Take a load off

Features - Scrap Handling Equipment Focus

Specialized equipment can expedite container loading.

November 1, 2012
Curt Harler
Top, a magnet is used to fill an Acculoader at a Calgary, Alberta, Canada, scrap operation. A grapple, bottom, loads an Acculoader at General Recycling, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

As export markets for scrap continue to thrive, recyclers are looking for ways to load and ship material in the most efficient ways possible. The same is true for local shipments—the more one can fit in a single container, the better. But loading big boxes is time consuming. One way to reduce the time it takes to prepare a shipment is to move from using front-end loaders or material handlers to automated container loading equipment.

James Knick, manager at Pacific Steel & Recycling, was sold with the first container-loading unit the company installed at its Tacoma, Wash., yard a little more than a year ago. “The machine allows us to load more quickly, safely and easily,” he says. “It saved so much time, it isn’t funny. That thing is a lifesaver.”

Previously, Pacific Steel & Recycling loaded containers using a forklift and loader, while a conveyor was used to load shredded material.

With a loader, Nos. 1 and 2 heavy melting steel (HMS) can be transferred into an intermodal container, which can be put on a single- or double-level rail car. From there, it can go by rail to the consumer or to the port, reducing a recycler’s need for line-haul trucks.

“Loading was really hard on the equipment,” Knick says. More concerning than the wear-and-tear on equipment were the safety issues. “If you are running cast pieces with a forklift on a ramp, it is very close quarters. There is a lot of room for error,” he says.

Now, one person using the company’s Acculoader unit from X-Body Equipment, Loomis, Calif., can handle the operation safely instead of involving two people. It is far faster, too, he says.

“It depends on the material you are loading, but it cut our time in half,” Knick says of the automated container loader. He says it took from one to two hours to fill a container with cast or engines using a wheel loader. “With the [Acculoader], it is about 30 minutes.”

Knick and the team at Pacific Steel & Recycling say they are so happy with their first unit that they are looking to add a second unit to replace a conveyor the company currently is using.

Pacific Steel is considering purchasing a diesel-powered unit in the future. The company currently has an electric-powered model.

“It will be easier to move around,” Knick says of a diesel unit, “although we haven’t moved the first one yet.”

Dave Meyer also says he cut the labor and time required to load containers in half by using an automated container loader at his scrap yard. Meyer, who is in charge of operations for Calbag Metals, Portland, Ore., says, “I was trying to do 10 containers in two shifts.” Using a container loader, he says, “Now I do 10 in one shift.”

Meyer says Calbag Metals used to load containers using a ramp and a forklift. “We had a guy running the container, one loading them and two on forklifts,” he says. “Now I just need a truck driver and a crane operator.”

Nathan Frankel, president of Advanced Steel Recovery (ASR) and FasTek, Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., is both a buyer of scrap metal and an equipment vendor. The company’s FasTek loader has been on the market for more than six years.

“Using a [container] loader can save $5 to $7 a ton,” Frankel says. “It depends on how the individual yard is working.”

Long ago, Frankel says, he was sold on using sea containers for shipping ferrous scrap—abroad or at home—if only those containers could be loaded efficiently. He began to puzzle out how to make things work more smoothly and came up with the FasTek system.

Frankel hired a lawyer to look at patents and a New Mexico engineering firm to create a prototype. A project that was supposed to cost $300,000 and take three months dragged out beyond a year. The company began testing the unit in February of 2005 and sells them commercially today.

In 15 minutes, with just one operator, FasTek can load 21 metric tons into a 40-foot sea container compared with up to four hours and four men it used to take, according to Frankel. “Plus, FasTek eliminates the use of traditional backhoe loaders,” he says.

Safety is a major issue, too. There is always risk when people or loaders have to enter a closed container as part of the loading operation.

Making the switch
The move to a loader is not an inexpensive prospect. But the savings in time and labor offer a payback that anyone filling containers would be advised to consider. It certainly is worth the time to push a pencil (or pound a computer keyboard) to look at the possible return on the investment (ROI) in automation.

It certainly paid off at Pacific Steel, which is considering installing a second unit. Other recyclers are intrigued by the possibilities, too.

Legal issues

Several patent issues have put the container loading industry into the legal spotlight.

FasTek, Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., has filed a successful lawsuit against Steco, a company that made a machine similar to the FasTek loader. FasTek maintained that Steco had built a machine that was just too similar to its own. Steco ceased production and excited the container loading business.

