Up We Go
Mast Climbing Work Platforms
Reach for the Sky
Mast climbers represent one of the latest applications of technology to producing a better production tool for masons. The diversified lines of platforms now available offer a wide range of specialized characteristics that can fulfill the needs of any job out there. And they aren't just for the big jobs.
By Tom Inglesby
Mast climbing work platforms (MCWP) are seen on jobsites of varying heights around the country. While contractors tend to think of mast climbers mostly for high rises, they are actually used more on buildings of 60 feet or less. The most common structures built with the help of mast climbers are hospitals, medical centers, schools, churches, prisons, warehouses, factory outlets, multi-residential projects, super markets and department stores. They are particularly useful when confronted with a long span wall, allowing workers to move easily across the width of the wall, working at a comfortable height, keeping their materials readily at hand.
While productivity gains are often considered to be a function of the height of the project, productivity actually can be improved on lower buildings as well because of the significant savings in time and worker movement. Also, the flexibility of some platforms allows them to be used on unusual jobsites such as inclined walls and odd-shaped structures like silos.
The units available today offer capacities ranging from 770 pounds (349 k) to 25,000 pounds (11,340 k) and vertical travel speeds from 3 to 40 feet (0.9 to 12.2 m) per minute. By offering such a wide range of capabilities, these products can satisfy a mason's need for a high-capacity machine while pleasing the general contractor's needs for flexibility and quickness. With a growing number of suppliers and constantly evolving products lines, mast climbers can be considered as an efficient, affordable, and widely usable solution.
North American history Scaffolds have been used in construction for centuries. Artwork showing the building of famous structures 800 to 1,000 years ago indicate the rudiments of what we call scaffolding in place. The original products still exist in some countries, period movies show them in sometimes fanciful situations with the hero swinging from the cross bracing, perhaps and the successor, pipe scaffolding, is sold and rented by the tens of thousands of feet every day. However, evolution has made possible new products like crank up scaffold, aerial platforms, and most recently, mast climbing work platforms.
Mast climbers made their appearance in Europe during the 1970s. The first mast climber used in North America was imported by Doug Radke of Scaffold Services, St. Paul, Minn. in 1982. At that time, all the mast climbers were powered by an electrical motor, as opposed to the gasoline engines that power most of them used in North America today. The gasoline motor was a new approach as it allowed a self-contained autonomous platform.
Later in the decade, a Canadian inventor created the Hydro Mobile, the first mast climber built in North America. This was also the first platform mainly oriented toward masonry work. The hydraulic technology on which this platform was based offered a much higher capacity while being quite simple mechanically compared with the more complex rack and pinion technology then available. Rack and pinion, while offering less capacity, usually provided a faster traveling speed.
In 1991, the Fraco platform was developed, followed by Bennu and EZ Scaffold. The latter two entered the market about two years ago, introducing variations on the mast climber work platform concept. Of the four, EZ Scaffold, Lewisburg, Tenn., is the only U.S. company; Bennu, Fraco, and Hydro Mobile are all based in Quebec, Canada.
State of the market Worldwide, most MCWP manufacturers are based in Europe and serve the continental market while the four North American manufacturers focus on this market. Naturally, in a global marketplace, the various companies' products are found across borders and oceans.
For example, Canadian manufacturers Fraco and Hydro Mobile represent a clear majority of the platforms in North America together they account for more than 60 percent of the units in use in this market with Hydro Mobile accounting for nearly 50 percent itself. The two newer companies, Bennu and EZ Scaffold, are running hard to catch up. Last year, Bennu sold nearly 300 units, indicating a significant growth ahead for the market in general.
European brands like Hek, Alimak (recently combined as Intervect, a Swedish company), Scanclimbers from Finland, and Malmquist of Sweden are also present in North America but hold a much greater market share in Europe. Some producers, like Bennu, concentrate their efforts only in North America. Fraco, on the other hand, is expanding their operations into Europe and Asia. The world is every company's market, it seems.
