Working Smarter & Driving Innovation with Synthetic Rope

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dyneema-245105Rope 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, Dyneema, a new generation of synthetic rope, 80% lighter and weight-for-weight stronger than steel, is set to do just that. Harken is at the front and championing its innovation.

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To the layman, rope may appear a simple commodity: a tool for tethering an object to another, moving it, or controlling 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 former Soviet 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 doesn’t merely tether, secure, and control it extends human dexterity. With it, we have learned how to harness physical forces beyond our immediate selves and in ways that have shaped our very existence. It made possible the early sea voyages of the Phoenicians, the Chinese, and later Vasco da Gama’s marathon 1497 voyage from Lisbon to India. Pictures of the São Gabriel give testimony to the natural fiber ropes that enabled the ship to make the first passage of its kind. In effect, rope helped propel the civilized world into seafaring and colonisation.

In 1830, the first twisted steel rope proved to be vastly superior to natural fibers in both strength and durability. It triggered a frenzy of industrial innovation as steel took over world’s pulling and lifting tasks. The mechanical transmission of power gave rise to countless applications, such and the 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. Five years 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 rope gave way to decks clear for the enjoyment of passengers and the idea of cruising at sea. 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 wasn’t until the 1950s that natural fiber ropes met their match. New synthetic rope, made from nylon, polyester, polypropylene or polyethylene, quickly became an attractive alternative due to its strength, water resistance, durability, and resistance to abrasion damage. But the full potential of synthetic ropes was yet to be realized.

For some years, a status quo existed between steel wire rope and the new synthetics. In that time, increasing industrialization saw the emergence everlarger vessels, culminating in the 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 ingrained in our thinking as the ultimate in strength.

Meanwhile, back in the labs, research into polyethylene was moving ahead based on a discovery dating back to the 1950s. But it was not until the late 1970s when four companies from across the globe were to able start the process of commercializing the discovery of ultra-high-molecular-weight polyethylene, or “UHMWPE.” UHMWPE is a polyolefin composed of extremely long chains of polyethylene aligned in the same direction, deriving its strength from the length of these molecules. Its unique molecular properties were nothing short of astounding. It remains the world’s strongest, lightest fiber with a strength-toweight ratio fifteen times stronger than steel. Of the four companies licensed to commercialize UHMWPE, a Dutch petrochemical company DSM registered the name Dyneema® in 1996 for which has since become a broad family of applications of UHMWPE ranging from ballistic protection, defence, medical devices and to Dyneema® rope.

Thanks to UHMWPE the world is still finding new and unconventional users applications. Rope is only one of a number of products that have been transformed by the strength, flexibility, and durability of Dyneema®.

Since its inception, its properties at molecular level have resulted in solutions as diverse as maximizing the life of radar domes to life-saving wafer-thin, highstrength surgical filaments. Rope is only one of a number of products that have been transformed by the unique properties of Dyneema® being strength, flexibility, and durability of Dyneema®.

Andy Ash-Vie, a yacht designer by profession recognized the unique characteristics of Dyneema® rope from the outset. As managing director of Harken UK Ltd, a global leader in rope management and sail handling systems, he instantly saw the potential of Dyneema® in the ultra-competitive world of sailing. “Dyneema® was a perfect match; complementary to Harken’s long held mantras of “strong-but-light” and “less friction,” an ethos that guides its world-renowned range pulleys, blocks, and winches for sailing and 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 beginning. By working with many of the world’s leading yachtsman and dinghy sailors, oftentimes as part of their teams, Harken has seen and continues to see 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-handling systems that are now creating a sea-change in the way many industrial tasks can be addressed—and not just more efficiently, but in greater safety.”

According to Andy Ash-Vie, “From sailing, we know that good ergonomics in the form strong-but-light (and low friction) Harken blocks, combined with equally strong Dyneema® fiber ropes, are intrinsic to the success of competitive sailors. Whether you’re a professional ocean racer or prefer a more sedate approach to crossing the Channel, good ergonomics reduce effort and injury while improving 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.”

But for many, there remains an ingrained view that heavy is good, and if it’s steel, it must be safe. “Not so,” explains Ash-Vie. “Steel, and in particular, steel wire rope, has a known track record for industrial injuries 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, saltwater is the Achilles heel of wire. Here, corrosion is the enemy. It can silently conceal itself both in the core of steel wire rope as well as in many deck fittings. 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, fiberrope has displaced steel wire even in the very largest superyachts.”

The same Harken principles that transformed cruising and racing are now creating waves in industrial applications on land. A collaboration of between Harken UK’s Guy Fulford, Dyneema® manufacturer Teufelberger, and one of the world’s leading engineering consultancies was instrumental in the development of a ropebased solution that is set to redefine the maintenance of high-tension electrical power lines. 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 the 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.

Harken Industrial is at the forefront of creating agile, rope based load handling solutions across a range of sectors from working-at-height, to deep-sea exploration and casualty recovery systems. For more information or to discuss the potential of rope management and load handling in your industry contact us

From an article by Trevor Morton of Harken Industrial, first published in April 2017, Dockyard Magazine.