever possible.

Herb Hart adds that “We are the definition of a global company. Heck, we have 2,500 distributors and 6,000 locations just in North America. “There’s not a CM hoist that we cannot repair unless it’s been under water for years and rusted away, and to be honest — I’ve seen some of them get refurbished as well.”

“People today expect products to provide more value,” concludes CEO Mark Morelli. “They need to be smarter, give more info and provide functionality. They really want to know what intelligence the product can provide. Our future products will include prognosis and diagnosis of any faults that may occur. Rest assured that CM is aware of the need to build off of our highly reliable products and advance technology. That is what is driving us.”

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