Material Handling
Friday | 13 February, 2015 | 1:51 pm

Built to suit

By Emily Vasquez

Above: The Walker magnetic system unloads a railcar load of 10-foot by 60-foot by ½-inch-thick steel plate.

Magnetic system revives steel transloading services

February 2015 - Big Soo Terminal always finds a way to transport its customers’ material. Able to transload and store everything from loose bulk fertilizer to steel plate, Big Soo prides itself on being a build-to-suit service provider. “We may not know how to do it but we’ll figure out how to do it,” Assistant Terminal Manager Jim Palmer says. 

Stretched along the Missouri River in Sioux City, Iowa, Big Soo provides third-party warehouse and logistics that allow customers to reap the benefits of access to barge, rail and truck transportation. “If you manufacture something, it may not make sense to locate your factory along a railroad, but if you’d still like to take advantage of a better freight rate when you’re trying to ship long distances, we can facilitate that.” 

A decade ago, Big Soo was not handling large quantities of heavy bulk cargo, Palmer says, recalling the “cobbled” system that was adapted to transport and load steel onto trucks. That makeshift system, as he describes it, placed terminal employees in risky situations. The process involved a crane, plate grabber and clamps that obligated a worker to manually crank a hand wheel only inches away from suspended heavy plates. 

“Everything we did before was smaller sheets that we had to unload with a crane and a cumbersome plate grabber that would clamp around the sides of the plate. We were constrained to plates no larger than 5 by 12 feet and, to unload a railcar with that equipment took a few hours, even with the use of a crane,” explains Palmer. This antiquated, slow and laborious routine meant that Big Soo was unable to compete on price against other terminals and, finally, because it refused to continually risk its workers’ safety, eliminated plate handling altogether. 

Fast forward 10 years and industries in the region began to clamor for metal transport. “We’ve recently gotten back into metals. A lot people came to us to say there was a need in our area,” says Palmer. Metal producers wanted Big Soo to handle their material and ensure its timely delivery. To fulfill this emerging demand, Big Soo searched for a solution that would ensure the safety of its workers and enhance productivity without increasing labor costs. 


Increasing safety

Big Soo reached out to Walker Magnetics, Worcester, Massachusetts, which engineers and manufactures magnetic-based material handling technologies. The company makes industrial magnets designed to handle metal all along the supply chain, from mills and service centers to fabricators, transloaders and shipyards. A 118-year-old business, Walker Magnetics builds standard permanent, battery and electro-permanent magnets and—like Big Soo—builds custom systems and addresses efficiency concerns. 

Big Soo last year purchased a “plate handling system that consists of six plate- handling magnets that are suspended from a 47-foot-long spreader beam that is lifted by the forks of Big Soo’s fork truck,” according to Dave Wilber, product manager for the lifting division at Walker Magnetics. “The system includes a magnet controller that allows the operators to choose between using the central two magnets or all six magnets. This is beneficial when handling some short plates.”

The new material handling solution prevents operators from pounding wedges into stacks of steel plate or prying into small pockets between stacks to attach plate hooks. “It becomes clumsy, the wedging and prying and forks can damage the plates. Operators are in a dangerous position. The magnet system is much faster and safer,” says Wilber. 

The magnetic system allows a single operator to safely unload material while sitting in the cab of the forklift. Single plate or multiple plates can be lifted, stacked and transported with a flip of a switch. The operators have control at the tips of their fingers via a three-button control system that Palmer describes as high-tech for its internal functions but low-tech for its easy-to-use controls. The three-button system includes an on and off switch and a feather button that controls the power of the magnet as it is lifting the stacks of plate, removing the need to go near the material when unloading. Now, Big Soo can transfer a full truckload of steel from railcar to truck in less than 15 minutes, one-third to one-fourth the time required under the previous system.

Transloading simplified

Integrating the magnetic system at Big Soo was “shockingly easy,” says Palmer. “The attachment of the magnet to the forklift is very simple as the spreader beam for the magnets has fork pockets that allow the forklift to simply drive up and pick up the spreader beam.”

Power is supplied from the generator to the magnets via a power cable that is connected by the forklift operator when the magnet spreader beam is picked up. A Conductix cable reel feeds the power cable out to the cage of the forklift and maintains consistent tension on the power cable, letting out cable as the forks are raised and pulling cable back in as the forks are lowered so that the power cord never risks damage, he explains.

Training Big Soo’s staff went smoothly, says Palmer. It took less than a week for workers to become well acquainted with the magnetic system. “There’s only three buttons and after 15 minutes anybody is an expert. Once the guys unload one car, they know all the tricks.” 


Big Soo currently handles steel products from a distributor sourcing metal for original equipment manufacturers, shipping the material directly to its customers. Because this required some versatility in handling, Big Soo worked closely with Walker Magnetics to build a custom magnet that would be easy to operate and easily adapt to multiple metal product forms in addition to plate. 

With the Walker magnet, says Palmer, “I can go back and throw a different set of magnets [on the forklift] which—relative to the total package cost are fairly inexpensive—and handle rebar, tube or rod just by flipping a switch, giving us something really modular.”

Big Soo acknowledges some infrastructure limitations remain. The 2-mile railroad spur at the terminal can fit only 13 railcars for steel, as it must allow space for other industrial shipments, including lumber and large-project cargo like windmill components. 

“Since we’re direct transloading to truck, it involves getting that truck to the customer, getting unloaded and bringing it back. So actually our magnet spends a lot of time waiting for our truck to show up,” Palmer says. With the Walker magnetic system installed, however, Big Soo can now unload railcars filled with large-sized plate and can price its services competitively. 

Big Soo plans to continue growing its steel transloading business, potentially dedicating 13 to 14 acres of adjacent land to more magnetic material handling equipment. “Our goal is to help keep costs down for our customers and labor is our No. 1 cost, so the more efficient that we can be handling product, the better the pricing and the service that we provide our customers.” MM

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