It’s December, 21st 2017. Three days before the Christmas holiday, Schmidbauer, a system service provider of crane technologies, receives an order approval from the German Aerospace Centre (DLR): one Liebherr LTM 1040-2.1 mobile crane is to be transported to Antarctica to help redevelop a polar research station. ‘After that, it was a race against time’, recalls Minka St. James, who managed the Antarctica project at Schmidbauer. ‘The crane needed to be shipped within just two weeks, or else we would have lost a whole year.’ Options for transporting equipment to Antarctica are extremely limited. The last stage from the southern tip of Chile to the research station is only possible through a joint effort by the German Aerospace Centre and the Chilean military.

Another challenge came in the form of strict environmental regulations. Ships are not permitted to dock directly at the pier next to the research station to avoid disturbing the penguin population that lives on the island. Instead, they must offload their cargo onto pontoons, around two kilometres off the coast. However, these shallow floats, similar to rafts, can only carry loads of up to eight tonnes. So within the span of two weeks, Schmidbauer must not only deal with the challenge of transporting the crane to Antarctica, but also dismantle it into individual parts and then plan how to reassemble it on site once it arrives.

‘Despite the difficult conditions, it was clear to us that a delay was not an option’, explains Minka St. James. By the beginning of January, the crane’s individual parts were shipped out from Schmidbauer's headquarters in Gräfelfing near Munich.

From Munich to the Antarctic

The first stop on the cranes route was the Port of Hamburg. From there, the cargo passed through multiple legs on a journey across the North Atlantic, then along the western coast of South America, before reaching Antarctica.

An interview with three crane experts

Preparation is everything, especially during a mission to Antarctica. This fell onto the shoulders of workshop supervisor Michael Paul and his assistant Charlie Zöllner from Schmidbauer, who worked on the crane from when it was disassembled in Gräfelfing until it was reassembled in Antarctica. During the disassembly process in Germany, they were supported by Tobias Hunger, a customer service representative from the Liebherr plant in Ehingen.

Mr Paul and Mr Zöllner, do you often find yourself working on a job like this?

Michael Paul: No, this was a brand-new experience for me. When a colleague first told me that we would be assembling the crane in Antarctica ourselves, I thought he was joking at first. A job in Antarctica is completely out of the ordinary and it takes a lot of preparation.

Charlie Zöllner: I doubt I will ever work on another job like that again in my lifetime. In 2017, I hadn’t even been working at Schmidbauer that long, and this was my first job abroad. That was definitely quite extraordinary.

You received the order just before Christmas in 2017 and the crane left the warehouse on 2 January 2018, all within the space of less than two weeks. Can you tell us about the preparations you made on the shop floor?

Michael Paul: There was a lot of pressure to do things quickly because disassembling the crane wasn't the only thing we had to do. We also had to prepare and pack all the spare parts and tools we would need for the installation on site. Things also became quite stressful when we needed to have individual crane parts packed by a specialist company and when we had to receive a large delivery of spare parts from Liebherr. Because of the tight schedule, everyone had to work at maximum capacity.

How did you go about disassembling the crane?

Michael Paul: Disassembling a crane is by no means standard procedure. Plus, the individual parts all had to weigh under eight tonnes and had to fit within specific dimensions. So we worked very closely with Liebherr customer service whilst we were disassembling the crane.

Tobias Hunger: It’s our job to solve our customer’s problems while also working to a tight schedule. But even for us, this was an unusual challenge. We studied the crane's technical drawings and developed a disassembly plan. We had to improvise certain things during the disassembly process; for example, we had to prepare a new, smaller diesel tank for the engine in the crane's undercarriage. Normally, the diesel tank for the undercarriage is located in the superstructure, but that had to be removed to keep within the weight limits. It was imperative that the engine would function correctly whilst the crane was being assembled on site. As we were disassembling the crane, it was also important to consider how it would be reassembled in Antarctica. We wanted to make sure that we would be able to reassemble it in as few steps as possible under the harsh weather conditions there.

The crane was shipped out at the beginning of January. You flew to Punta Arenas (Chile) in March where you were reunited with the crane and then you escorted it on the final leg of the journey to the research station. How was that part of the trip for you?