Most manufacturers offer a vast range of products and some make multiple lines of products besides mast climbers such as material hoists, construction site elevators, etc.
The use of mast climbers is getting more and more common across all phases of the construction industry. In many instances, while not creating a "new market" as such, mast climbers are replacing other forms of scaffolding for a wide variety of tasks because of the gains in productivity and efficiency that they can generate.
As is the case with most heavy construction equipment, users generally have the option to either buy or rent the platform. Depending on the size of company and the tasks to be accomplished, it might be better to buy a platform than to rent it. The upside is the cost can be depreciated and, if the company does a large number of jobs using the equipment, the savings can usually be significant. This equipment generally, if maintained, has a very long usable life.
Studies show that renting is becoming a way for contractors to have their "cake" and save some money too. Most companies don't want to make big investments in equipment when they don't use it a lot or don't know the long-term economic situation. When they rent it, they also don't have to bother with maintenance and storage. "We have very large companies that always rent their platforms," says Yannick St-Pierre of the marketing department at Fraco. "This can often depend on the company's culture. Other MCWP companies are starting their own rental fleets, adding to their distributors network like we do."
Because of the strong competition, there are different types of MCWP available to answer various needs. Users usually have a choice between several different platforms, each of which can fulfill a job's requirements. This competition between manufacturers for the contractor's business is particularly true in the masonry industry. Vendors seek differentiators that will make them stand out in the crowd and some are intangible factors that represent an important source of competitive advantage.
One of these is offering better service in the quality and the coverage of the distribution network. Most manufacturers now offer, through their distribution network, extended services that feature elements such as availability of replacement parts within 24 hours, greater coverage in the warranty, and technical support by an internal team of draftsmen and engineers who can supply plans for setting-up the equipment, all of which is designed to make the customer happy with the choices of equipment for particular projects.
All manufacturers offer seminars or training. Thierry Lachapelle, marketing analyst at Hydro Mobile, explains, "Training classes are available on the installation, use and maintenance of all our equipment. Others offer similar programs. This training becomes important when you consider that various regulatory agencies and safety groups including OSHA require a competent, trained person be present when a mast climbing work platform is installed, maneuvered or dismantled."
As Fraco's St-Pierre points out, "Such safety training becomes more important as many of today's jobsites are in the headlines. Accident and injuries will always bring a negative focus on the industry and we are all concerned about promoting and increasing the safety on the jobsite."
So, what is a mast climber? The mast climbing work platform is made of steel and usually consists of modular work platform systems centered on an automated power unit (APU). They are characterized by:
Heavy load capacity
Faster installation times compared to other types of scaffolds and substitute products
Fast elevation speeds
Although the overseas units generally use rack and pinion technology for lifting, the four North American manufacturers are the exception to that rule. They use hydraulic cylinders.
If the needs of specialized contractors differ according to their occupation, it's the same situation in making the right choice of a work platform. The requirements of the various contractors that use work platforms are often a function of movement frequency, weight of the materials being used, space requirements, and height from the ground where the work is done.
Mason contractors, for example, value:
Time to erect and start work
Durability of the product
Stand-alone features of the product
After sales service
Other criteria like the speed of the platform rise, flexibility of the product, and the time and effort needed for movement between jobs are also highly considered.
Features and Benefits Mast climbing platforms offer safety and convenience features that have been proven to cut labor costs in excess of 30 percent. They also reduce injuries and shorten production time, making them ideal for a wide range of jobs from new construction to repairs and refinishing on existing buildings.
MCWP units offer many other quantifiable benefits to their users, the most notable being the reduction of access time by as much as 90 percent. In addition, you'll find statistics showing a reduction of building ties by up to 80 percent, the improvement of site security, both during and after working hours, and durability and flexibility of the products results in a considerable gain in productivity and a corresponding decrease in contract times to an extent reaching 40 percent.
