Special report on cranes: Little and large

By Chris Sleight11 March 2011

Liebherr's 3,000 tonne capacity LR 13000 on the test pad

Liebherr's 3,000 tonne capacity LR 13000 on the test pad

Regular visitors to construction equipment exhibitions can't have failed to notice how big cranes are getting. At the top end of the market there is a clear move towards more and more powerful crawler, all terrain (AT) and super heavy lift cranes.

The driver for this is the rising global demand for energy in its various guises. The latest generation of large crawler and super heavy lift cranes has been developed to help construct nuclear and fossil fuel power stations, where there is a need to lift large and heavy components, often at significant radiuses. The chemical and petrochemical industries also play their part - again with new refineries and plants requiring large components such as reactor vessels to be lifted into place.

Energy is also the key driver for the market in large AT cranes, which tend to be on wind farm projects - as do large crawler cranes. Again this is a demanding application, with wind turbine units getting more powerful (and therefore larger and heavier) and having to be placed on ever taller pylons to accommodate long blades.

At one time, such massive cranes were only built by a handful of manufacturers - Lieherr, Terex and Manitowoc - along with a few specialist heavy lift contractors like Lampson and. However, only the last year has seen China's leading crane manufacturers launch a series of high capacity crawler cranes, with promises of bigger models to come.

At the moment, the largest land-based crane in the world is ALE's AL.SK190, a 190000 tonne-metre rated unit that comes with a 141 m main boom and has a lifting capacity of 4300 tonnes. It is a machine that the heavy lift and transport specialist designed itself and launched in 2008, and ALE is currently building another unit that is expected to go into service in the second half of this year.

"The introduction of the AL.SK190 has given the industry lifting capacities far in excess of anything thought possible. Even now, two years after it was first launched, no other machine out there has even come close. We out-lift the nearest competitors' crane, which is still yet to be built, by 160%," said Michael Birch, ALE Projects executive director.

The yet-to-be built competitor's crane Mr Birch referred to is Mammoet's PTC 120/160 DS. The company is building three of these cranes, which can be converted between a 120000 and 160000 tonne-metre load moment rating. "To give you an idea of capacity, we can lift 3200 tonnes at 44 m radius with an 85 m boom," said chief technical officer Jan van Seumeren Jnr.

Vice president and chief operating officer Patrick van Seumeren added, "They can work in all industries. They can replace bridges, work in nuclear, power, petrochemical."

At the moment, these bespoke units can out-lift anything available 'off the shelf' from the industry's crane manufacturers. The largest production crawler crane currently available is Terex's CC 8800-1 Twin, which derives its 3200 tonne lifting capacity by, to put it crudely, bolting together two CC 8800-1 1600 tonne capacity crawler booms.

Liebherr's largest crawler meanwhile is the 3000 tonne capacity LR 13000, the first unit of which is undergoing testing at the company's factory in Ehingen, Germany. Liebherr says the machine is the most powerful conventional crawler crane in the world.

The company is also reported to be toying with a double crane concept. It has secured a patent for a system that would see two large crawler cranes joined at the boom tip and carbody for extra capacity. Although Wolfgang Beringer, spokesperson at Liebherr-Werk Ehingen, says the system has not developed further, he confirmed that the double boom concept is a "good idea."

Manitowoc meanwhile completed overload testing on its largest ever crawler crane, the 2300 tonne capacity Model 31000 in July.

New competitors

In the past that would have been it as far as heavy lift cranes are concerned, but just the last two years have seen several Chinese manufacturers develop some serious pieces of iron. The latest were on display at November's Bauma China exhibition in Shanghai.

They included XCMG's 2000 tonne capacity XGC2800 crawler, the 1600 tonne SCC16000 crawler from Sany, not to mention 1000 tonne capacity class AT cranes from both companies.

What's more, Fuwa, XCMG and Zoomlion say they are developing 3200 tonne capacity crawlers. XCMG has a 1500 tonne AT crane under development, and Sany is rumoured to be working on a 3200 tonne crawler unit. But if we're talking about rumours, Terex has not denied that it has a 4000 tonne crawler crane on the drawing board.

Still, it is significant that the likes of Sany, XCMG, Zoomlion and others in China like Fuwa are now developing such large cranes themselves. Indeed, the speed of development is such that they could potentially leap-frog some of the established Western manufacturers in terms of lifting capacity.

Chinese demand

As in any other aspect of the construction and equipment industries, the Chinese market for cranes is booming. Speaking at the China International Crane Summit (CICS) in Shanghai in November Manitowoc Cranes president Eric Etchart put the market for tower cranes in China at 25000 units in 2009, up from 17000 in 2007, while Zoomlion vice president Xiong Yanming said about 30000 crawler and wheeled cranes would be sold in China in 2010.

Most mobile cranes sold in China are relatively low capacity truck cranes - according to XCMG vice president Sun Jian Zhong, 95% of the truck cranes sold in China have a capacity of 70 tonnes or less, and all in all it is a huge slice of the global market. David Phillips, managing director of consultancy and forecasting body Off-Highway Research said, "The Chinese market for mobile cranes now accounts for over 70% of global sales."

Speaking at CICS, Liugong president and vice chairman Zeng Guang'an laid out the competitive landscape in China. The truck and AT crane market is dominated by XCMG, with a 51% share. It is followed by Zoomlion (27%), Liugong (6%), Sany (5%) and then Changjiang, whose majority shareholder is Terex, and Dongyue, which is controlled by Manitowoc.

