Compact niche aerials are building momentum in North America. ALH reports
By Lindsey Anderson23 May 2011
In October 2010, the tracked lift market shifted in North America. That fall, JLG Industries took a step into a market they didn't serve and started representing Italian-built tracked lifts from Hinowa. JLG was one of the first major aerial manufacturers to take interest in the crawler units, and the industry as a whole took note.
Over the past decade, European-based manufacturers of atrium-styled aerials have started to infiltrate the North American market, noticing the obvious hole here for these types of lifts. But while these smaller companies had started to build their networks in North America, there still wasn't - and isn't - an industry knocking on their doors begging to purchase atrium lifts.
"In North America, there's not many [of these lifts] here, frankly, so it's still a new and growing market," says Jeff Ford, JLG's director of global product management. "It's a growing niche and there's certainly a lot of potential places they could be used and they're just starting to get inroads here in the States."
JLG currently offers three Hinowa crawler units to the Americas (and five to Europe) and the agreement they have with Hinowa means that JLG sells the units exclusively in the US and elsewhere (including much of Europe). Previous Hinowa dealers, such as Skako Lift who represented the line before JLG, will no longer sell the platforms. Skako, however, now represents the Italian-produced BlueLift line of tracked aerials, and also supplies ReachMaster Falcon atrium lifts. The Falcon line has long been represented in the US (for over a decade) and it's worth nothing that the larger Falcon units come as wheeled units.
JLG chose Hinowa because, Ford says, it was the line that most replicated the 'feel' of JLG machines. "It's the way you feel when you're in the air, the smoothness of the controls, the overall fit and finish and quality of the machines," Ford says. "It really was the most JLG-like, we feel anyway, of what was out there."
To many in the industry, it's obvious that when one of the world's largest manufacturers of aerial work platforms starts representing a niche - yet growing - market, interest must be growing.
"The recent move by JLG to put their [name] on the Italian-made [Hinowa] units is an indication of exactly the upward demand for these units in North America," says Mike Hrycak, president of Tracked Lifts, Inc, which represents another European supplier of atrium lifts, Danish company Omme Lifts.
"[JLG entering the market] lends to the whole concept of legitimacy and exposure to these lifts. Importers and manufacturers will benefit from JLG's move because clients and buyers will now find competitive and comparison quotes."
Perhaps it is not coincidence that Tracked Lifts, Inc. which is Omme's exclusive US dealer, reports that the recent ConExpo show gave the company some of its best activity since it started in the business years ago.
These sentiments were echoed by Italian-based Oil & Steel S.p.A., Teupen North America, Skako Lift and JLG.
"The participation of Oil & Steel at ConExpo has been a positive experience which confirmed that the time is ripe to approach the American market with our series of self-propelled machines," says Andrea Certo, chief executive officer of Oil & Steel.
"It should be noted that the US market for these kind of machines has never really been developed in large numbers by any manufacturer, so we're talking about machines that the American market is getting to know just since a very short time."
For JLG, ConExpo was a perfect opportunity to showcase their tracked lifts to rental companies, who are still shy and cautious about investing in the equipment due to costs and how the equipment operates.
"I was pleasantly surprised with the amount of interest we've received from rental houses," Ford says. "I don't want to say who, but at least one very large rental association is interested and looking into these machines."
Ford says the rental rates on the tracked lifts are very good because of the growing demand and little to no supply. "It may take some effort to find one of these machines if you wanted to rent one," he says. "And because the rates are pretty good, the return can be pretty good."
North Carolina-based Teupen Lifts, who represents the German-made Leo series from Teupen, says they have a number of interested companies both from a purchase and rental perspective. Scott Reynolds, president of the US operations, says the rental market is a steadily developing market but it's a slow movement.
"I think the industry sees a tremendous opportunity for this type of lift, however, understanding the true market opportunity" is still something the company is working on relaying to potential customers", he says.
For Skako Lift, Ebbe Christensen, president of the company, says its biggest area for growth is the rental market, where Christensen hopes to garner at least 50 percent of his sales one day. "The strategy for us is to expand both the rental business and the end-user business," he says.
Overall, for rental, a big message is that the product is more than just an 'atrium lift.' "They've gotten a tag-line of 'atrium lift' but really that's a misidentifier because that implies these lifts are only used for large atrium applications," says Reynolds. "But really I would say it's more of a long-term facility care machine in a broad range of applications in a wide spectrum of industry segments."
And this possibly is where North America is still learning about tracked lifts - they're not just for use in hotels.
"It's just such unique equipment," Hrycak with Tracked Lifts says. "We have machines in every odd place where you wouldn't think there was a market for that type of equipment."
The concept of a tracked, aerial lift with articulating outriggers is that the crawlers have exceptional terrain climbing and traversing capability; they can climb severe slopes and stairs, and due to their low ground pressures (some models are in the 25-psi range) and light weight, they can also travel across soft and delicate surfaces.
The use of four independent outriggers to provide stability keeps the weight down, allows leveling on very uneven surfaces, and also means that, when stowed, they are much narrower than conventional self-propelled booms.
"This type of machine is suitable for (tree care, atrium, construction and maintenance) uses that require space-saving machines and a very light weight," says Oil & Steel's Andrea Certo. "The rental market is clearly closely following the positive trend of this type of machine, investing in order to not lose any opportunity."
