Will the Gulf embrace IPAF's latest technologies?

PMV finds out whether the GCC's access platform sector is ready to adopt smartcard and e-learning technologies?

An array of stakeholders, including manufacturers, rental firms, and end users, attended IPAF Middle East's convention.
An array of stakeholders, including manufacturers, rental firms, and end users, attended IPAF Middle East's convention.

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At the beginning of February, IPAF Middle East held its annual convention in Dubai. The event was attended by a broad range of industry stakeholders, from the people who design and manufacture aerial work platforms (AWPs), to those who use them on a day-to-day basis.

Operating at the interface between manufacturers and end users, the International Powered Access Federation (IPAF) represents the AWP industry’s safety champion. However, the federation’s activities stretch beyond campaigning alone. Through its Powered Access Licence (PAL) programme, IPAF provides industry-recognised, accredited training for professionals who work at height.

The core messages conveyed through this training remain largely unchanged from one year to the next, but in 2015, IPAF will continue to upgrade the media through which these messages are communicated and enforced.

“The PAL Card is proof that an operator has successfully completed the training and passed [his or her] test,” said Tim Whiteman, IPAF’s chief executive officer.

“More than a million of these cards have been issued over the last decade, but it’s about time the PAL Card was updated,” he said.

To this end, IPAF has introduced the Smart PAL Card. This card features an embedded chip that contains an array of data concerning the cardholder and the AWPs that he or she is qualified to operate. When used in conjunction with card readers, it can help to prevent under-trained or unauthorised personnel from using particular machines.

“Since [the beginning of] this year, all new PAL Cards issued have been Smart PAL Cards,” Whiteman told his Dubai audience.

“In the UK today, there are already about 50,000 people who have a Smart PAL Card, and by the end of this year, there will be nearly 200,000 people worldwide with one of these cards,” he added.

The Smart PAL Card could well prove to be a valuable tool in the battle to enforce safe practice, but equally important will be the training that leads to its issuance. With this in mind, IPAF has created an e-learning programme, which is ready to be rolled out globally. The technology, according to Whiteman, will significantly improve the quality of – and access to – IPAF’s existing training methods.

“IPAF really wants to ensure that its training stays ahead of the game,” he said.

“We’re investing a considerable amount this year in our state-of-the-art e-learning system, which can be used instead of traditional classroom teaching, or it can be used to supplement it, or it can be used by operators who wish to refresh their knowledge,” he explained.

Whiteman contends that IPAF’s e-learning programme should be viewed as an addition to – not a replacement for – traditional, classroom-based learning.

“This won’t replace traditional classroom methods,” he explained. “It will replace the material, so the instructors will receive a much more sophisticated and advanced programme to use within the classrooms. It will allow us to move into other languages more quickly in the future, which is a very exciting development for us. We want to make training available in the language of the operator.”

But how will these technologies fare in the Middle East? The Smart PAL Card, for example, might now be standard issue, but it will not be able to realise its full potential unless AWP owners invest in card-reading technology.

“In terms of smartcards, we need to get sufficient numbers of qualified people before we start to invest in supplementary technology,” said Wayne Taylor, managing director of Abu Dhabi-headquartered rental firm, Safelift.
“There are somewhere in the region of 6,000 AWPs in the UAE, and perhaps 1,000 PAL Cards. Safelift would consider putting readers onto its AWPs if there was blanket coverage of users with Smart PAL Cards,” he explained.

Whiteman is in agreement with Taylor on this issue. He contends that the immediate priority for IPAF and its partners should be to build the smartcard user base in the Middle East.

“We have to create a base of operators out there,” he told PMV. “If you go back one stage, we had to create a base of operators here so that end users and contractors could actually say that they wanted correctly trained operators on site. We’re now getting to the level where there are enough people out there with a PAL Card.

“The second stage is to get enough people out there with a Smart PAL Card, and then they can start to make use of them. It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation [whereby you need] enough smartcards out there to use them to their full potential. Of course, there will be some people who jump on it straight away, and others [who] gradually follow.”

AWP manufacturers represent a key piece of the puzzle when it comes to the uptake of card readers across the Gulf. As regional GM for Terex AWP brand, Genie, Sharbel Kordahi says that his firm is ready to play its part.

“Genie has offered card-reading technology as an option for a number of years now,” he said. “We call it ‘track-and-trace’, and we’re seriously considering introducing this technology as standard on our larger booms – 20m and above – from Q2 2015,” he revealed.

Genie’s track-and-trace tool gives rental firms the option to prevent operators without the right Smart PAL Card from using their access platforms. Moreover, it allows fleet owners to access real-time information about how, where, and when their machines are being used.

As greater numbers of Smart PAL Cards are issued across the Middle East, and as manufacturers like Genie continue to push card-reading technologies to the market, electronically barring users who don’t hold the appropriate PAL qualifications will become a more viable option for rental firms. As for IPAF’s e-learning programme, Whiteman conceded that it was difficult to predict demand in this region.

“I’m not sure how e-learning will be received in [the Middle East],” he admitted. “I think the benefits it brings to the classroom will make it worthwhile anyway, because the e-learning material will be used by instructors to supplement conventional teaching methods.”

Taylor argues that the pay barrier represents a challenge for PAL training in this price-conscious market, but agrees that an online option could help to maximise access and make the IPAF course more attractive to end users.
“Our customers are interested in IPAF-accredited training until we mention the cost,” he explained.

“Even so, if IPAF can overcome the language barrier, I think that the e-learning programme could be fantastic for operators in the Middle East.

“I think that this introduction represents a step in the right direction. It will enable end users to learn about safe practice in an after-work environment,” he told PMV.

However rapid the uptake of these technologies proves to be in the Gulf, one thing appears to be undisputed: well-trained operators are beneficial for the industry as a whole.

“The majority of breakdowns occur when our machines are operated by inexperienced personnel,” explained Kordahi.
“Operators come with different skill levels; some are qualified, but others aren’t. These technologies, therefore, could help to protect both end users and the access platforms that they operate,” he concluded.

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