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Cortland Blog

The much-contested and knotted debate: Steel versus Synthetic

While rope made from natural fibers has been used since the early days of man, the modern-day argument over material choice can be articulated by the story of Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl. In 1947, Heyerdahl and his five-man crew set sail from Peru to Polynesia to prove to doubters that the South Sea Islands were originally colonized by South Americans. Rather than make the arduous journey on a vessel secured with contemporary steel ties, the adventurers spent 101 days on a traditional Kon Tiki raft held together with ancient hemp rope lashings.

Like that daring crew 70 years ago, Cortland specialists continue to deliberate and examine the right choice of material for each specific project. While a large range of highly engineered synthetic ropes, all with different properties and purposes, have largely replaced traditional materials, steel is still used widely across a variety of industrial applications from oil and gas to marine and mining.

The Steel versus Synthetic argument comes down to three key factors: safety, weight and maintenance.

As always, we’ll begin with safety. Steel wire rope requires greater manual handling and typically more manpower, increasing the risk of serious injury for crews. Handling manmade fiber alternatives is much simpler due to its lightweight construction, as opposed to steel, which is at least 7 times heavier. For example, the Cortland Plasma® 12×12 is the world’s strongest rope for its weight, yet flexible and versatile. It replaces steel, like-for-like, in heavy lift slings and winch lines, tug vessel assist lines, vessel mooring lines, and offshore working ropes.

The third key factor is maintenance. Synthetics are proven to last longer without significant maintenance, and repairs are more straightforward and less hazardous. Steel corrodes over time and can be exacerbated by conditions such as heat, salt and water – particularly frequent in industrial regions such as the Gulf of Mexico, the Middle East and Western Australia. Regular lubrication is also required. Furthermore, for personnel repairing steel, it takes considerable time, cost and potentially increased risk as for example, frayed steel can quickly cause injuries if preventative steps are not taken.

Comparatively, the design of braided synthetics means less financial burden for owners, operators and personnel. A major advantage is that synthetics can be repaired on a strand-by-strand basis, such as with the 12×12 construction. This means that the crew must only remove the damaged strand or strands, saving time, effort and moreover, the cost of a replacement rope.

We understand which materials best suit certain applications and can create custom packages when required. If our customers have a challenge, we’ll work with them to find the right solution.

Rope manufacturing has come a long way since the hemp days of ancient civilizations. While modern synthetic materials are often the right answer in the journey to safely achieve successful and efficient operations, we will continue to explore all options for our customers.

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