Reynolds with Teupen says when he thinks of atrium lifts, the possibilities are almost endless. "I think of hotels, downtown facilities, large buildings, large metro markets, but when we talk about 'access,' and facility care, there's a lot of schools, universities, museums, resorts or anywhere where they have high ceilings or difficult-to-reach height applications where a traditional aerial work platform cannot get into that location," he says.
"It's where there's sloped floors or odd angles in which the machine needs to set up and the whole track-mounted, outrigger-supported part of the segment can stabilize in any of those scenarios where a traditional rubber-tired machine couldn't work even if it could get there."
With the plethora of opportunities these lifts could afford to rental companies, it seems they'd be jumping into the market, but Hrycak from Tracked Lifts says from his perspective, rental companies are still hesitant.
"The rental market is driven by their capital purchases, and basically, when our machines are compared to similar trailer lifts, our machines are somewhat more expensive.
"Quite often an owner of a rental outfit will decide against our machines because of the initial purchase cost, not necessarily because of the revenue that it could generate."
Hrycak says the owner-operators of rental stores that have purchased its Omme aerials have made multiple machine purchases because "once they convince themselves of to the viability and success" of the lifts, then they are "very likely to acquire another one."
"Basically, those who buy our machines are the visionary owners and operators who understand how a small machine like this can improve their bottom line," he says. "We've had some resistance from national, larger companies to buy this type of equipment, so it's best to act with small, owner-operated businesses better than anyone else [right now]."
One of the surprising sides of the economic downturn was how the tracked aerials were affected - or how they weren't, actually.
"The economic and financial crisis has hit every sector around the rental industry, especially in the machines that are used in the construction industry," Certo says. "The market for this type of machine, however, has not suffered as much as others, precisely because their use is not so specifically related to the construction industry." That has certainly been the case in Europe, which is one of the largest markets for atrium lifts.
For Teupen, Reynolds says the downturn actually helped market development for its product. "One, people have more time to listen and study and two, the planning cycle [during a downturn] is more for maintenance and upkeep rather than new construction or additions," he says. "Our product is more well-suited for those types of upkeep and restoration projects than it is to go out on a new construction site for building new things."
Due to low overhead, being a relatively new start-up and because they are the sole US distributor of Omme Lifts, Tracked Lifts survived the downturn, Hrycak says. "We are lean and we survived it very well. We experienced a good volume of sales, too, but the most negative affect of the downturn was the lack of development with existing lines," he says. "Manufacturers struggling to survive did not want to invest into improving their product."
But now that momentum is picking up, that's likely not going to be the case for long.
If there's any indication that North America is indeed taking an interest in these units and their respective uses, it'll show through the bevy of new equipment that OEMs are unveiling in the next six to nine months.
This June, Teupen will replace its Leo 26T with the Leo 25T plus - adding outreach and consolidating design. The 25T will offer 13 additional feet of horizontal outreach over its predecessor thanks to a heavier, robust chassis and shared upper boom system as Teupen's largest machine, the Leo 50.
"The current machine has its own unique chassis," Reynolds says. "The 25T plus will be built on the same chassis as our Leo 30s and 36s. Secondly, we will use the same boom system as the upper boom of the Leo 50. So the advantages is that the machine will be significantly lower in its price point than the current 26 and it'll have far greater outreach."
For Tracked Lifts, the next new machine to hit North America will come right in time for the International Construction and Utility Equipment Exposition (ICUEE), also known as The Demo Expo. The company will release a fully insulated, dielectrically isolated tracked lift for the utility sector. The 55-foot-working-height unit will be based on Omme's 60-foot ultra compact tracked lift.
Hrycak says Omme saw a void to fill because there were no tracked lifts that have the capability of a conventional atrium lift that is fully insulated. "We are just waiting on final safety certifications for worldwide distribution, but otherwise the machines have been tested, prototyped and will be in production for ICUEE," he says.
At ConExpo, Oil & Steel showcased its Octopussy Evo 1500 to the North American market for the first time. The unit had to be amended to meet ANSI regulations. The Octopussy Evo 1500 features a load capacity of 440 pounds, a 49-foot working height and 22-foot outreach. It also features 360 degrees rotation of the superstructure and hydraulic fold-down outriggers.
The company had a high interest in the unit at ConExpo, Certo says. "The attendees have particularly appreciated the strength of the Octopussy and its small size."
Another Italian tracked lift company, Socage, recently 'bet' on the US market, as well. While at ConExpo, the company showed a new truck mounted aerial (see News this issue), but it has also has rebranded its SPJ315 tracked lift as the SPJ350 for the North American market. The unit has a 49-foot working height and a 22-foot outreach.
As new units are released, noticeable trends include higher working heights and longer outreaches. "Most of the work performed is rarely directly above a machine, it's usually somewhere out to the side, so greater outreach to the side allows you to reach more things in the air or work zone," Reynolds says.
For JLG, who long-term are always looking to expand product-wise but wouldn't give exactly any more information, Ford says manufacturers are always looking to go taller or further out, but the biggest trend he notices is general acceptance of tracked lifts overall.
"It's an emerging niche," Ford says. "Beyond identifying it as that, we haven't picked out a trend yet."
As North America starts to catch on to these units and acceptance continues to grow, the market will get bigger and demand will tick even further up.
"As we come out of the recession, rental companies might be more apt [to invest]," Ford says. "Folks are more apt to stick to their knitting, so to speak, what they know, what they're comfortable with, but at the same time, they're probably trying to increase their return and with the rates that are out there, limited supply and growing demand, [these units will] have a lot of folks interested."