Michael Paul: We very quickly learned a local saying: ‘In Antarctica, the only certain thing is that nothing is certain.’ So for example, it took longer than expected to transfer the crane’s parts onto the pontoons because of all the ice floes floating off the coast of the island. Even just positioning the outrigger on the pontoon was very stressful because of its size. We had to guide the lifting work from a small motorboat. But to get down to the boat, we had to climb down a metal ladder on the side of the military vessel. It was a long drop, looking down the side of the ship. That was a pretty scary sight.

How different is it assembling a crane in Antarctica compared with assembling it back at the factory?

Michael Paul: We have specialised tools at our disposal in Gräfelfing and we can always order any spare parts we need at short notice. In Antarctica, it usually takes several weeks for a shipment to arrive. That made the planning stage in Germany even more important. There were plenty of sleepless nights for me. But in the end, everything worked out. Even though the crane parts were unloaded and reloaded multiple times, in the end, we were only missing four bolts, which the Chilean colleagues have kindly provided to us.

Charlie Zöllner: The conditions on site in Antarctica are like nothing else we’d ever experienced. Instead of working in an enclosed shop floor, we had to assemble the crane outdoors. Although we were actually pretty lucky with the weather, with temperatures around the freezing point, it’s a good thing we had our protective clothing with us because of the powerful Antarctic winds. We also fully appreciated the kindness of our fellow men when working on the island. For example, the Chilean military let us use a smaller crane during the assembly.

How does it feel to look back on all your hard work when you see that the crane is finally fully installed?

Charlie Zöllner: You just pray that after all the work, the crane will actually start up. You can imagine how relieved I was the moment I turned the key in the ignition and the crane started up immediately.

Michael Paul: Me too. I mean that shows that all our planning had really paid off. Looking back on it, I was especially impressed by how well everyone worked together, from the support we received from the German Aerospace Centre, to the expertise shared by Liebherr during the disassembly phase and then the help we received on site from the Chilean military. If it hadn’t been for that level of teamwork, a project like this would never have been feasible!

German research at the South Pole

The German Aerospace Centre has been operating a polar research station on a small island around 30 kilometres off the northern tip of the Antarctic peninsula since 1991. The German Antarctic Receiving Station (GARS) O’Higgins receives satellite signals and Earth observation data via an antenna that was specially designed for operation in Antarctica.

The satellite signals and Earth observation data is analysed as part of multiple research projects and is fed into national and international databases. The data provides researchers with significant insights into how Antarctica is changing. This can also be used to help researchers learn more about the way the climate is changing worldwide.

Since 2010, the station has been operated by a team of four researchers all year round. For around two to three months each year, the researchers here must endure temperatures between -20°C and +8°C and wind forces of up to 200 kilometres per hour. The research station is divided into two units: one building houses the research facilities and the other contains the additional technical infrastructure. This infrastructure is essential because the station is operated autonomously and runs off its own power supply from diesel generators. There is also an osmosis installation for water treatment and a biological purification system. The infrastructure building needed an overhaul, so plans were made to renovate and extend it by 2022.

A confined construction site at the end of the Earth

One of the challenges for the construction work is the lack of space on the island, which is only 300 x 200 metres in size. The German research station is also directly adjacent to the Base General Bernardo O'Higgins, a Chilean Antarctic Military Base. ‘It was absolutely critical for the German Aerospace Centre that the crane could be manoeuvred in these cramped conditions and that the construction site could be fully covered from a single location’, explains Minka St. James, who directed the project for Schmidbauer.

Customer service is also extremely important, even in Antarctica. It is crucial to use the short summer period as efficiently as possible because that is the only time of year in which construction work can be carried out and the transport routes are navigable. There is no time to waste. ‘That’s why we chose a Liebherr crane because, in the event of an emergency, an engineer can be sent to the research station from the Liebherr customer service centre in Chile’, Minka continues.

Once the crane was assembled, it was immediately shored up for the winter. All the test runs were successfully completed during the following Southern Hemisphere summer (December to March of 2019). The construction work to extend the research station kicked off officially in November 2019 and is expected to be completed in 2022.

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