Barnhart Crane & Rigging adds heft to lifting capacity at Alabama state docks with arrival of $10 million 'Big Al'

Apr 4, 2012

By Kaija Wilkinson Mobile Press-Register /

Even though a Korean transformer manufacturer ended up choosing Montgomery rather than the Mobile area for a new production facility, Barnhart Crane & Rigging doesn't regret its decision to bring heavy-lift crane capacity to the Alabama state docks a little more than two years ago.

Hyundai Heavy Industries would have meant big business for Barnhart and its 400-ton capacity crane. But the company is carving its niche in heavy lifting anyway, and has even handled some of the lifts for the transformer manufacturer.

"We are committed to providing Alabama with an alternative to a very large shore crane," said John Mickler, Barnhart's national logistics development manager, who is based in Fairhope.

The Barnhart crane, nicknamed Big Al for the state of Alabama and company President Alan Barnhart, is mounted on a barge. Mickler said that makes it more versatile and less costly to use than a fixed crane.

So far, Big Al has lifted giant rolls of undersea steel umbilical, pieces of equipment for offshore oil rigs, and auto plant equipment.

The crane's work runs the gamut, Mickler said.

Since it's mobile, the crane has done jobs on the Mississippi River, at power plants up and down the Gulf Coast, and in north Alabama. Closer to home, lifts have been performed for customers on the Theodore Industrial Canal and at shipyards throughout the port.

Mickler said the heaviest piece lifted thus far was a wheel of umbilical weighing 280 short tons, or 560,000 pounds. The maximum 400-ton capacity is equal to 806,000 pounds.

The barge serves as a counterweight to what is being lifted, and it is the barge, rather than the crane, that moves.

The heavier the object being moved, the more engineering is involved. The entire lift process, which includes supervision, lift plans, and rigging plans, typically takes a couple of days. The company prefers to have about 10 days notice so it can prepare engineering plans to a customer's specifications, Mickler said.

The specialized crew that operates Big Al consists of a couple of riggers, a superintendent and crane operator. It wouldn't be shocking for a heavy lift to cost well over $100,000 and perhaps as much as $150,000, depending on the job, according to the Alabama State Port Authority, which sets the rates.

Prior to Big Al's arrival, similar lifts could easily cost $60,000 to $80,000 more, since customers had to arrange to utilize shore-based cranes or call on companies out of New Orleans, authority Director Jimmy Lyons said. At that time, the port's maximum lift capacity was 110 short tons or 220,000 pounds, he said.

Mickler said demand has been moderate, and it comes in waves.

Barnhart's game plan, Mickler said, is to expand business in construction, railroad bridge maintenance, industrial plant modifications, and lock-and-dam systems.

Already, several coal-handling facilities have undergone upgrades and the crane has been key in those projects. Barnhart plans on handling some lifting for upgrades that will increase capacity at McDuffie Coal Terminal in Mobile over the summer, Mickler said.

"Our commitment is to the industry near the port and along the inland waterways that Alabama is blessed with," he said.

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