Mast climbers can safely work up to nearly 100 feet (30m) indoors and 65 feet (20m) outdoors without being tied to the building. Overall, heights are not a problem with some projects reaching more than 800 feet. According to Jean Robillard, president of Bennu, "Some people want to go 35 feet free standing. It's legal to do it, it's technically acceptable to do it; I don't personally like it. I think once you reach 30 feet, you should start tying to the wall. If you're going more than 30 feet, we ask that you tie every 20 feet."
Robillard's comments are, as he indicated, his opinion. Other manufacturers disagree and cite the fact that 35 feet freestanding is quite common and will give you an average working height required for low jobs like a warehouse or strip mall. In these cases, you can complete the wall without using any anchoring point, so installation and movement are faster.
Since many factors, such as ground condition, slope and worker comfort might come into play in determining the proper freestanding height, and keeping safety in mind, it might just make sense to resort to tie-offs whenever approaching the manufacturer's stated upper limit.
Many platforms are built of a modular design, enabling the machine to be constructed to suit the project. St-Pierre says, "Some models features side wings with counterweights, which allows long corner returns but decreases the load capacity. Plenty of accessories are available in order to increase the productivity, such as wheel chassis, mini-chassis, railings, wall anchoring, weather and overhead protection, etc. This gives added flexibility and efficiency when contouring buildings is required while allowing distributors to stock a wide range of platform capabilities in a reasonable area."
Single platforms lengths can be from 7 feet (2.1m) up to more than 60 feet (18.3m), providing an efficient working area. Bennu's Robillard explains, "You will find people using them with short segments of 20 to 25 feet, up to indefinite length. As much as people thought originally that platforms would be used only on higher walls, they are extensively used on strip malls and lower buildings, depending on the geographic area where they're working. In this case, they don't tie to the wall at all you just set your platforms to go up to 20 feet or so, and then move the whole thing down the wall and do another section."
Many models are equipped with precision leveling to help reduce repetitive strain injuries, a factor that constitutes a strong technical advantages associated with the mast climber concept.
Most manufacturers now use high quality components and surface treatment, like hot dip galvanizing, giving extended life to the structure, especially the mast sections, anchors and railings. Actually, less damage usually is done to components when compared to traditional scaffolding equipment even though the units are much larger and complex.
Adding modular components, called wings or bridges, to provide a more efficient working area means single platforms lengths can be adjusted to suit the job. The bridge junctions allow a level inclination between two units. According to Robillard, there can be a delta or variation of about 1/12 the length of the platform between sections and the overlapping bridge unit will compensate to maintain level working conditions.
Mast climbers often allow projects to be done faster, with reduced labor and plant costs. One of the main reasons is quick and easy erection and dismantling. Generally set-up time is 30 percent faster than conventional scaffold depending on the manufacturer. Also, the fact that material and other equipment can be lifted on the platform with a hoist at the same time that the workers do their job shortens downtime significantly. Obviously, long platforms also speed up work on wide facades since less erection and movement is necessary for workers to span the full length of the wall.
The platform can be brought to the ground for restocking so masonry material like brick and blocks can be placed where needed by a forklift, eliminating more costly high-reach material movers. And since mast climbers can always be positioned at the most ergonomic and efficient working position by the touch of a button, they have proven to reduce labor by more than 30 percent, a considerable savings.
The safety of mast climbers hasn't been neglected in either their design or manufacture. All the products are designed with the safety of the worker on the platform and those working near especially underneath the platform foremost in mind. Although regulations vary from country to country, all units have to be equipped with braking and fall arrest systems, limit switches, and guard rails to ensure work areas are kept safe at all times. Unlike conventional scaffold, the entire platform moves with the workers so the person in charge can spend more time doing productive tasks instead of constantly verifying that planks and structures are securely in place at all times.
