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Winter is coming

Gearbox remanufacturing on the Great Lakes

In late December, the temperatures start to plummet in the northern regions of the United States. Every year, winter takes an icy hold on the Great Lakes. As the water freezes, large sections of the lakes become unnavigable. So what happens to hundreds of vessels that sail there?

The winter layup

It’s easy to see where the Great Lakes got their name. The five huge lakes located on the U.S.–Canadian border contain over one fifth of the world’s supply of surface fresh water. Spanning a staggering distance of 1,200 kilometers from west to east, they serve as important shipping and transportation routes and are home to a lucrative fishing industry.

But as winter draws in, the lakes freeze over, with total ice coverage across the Great Lakes even reaching as much as 92.5% in extreme cases. Consequently, shipping operations are forced to a temporary standstill that typically lasts from early January until April. This is what is known as the winter layup—and many shipping companies use it as a window of opportunity to take their vessels for inspection and servicing. However, with so many ships going for repairs at the same time, companies need to start preparing as early as summer to ensure any necessary work can be completed on time.

Making the most of a short timeframe

With a relatively short period of operation of nine months in a year, tugboats on the Great Lakes are often subjected to heavy-duty use. This can put high strain on the gearboxes and eventually lead to failures. Moreover, some shipping companies will operate their boats for as long as possible—particularly if there is a good crop. They might even enlist the support of U.S. and Canadian Coast Guard icebreakers to maximize their time on the lakes.

During the layup, many ships will come in for maintenance work at the same time, which presents a big challenge for repair facilities. Furthermore, some of the older vessels may have a lack of documentation or contain discontinued, or even fake, parts—an increasing problem in many industries today. Even getting the vessels to a shipyard can be a time-consuming endeavor; a large number of the repair centers in the United States are located far from the Great Lakes in southern states such as Kentucky or Louisiana.

A lack of documentation and drawings, and discontinued or replica parts, present challenges for repair facilities.

Local support is crucial

Having a local partner in the Great Lakes Basin for gearbox repairs can prove highly beneficial for ship operators. It not only gives them the reassurance that they will have their vessel back quickly, but also eliminates the expense of having their ships transported to a workshop via barge or truck. In addition, when components are serviced, shipping companies demand guarantees on the reliability and authenticity of the replacement parts, as well as accurate documentation.

One facility that offers these services is the SKF Industrial Service Centre in Cambridge, Ontario, situated between Lake Huron, Lake Erie, and Lake Ontario. It provides local, year-round support for ships on the Great Lakes and, as an independent company, can offer advice on the best course of action. The service technicians there are able to overhaul gearboxes up to a size of eight meters in diameter from any manufacturer and can use reverse engineering to create replacements for older or discontinued parts.

For example, SKF recently received a gearbox from a customer that was in bad shape. The OEM was no longer in business, and the customer did not have any of the technical drawings. The service technicians were able to use advanced software tools to verify the gearbox would perform as needed. As the existing gears were damaged beyond repair, SKF fabricated a new gear set that would ensure long service life of the gearbox.

SKF gearbox remanufacturing services include:

  • Full gearbox inspection and diagnosis
  • Root cause failure analysis
  • Precision measures and grinding of new gears
  • Refurbishment and optional performance upgrades
  • Final testing and full documentation
  • Installation and commissioning

The winter layup on the Great Lakes can be a hectic time for ship operators. But by turning to local and reputable repair facilities, shipping companies can get the peace of mind they are looking for.

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