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Rope - Looking forward to a smarter way of thinking


Rope has made a significant contribution to the evolution of man and with it, the industrialisation of the species. In a world now set on doing stuff smarter quicker and easier, a new generation of rope, 80% lighter but infinitely stronger than steel, is set to do just that

To the layman, rope may appear a simple commodity, its purpose; to tether one object to another, with the intent to make it fast, move it, or somehow control it. While history gives little testimony to its evolution, rope has played a silent but significant role in the evolution and advancement of mankind. Recent archaeological evidence shows its origins date back over 33,000 years. Caves in the Republic of Georgia revealed the beginnings of rope making from which came the means to tether animals. In doing so, it started the transformation of mankind beyond a simple hunter-gatherer.

Rope not only tethers, secures and controls, it extends human dexterity. With it, we have learned how to harness physical forces beyond our immediate selves and in ways that have transformed our very existence. It made possible the early sea voyages of the Phoenicians, the Chinese, and later Vasco de Gama’s marathon 1497 voyage from Lisbon to India. Pictures of the San Gabriel give testimony to the natural fibre ropes that enabled the ship to make the first passage of its kind. The outcome, rope propelled the civilised world into seafaring and colonisation.

By 1830, the first steel wire rope, consisting of three strands each made of four wires, proved to be vastly superior to natural fibres in both strength and durability. With it came a frenzy of innovation around the world. Steel took over pulling and lifting tasks and gave rise to countless new applications such as the mechanical transmission of power which in turn led to creation of electric cable cars. By 1840, an inventor from London, Andrew Smith, started experimenting with ways to apply steel wire to a ship's rigging. Just five year on, Brunel’s SS Great Britain, became the first and largest ship of its kind powered not only by steam but also by the world’s first example of an iron wire rigged sailing ship. Decks, once festooned with ropes, gave way to decks clear for the enjoyment of passengers and the advent of cruising at sea. For five years, the SS Great Britain played a highly influential role in the subsequent adoption of wire rope rigging for ships all over the world.

While steel wire rope continued its ascendance both in industry and at sea, it was not until the 1950s that natural fibre ropes were to meet their match. New durable, water resistant synthetic rope, made from nylons or polyesters, quickly became an attractive alternative with their resistance to physical or abrasion damage and much greater strength. But the full potential of synthetic ropes was yet to be realised.

For some years, a status quo existed between steel wire rope and the new ‘synthetics’. In that time, increasing industrialisation saw the emergence ever larger vessels culminating in gargantuan oil tankers of the 1970 oil boom. Ever more powerful tugs and cranes called for steel wire ropes of ever greater proportions resulting in steel becoming engrained in our thinking as the ultimate in strength for pulling and lifting loads.

Meanwhile, back in the labs, research into polyethylene was moving ahead based on a discovery dating back to the 1950’s. But it was not until the late 1970s when four companies from across the globe were to able start the process of commercialising the outcomes from the discovery of “Ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene,” (UHMWPE). UHMWPE, is a type of polyolefin[1] composed of extremely long chains of polyethylene aligned, deriving their strength from the length of each molecule. Its unique molecular properties were nothing short of astounding then, as they are now. Of the four companies licenced to commercialise UHMWPE, a Dutch petrochemical company DSM registered the name Dyneema® in 1996 for what has become a broad family of applications of UHMWPE ranging from ballistic protection, defence, medical devices and to Dyneema® rope.

Since its inception, its properties at molecular level have resulted in solutions as diverse as maximising the life of radar domes to life-saving wafer-thin, high-strength surgical filaments. Rope is one of number of products that have been transformed by the unique properties of Dyneema being strength, flexibility and durability. Forty years on, and new applications for UHMWPE are still being announced.

Recognising the unique characteristics of Dyneema rope from the outset, Andy Ash-Vie, a yacht designer by profession and now Managing Director of Harken UK Ltd, a global leader in rope management and sail handling systems, saw the potential of Dyneema in the ultra-competitive world of sailing. “Dyneema was a perfect match and complimentary to Harken’s long held mantra of ‘strong-but-light ,and less friction’, an ethos that drives our world renowned range pulleys, blocks and winches for both sail handling systems and now, a growing range of industrial and safety applications.” As a result, Harken has been an active player in the application of Dyneema in the marine sector from the get-go.

By working with many of the world’s leading yachtsman and dinghy sailors, oftentimes as part of their teams, Harken have seen and continue to see the realisation of new levels of performance from the combination of Harken systems and Dyneema rope. “For us, Dyneema doesn’t stop at sailing. It represents the evolution of a new generation of rope management and load handing systems that are now creating a sea-change in the way many industrial tasks can be addressed, not just more efficiently but in greater safety.”

According to Andy Ash-Vie; “From sailing, we know that good ergonomics made possible from strong-but-light (and low friction) Harken blocks, combined with the unique characteristics of strong Dyneema fibre ropes, are intrinsic to the success of yacht and dinghy racers alike. Whether you’re a professional ocean racer or prefer a more sedate approach to crossing the channel, good ergonomics reduce effort, strain injury and, they enhance performance. The same principles apply equally well to people at work in industrial settings. Here, poor ergonomics from heavy, cumbersome machinery and the many shortcomings of heavy steel wire rope multiply the risk of strains, injury, and more besides. Strong-but-light the logical alternative.”

But for many, there remains an engrained view that heavy is good, and if it’s steel, it must be safe. “Not so” says Ash-Vie. “Steel, and in particular, steel wire rope has a known track record for industrial injuries and is, on occasion, a widow-maker both on land, and at sea. While steel is durable and resists abrasion well, it quickly develops sharp burrs calling for cumbersome riggers gloves, a major drawback for those working at height. For marine applications, salt water is the Achilles Heel of wire. Here, corrosion is the enemy. It can silently conceal itself both in core of steel wire rope as well as in many deck fittings. “Many yachtsmen know well the consequence of corrosion and the failure of rigging which, to the naked eye, may look up to the job. It’s fair to say, fibre rope has displaced steel wire even in the very largest superyachts.”

The same Harken principals of strong-but-light, with less friction that has transformed cruising and racing are now creating waves in industrial applications on land, as much as at sea. Harken UK’s Guy Fulford, in collaboration with the innovation team from one of the world’s leading engineering consultancies, and Teufelberger, a Dyneema rope manufacturer, were instrumental in the development of a rope based solution that is set to redefine the maintenance of high-tension electrical powerlines. Codenamed SkySok, the solution eliminates the time, cost, disruption and risks associated with creating protective screens over roads, railways and rivers where maintenance of high voltage cables takes place. Based on best practice application and design of Dyneema rope, the ‘sock’, ultra-light and stronger-than-steel, forms a rapidly deployable cradle able to take the heavy loads associated with long steel powerlines.

In the time since its commercialisation, Dyneema has become a multi-million dollar ecosystem with specialist manufacturers ranging from ballistic-protective clothing to surgical membranes.

For some, the ultimate strength of steel, and by implication its safety, remains engrained in their thinking. However, Dyneema ropes have crossed the Rubicon. Weighing 80% less than the equivalent steel wire rope, Dyneema® rope is fast becoming the mooring, anchor and towing rope of choice of the world’s largest super tankers.

Complimentary to our ethos of strong-but-light (with less friction), Harken Industrial is at the forefront of creating agile, rope based load handling solutions across a range of sectors from working-at-height, deep-sea exploration, and casualty recovery systems.

For more information or to discuss the potential of strong-but-light rope management and load handling, contact the team Harken Industrial.

Tel: (44) 01590-689122 Fax: (44) 01590-610274



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