All in all, mast climbing work platforms can be a positive addition to the mason contractor's equipment inventory. If you haven't used one, and you have a long wall in your future, check out the option of renting a unit for the job. Once you try it, you might find you'll want one available in your equipment yard full time.
pieces 1 unit set-up (maximum size)
pieces & plywood (36ft)
pieces 2 unit set-up (Maximum size)
pieces + side brackets & plywood (105ft)
ft on 2 -48ft flat beds.
12ft towable unit available
ft on 1 drop deck.
7x7ft towable unit
freestanding on 1 truck
on 1 or 148ft on 2
of motor unit w guardrails
than 7,000 lbs
than 3,000 lbs.
Install 2 outriggers
x 16" x 16", 220lbs
x 8" x 16", 180 lbs
x 12" x 12", 370 lbs
x 20" x 22", 200 lbs
Man + Self Erecting Device
ft (+2 ft walk area)
ft (+2ft-6in walk area)
travel speed (ft / min.)
in guardrail storage
behind tower for brick cart
5 ft wide sliding doors
4ft wide sliding doors
Need to remove 1 or guard rails
One panel removed
assembly w wheels
partial disassembly required to move
planking support tube
5 ft std
4 ft std
Loose 8'8" tubes
5 ft std, 10ft max.
safety harness tie point
(in user's guide)
6, 10,14, 18 & 20 ft
4, 6 & 8 ft
3'-4", 6'-8", 10, 15 & 20 ft
8 &16 ft
parts per connection
bolts and 4 pins
smart bars and 16 pins
& Slot Connection w 2 bolts
extra parts (56ft deck)
& Wall ties
Wall Tie Schedule
Every 20 ft
Every 20 ft
Every 20 ft
power unit & lifting mechanism
safety & perform training
Galvanized base, rail & moving parts
Similar but Different Mast climbing work platforms are not cheap. And while many, if not most, mason contractors can opt for renting the MCWP they need to save costs, that option isn't always available due to geographic location, availability or deadline. That means owning (or leasing) are the options and overall cost can be a consideration.
Some contractors have found that a MCWP is a good investment; several even from different vendors are a better investment. And the best investment can be different technologies that offer specific benefits on the job.
Bill Stovall, project manager at MCAA-member Skinner Masonry, Mesquite, Texas explains his company's philosophy. "Skinner Masonry owns Fraco, Hydro Mobile and Non-Stop Scaffolding systems," he says. "Over the years, we have learned that jobsite conditions and the project type will usually determine when we would use a particular type of scaffolding. All three systems are extremely well made and on many occasions we will incorporate all three on a single project."
Each of the systems performs well but each performs best in certain situations. The Non-Stop Scaffolding system, for example, works well when the building has many short wall segments or multiple turns. Unlike the motorized, hydraulic actuated mast climbers it competes with, Non-Stop uses the classic winch method of raising the platform. And Non-stop will be the first to point out that its cost is significantly less than the others.
Stovall continues, "The three systems bring a wide range of versatility to a project and can be used in combination to give a commercial mason the best value. We believe we have purchased the highest production, most cost effective, and most durable scaffolding systems available today. For example, comparisons of maintenance costs is difficult due to the different mechanical aspects involved but we have found maintenance is minimal for all three."
At Skinner Masonry, they have systems with one common goal, three different approaches, and multiple similarities. "Skinner Masonry has found all the systems we own to be excellent performers for the tasks they were designed to do," claims Stovall. "The one common factor between these systems is that they all increase productivity dramatically over conventional forms of scaffolding. That gives us a competitive edge and the ability to be more profitable in a time when cost efficiency is the difference between a project that exceeds expectations and one that just meets the estimate."
According to Stovall, "All are designed with ease of transport, erection and operation in mind. In our opinion, Non-Stop, Hydro Mobile, and Fraco would be in that order when considering ease of erection but that doesn't necessarily mean they would end up in that order when deciding the best unit for a particular job."
As you can tell, at Skinner, they don't have a "litmus test" they apply to determine which scaffolding system is best there are too many factors involved. In many ways, that is the beauty of the state of the art today, no matter the situation, there is some product that will fill the bill.