“There are many copycats. People latch onto what they see as a good idea,” says Nathan Frankel, president of Advanced Steel Recovery (ASR) and FasTek. “We are dedicated to protecting our intellectual property.”

FasTek currently is pursuing legal action against Acculoader, Loomis, Calif., for similar reasons, Frankel says.

The company also is involved in a patent issue with Al-jon Manufacturing LLC of Ottumwa, Iowa. John Portwood, vice president of sales at Al-jon, says no lawyers are involved presently and the companies are trying to work things out amicably. “We are in negotiations,” Portwood says.

So far, only one of the Al-jon units has been sold, and that was to a company in Australia.

“I don’t like to do it. It’s expensive,” Frankel says of the lawsuits. “But you have to protect what you’ve put your heart, time and money into developing.”

“If I were setting up another loading facility, I’d definitely put in another loader,” Meyer says.

His company’s container loading system happens to be diesel powered.

“Interest has been steady as recyclers look to move toward more automation and less manual systems,” says John Poplawski with Hustler Conveyor Co., O’Fallon, Mo.

“Containerized shipment of scrap is now a part of this industry and it’s not about to disappear any time soon,” says Greg Bushong, president of X-Body Equipment/Acculoader. He agrees container loading systems have the interest of recyclers.

For many steel mills, containerized shipments represent a serious financial advantage, as they tie up less of their funds than bulk shipments would.

Although market fluctuations change customers’ buying patterns, Bushong says he expects the overall demand and need for such systems will remain strong for years to come. He says container loaders level the playing field for the small to medium-sized scrap producers as they compete with larger companies.

One of the advantages Frankel sees is that container loaders allow a small yard to grow. A recycler doing 1,000 tons per month will have a long payback on the equipment versus using a wheel loader. However, Frankel says automation has allowed every one of his customers in North America, Mexico and Puerto Rico to expand their volumes. “There is value beyond lower labor cost,” Frankel says.

“Loading containers for export for all size companies keeps domestic prices competitive,” Bushong continues. “Loading scrap in containers serves the end user who can’t afford and or handle the size of orders that bulk shipment produces.”

It is a lot easier for buyers of recycled scrap to order 100 containers or 2,500 metric tons of material than it is to order a bulk ship that has 60,000 metric tons of material.

Buying advice

Bushong says buyers need a machine or system that will improve their operation and save them time and money. He suggests buying a system that will require less staff and man hours to load a container and that has a short ROI. “And, of course, find a system that will not damage the containers during loading,” he says.

Hustler Conveyor offers a super-heavy-duty oscillator with a three-quarter-inch deck and sides, a 3-foot bolt-on nose and a large capacity freestanding infeed hopper, Poplawski says. The company’s high-speed flat idler conveyor uses three-ply 330 belting.

He recommends that recyclers give serious consideration to both the belt scale and the adjustable supports when shopping for such systems.

Additionally, Poplawski says buyers often opt for remote handheld controls and infeed hopper sensors that feature photo eyes.

FasTek offers two models: one is stationary and the other is mobile. The units have hardware and software designed to make the loading process seamless, according to the company.

ASR buys HMS and sells steel, and Frankel says he has found the company’s customers also benefit from having a FasTek unit in their own yards. A computerized system is tied to the user’s website and allows the company to book containers. Online, the user can confirm the booking. As the machine loads the container (in about 10 minutes), it confirms the weight and the shipping date. Three days later, the sellers have money in their accounts, according to Frankel.

A scrap handler loads oversized cast into the container loader at Pacific Steel & Recycling.

Recyclers should look for physical loading speeds per container of 15 minutes or less, Bushong suggests. He says it is possible to load 20- to 40-foot containers in as little as 10 minutes with the Acculoader.

Bushong adds that recyclers should look for hardened wear surfaces and upgraded electronic packages that will allow users to interface with the Internet. Acculoader also offers a mobility package. At 41 feet, the unit has the smallest footprint on the market, the company adds.

Sources also suggest that buyers should ask questions about the manufacturer that is building the units they are considering and the prospective supplier’s history in the industry.

They also advise shoppers to ask suppliers for references who can discuss their experiences with the equipment and, perhaps more important, with the company that sold and serviced the equipment. If the references provided used another container loading system previously, suppliers advise shoppers to evaluate the reasons behind the recyclers’ switch and to ask about any preceived shortcomings their previous container loading systems might have had.

The author is a freelance writer based in Cleveland and can be reached at curt@curtharler.com.