Air cargo operations have always been important to airlines and other air transportation companies. Industry estimates say that air cargo represents 15-20% of the business done by airlines. Over the last six decades, the air cargo business has made major strides because of several technological advances. Most of this technology involved material handling.
One of the most important advances was containerization – a process to concentrate cargo into ULD’s (Unit Load Devices.) Before ULD’s were available loading air freight was more art than science.
Another major advance was the development of omnidirectional ball transfer arrays to allow ULD’s to be easily and efficiently moved.
The Old Days – the Age of Magic
Back in the day, the key people in air cargo operations were loadmasters. They are still an important part of the air cargo business, but before ULD’s, they were the MOST vital part.
Loadmasters had to have an almost magical innate ability to figure not only how much cargo could be carried by a specific aircraft, but also how to “marry” the load.
They were the gurus of how to place and tie down cargo so it wouldn’t be moved around during takeoffs and landings, aircraft maneuvers or shifting caused by passenger movement – AND they had to have the ability to do all that just by looking at the components of the load as they showed up.
“Marrying” the load required a very high level of experience and intuition. Where and how the cargo was placed within the aircraft required amazing levels of skill to keep the center of gravity within very tight limits and avoid overloading on sensitive parts of the airframe and cargo bay area flooring.
Loadmasters also had to have intimate knowledge of how the plane’s dynamics would change as fuel was consumed, which would change the center of gravity substantially.
The Advent of ULD’s
ULD’s (Unit Load Devices) are containers (or in smaller planes, pallets) used to load all types of cargo including luggage, freight, and mail on wide-body aircraft and specific narrow-body aircraft. They allow a large quantity of cargo to be bundled into a single unit.
The Next Step – How to Efficiently Move ULD’s
Since ULD’s became the primary arrangement for how air cargo is moved and loadmasters got computers to help them with their jobs, the key area became how UDL’s are moved, around storage spaces and into and out of aircraft.
Standard methods of movement – lift trucks/pallets, carts/casters, brute force – could not keep up with the need to quickly and safely get ULD’s loaded, onto an aircraft and then from aircraft onto customers.
Conveyor systems with roller or belts had too limited ranges of movement – straight line only – not the most efficient way to move heavy cargo. After the patenting of the ball transfer in 1958, the most successful movement method for air cargo became a universal need.
The Age of the Ball Transfer
Air freight continues to have a growing share of the transportation market. More and more demands have been put on air cargo resources because of the increasing number of businesses who need them.
Ball transfer decks offer the greatest ease and efficiency of move ULDs to and through terminals to trucks and aircraft and then off again.
The biggest concerns for those who use ball transfer systems are for products that meet very specific needs and for firms that can provide custom versions to meet them. There are endless ways that ball transfer systems of multiple types can provide greater speed and ease than any other method of material handling.
As the needs of air cargo companies get more complex, there is a great need for custom (bespoke) ball transfer configurations.
Hudson Bearings has been a leader in ball transfer systems because of its abilities. Our unique positioning is simple, our products are American Made and our company has the quality, capacity and collaborative capabilities to meet virtually any application or need.
We welcome the opportunity to work with air cargo companies that need good thinking, first-class engineering, and great service.