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Sat, Mar 12, 2005

AS3: Jacks Are Wild In Vegas

Company Displays Vehicle Lift, Seeks Aircraft Applications.

There I was in the Ground Support Expo part of the show and I came on something you don't see every day -- a bright yellow Penske rental truck, six feet in the air. Since that's not where I usually expect to see trucks, I ambled over to take a look. I expected to see some kind of a lift, and a company promoting the sort of space-saver lifts that are used to double-up hangars. Instead, each wheel of the truck was supported by a lift that was clearly portable -- and not attached to anything at all. Look ma, no cords. Aha, I think. They put this truck up there and then disconnected the cords.

I was wrong.

Standing underneath the truck (kids, don't try this at home!) were the reps for the product's maker, Todd M. Joe and Christy Meers. Their company, Gray Professional Service Equipment, is basically all about lifting things and holding them up. They've been making professional lifting equipment since about 1910. They make everything from jack stands and floor jacks and ramps, like the ones that you can buy in the automotive section at WalMart, but much stronger and of palpably higher quality, through specialty devices to raise and lower such specific parts as truck clutches, to vehicle lifts. So far their company has been a big power in the automotive market, and they were primarily here to show off their equipment to those responsible for maintaining ground service fleets. But they were also looking for opportunities to adapt their technology to lift aircraft. After all, aircraft tires need changing too, and there are a lot of other reasons for jacking aircraft up.

Todd Joe was kind enough to spend a lot of time with me. He explained that this was, indeed, a cableless lift system. Each of the four units, called "columns," includes a hydraulic jack, an electric power source (designed around a deep-cycle truck-type battery), a stand that has clever spring-loaded roller wheels that automatically retract when the system is put under load, and embedded wireless secure networking hardware and software. They can be moved anywhere... indeed, if you have a broken-down vehicle miles away, you can put the lift units on a truck and take them there, where you can lift the vehicle as long as you have a firm level surface.

You could use it as a lift in an automotive shop, and then roll it out of the way. In fact, you could make a hangar do double duty as a place to work on automotive equipment, which you could never do with a normal permanently-mounted lift; with the cableless lift, you can just roll it out of the way when you're done with it.

You can use two, four or six columns together (although you can lift many three-axle vehicles on a four-column lift just fine). Each column has its own control console: if an operator issues a command on one control console, that column becomes master and the other (three, assuming a four-wheel lift) columns become slaves and do whatever the operator commands from that single station. The columns communicate by radio frequency signals -- Gray solved the problem of interference by licensing dedicated frequencies from the FCC. The units can't get out of synch; there's constant error-checking going on.

When the battery runs down, each column has a built-in charger. Uncoil the included power cable, and plug it into any 110VAC outlet. That's the only time there's a cable at all. When the system is in use, there's nothing to prevent the mechanic from rolling in a transmission jack, or his toolbox. And the battery doesn't drain except from heavy usage, because the control panel has a sleep mode it enters in periods of inactivity.

This model of the lift system, Model WPLS-160 (WPLS is for Wireless Portable Lift System) sells for $36,500 for a set of four, and had already caught the interest of some of the show attendees, for servicing ground vehicles. But the engineers at Gray are interested in seeing if this can be expanded into the aviation market. I think it can.

Imagine one tech positioning jacks that will lift a plane off its wheels in a matter of minutes, and single-handedly raising the plane to cycle the gear for a periodic inspection. Then lowering the plane back on to its gear, and wheeling the units away... it's possible. This technology could do it with a couple of changes.

"Is there a limit to the size of plane that you could lift?" I asked.

"This four-column unit is good for 32 tons -- 64,000 lbs," Todd said. I did some mental math. That would lift most any bizjet, and even an early C-130, empty, but not a C-130J.  "Airplanes are no problem. We've lifted a Bradley Fighting Vehicle. We can add columns and lift a tank." Each column is good for 16,000 pounds. That's eight tons of effortless lift, coordinated with as many other 8-ton units as you have on hand.

It may not be Archimedes's world-moving lever and fulcrum, but if moving airplanes is in your plans, maybe you should give the folks at Gray Professional Service Equipment a call.



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