A portable lift that lets a worker safely and effortlessly ascend transmission towers to perform repairs at dizzying heights – with this brilliant idea, HighStep Systems AG is gaining customers around the world.
In annual rankings of hazardous occupations, working at lofty heights is at the top of the list. Only bomb technicians, police in special units, and firefighters live more dangerously than construction workers at heights. “Nobody nowadays should have to take the risk of climbing 80- or 100-meterhigh towers and poles with a ladder”, says Andreas Maurer, founder and CEO of HighStep Systems AG. „Our systems offer safe, cost-effective alternatives.”
The Ascent Began with a Fall
Safety is very important to Maurer. After all, he began developing this product ten years ago, when his father fell from a ladder in the garden. „We asked ourselves why there are no really safe ladders, even though many people have to work in elevated locations such as transmission towers or wind turbines”, the graduate engineer explains. The core product of HighStep Systems, founded in 2007, is an aluminum rail permanently attached to a structure from bottom to top. The company now holds the patent for this rail as well as for three different climbing devices.
Diversity of Application Options
The mechanical climbing device, called HighStep Easy, differs from an ordinary ladder in that it provides a small platform-like pedal for each of the climber’s feet. These are always connected to the rail, alternately sliding up and locking into the rail with each step. Standing upright with both arms free, the user can take steps of any height and stop to rest at any time, always secured to the rail. „Industry has recognized these advantages not only for safety, but also because they can help address a recruitment issue: It’s getting harder to find young technicians, and the older ones often have knee or back problems. If the climbing element is removed from the job, technicians remain fit for work for much longer”, explains Maurer.
Equally simple to use is the world’s first portable lift system, HighStep Lift. A worker demonstrates: He pulls a slender, two-wheeled device into position with one hand. Two quick hand movements and the dismounted wheels are lying on the grass. What remains is the lift, which he connects to the aluminum rail affixed to the tower. Stepping onto its platform, he secures his safety belt and presses the start button. Motors whir quietly as the lift slides smoothly up the rail. In just two minutes, the man has reached his workplace, 60 meters up, and starts his maintenance task. When he has finished and Descended, he removes the lift from the rail and takes it to the next tower. The third apparatus in the company’s product line is a robot that can be operated via tablet or smartphone for a wide variety of applications. It can be used to transport cargo or combined with an integrated camera as a monitoring device. In addition, it can be installed horizontally as well as vertically. HighStep Systems AG products are ISO, TÜV and SQS certified, but the company outsources production. The rails are supplied by the German company Aluminium-Werke Wutöschingen AG, and the other components are made by Faes AG of Switzerland.
Almost Unlimited Growth Potential
In its brief history, the company has already achieved a number of successes. In 2008, one year after it was founded, the first major client to commit to the climbing system was Axpo. HighStep Systems quickly consolidated its position in Switzerland, meeting initial capacity challenges through cooperative ventures. Then it turned to the worldwide market, expanding first within Europe and then to China and India. Working with major global companies, HighStep is involved in expanding India’s G4 mobile network, where thousands of cell towers are equipped with its rail system. But the HighStep systems are not limited to new structures. „We are the only company that can add a lift to an existing structure for just a modest investment“, according to the CEO. The company occupies a lucrative market, Europe alone has more than a million high-voltage transmission towers and some 72,000 wind turbines. And both of these markets are growing. As the electricity network is extended, the number of pylons necessarily increases, and the demand for new energy sources is generating annual growth of over 20% in the field of wind power. The potential business sectors for HighStep products seem almost unlimited: The systems can also be used in high-bay warehouses and on cranes and lighting columns, high-rise buildings, or oil and gas tankers.
“We owe our global expansion in part to the support from Credit Suisse Entrepreneur Capital Ltd.”, says Maurer. “They not only offered us financial assistance in the form of a loan, but also helped with our business development and gave us access to the Credit Suisse Entrepreneur Capital Ltd.’s and Credit Suisse’ network.” The biggest challenges so far have been on the economic front. Like most SMEs, HighStep Systems was affected by the financial crisis and the strong Swiss franc. Furthermore, cost pressures and fears of recession have made customers more cautious. Nevertheless, the CEO looks to the future with confidence: “We sell a Swiss made product with huge sales potential, a product that will make the highest workplaces in the world safer.”