Despite the size of the truck crane market in China, the list of players in the sector is not likely to grow. As road-going vehicles, truck cranes are afforded a protected status by the Chinese government and a special licence is required to manufacture such machines. As such, these six manufacturers - the only licence holders - look like they will have the sector to themselves for the foreseeable future.

In the crawler crane segment meanwhile, Mr Zeng says Sany has a 32% share in China, XCMG 26%, Fuwa 21%, Zoomlion 13% and Yutong 8%.

A new player in this sector in China from the final quarter of 2012 will be Kobelco, which announced in October that it was to build a joint-venture crawler crane factory in Chengdu, Sichuan province with its excavator manufacturing partner Chenggong Construction Machinery (CG). Kobelco will invest JPY 2 billion (US$ 23 million) for its 51% stake in the company and is targeting production of 80 crawler cranes per year by 2015 - mostly its 250 tonne capacity CKE2500 model. The company said this would represent about a 7% share of the 700 unit per year Chinese crawler crane market.

Kobelco is not the only western manufacturer to start building cranes in China. Besides its Dongyue truck crane joint venture, Manitowoc has a wholly-owned tower crane factory in Zhangiagang, Jiangsu province.

A more recent development was Terex's acquisition of a 65% stake in Chinese crawler, gantry, derrick and bridge crane manufacturer Topower in August. Key products for the company include 70 to 360 tonne capacity crawler cranes, which are sold under the EBHM brand, and the acquisition marks a further step into China for Terex, complementing its joint venture with Changjiang on truck cranes. The company also manufactures port cranes in Xiamen, and has an aerial platform factory in Changzhou.

Local manufacturing

Another country where western manufacturers are starting to set up serious crane production capacity is India. As in China, Kobelco is setting up a crawler crane factory in India - this time a wholly-owned facility in Chennai with an investment of INR 600 million (US$ 13 million). Production is due to start in August with 70 employees building cranes from 90 to 250 tonnes capacity.

Kobelco says that the Indian market for crawler cranes, which reached about 200 units in 2009, will grow to 700 units in the next five years on the back of strong infrastructure investment.

Manitowoc meanwhile has been manufacturing tower cranes in India since 2007, when it bought out its Pune-based licensee and distributor, Shirke Construction Equipments. Prior to this, Shirke had some 30 years of experience selling tower cranes in India and it was also the Potain tower crane distributor for Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan.

Even Liebherr is moving towards localised crane manufacture, with a new plant in Pune, India under construction. This will be used to make tower cranes, along with truck mixers and batching plants for the concrete industry. However, it does not look like the company is in a hurry to migrate the manufacture of other construction cranes away from its heartland in Germany.

Wolfgang Beringer, spokesman for the Liebherr-Werk Ehingen crane factory said, "We do not intend to set up manufacturing facilities for mobile and crawler cranes in India. We have a target to manufacture at the highest quality level, with the latest steel or other materials, using state-of-the-art production facilities, under the responsibility of highly skilled people."

Truck revival

Elsewhere in the world, growth prospects are perhaps not as bright as in India and China, and this seems to be reflected in increased cost consciousness. In the mobile crane sector there is an apparent shift towards truck cranes, from AT cranes because they are cheaper to buy and run, although you lose a lot of off-road driving capabilities as the pay-off against this.

The cost-effective nature of truck cranes has always made them popular in developing countries, but the current tough economic times mean this sort of cost vs. benefit thinking is coming back into more mature markets. A prime example of this is the Roadmaster 5300 truck crane launched by Terex at the end of last year (see December iC equipment pages). It is a five-axle, 300 tonne-metre unit designed specifically for the traditionally AT-loving markets of Western Europe.

Arndt Jahns, Terex product marketing manager for AT cranes, said the new Roadmaster was designed with the economic climate in mind. Terex claims there is an 80% saving in cost of operation compared to a similar capacity AT. This includes 50% less tyre wear and 25% less brake wear. The crane has initially been placed on a Scania chassis for the European market, but will be available on a Mercedes carrier when aimed countries outside Europe with higher axle loadings.

"The request for this crane came from European customers. This shows that there is a market in Europe and the decision was easy to make a model for the European market first. The next step is to adjust the first as well as following models to other markets," said Mr Jahns.

The latest generation of truck cranes is also starting to blur the lines with AT cranes, thanks to higher lifting capacities and more sophistication. A prime example is Manitowoc's 110 US ton (100 tonne) TMS9000E, whose upper structure is taken from the company's Grove GMK range of AT cranes.

"This upper works can give users very precise movements, spreading the weight over the boom to get the most benefit from the load chart. There are also two boom attachments available for it, giving it excellent reach," said Ruben Olivas, Manitowoc Cranes global product director for truck cranes, boom trucks and industrial cranes

Another example of the new generation of higher capacity truck cranes is the Link-Belt HTC-3140, a 140 US ton (127 tonne) unit launched at ConExpo 2008. The idea was to offer a relatively high capacity mobile crane with comparatively low running costs - a philosophy the company continues to pursue.

"You can expect all the new models introduced at ConExpo 2011 to feature stout capacities, to transport extremely efficiently, meet the most stringent safety requirements and be even easier to service," said Rick Curnutte, Link Belt's telescopic boom cranes manager.

But if truck cranes are encroaching on the AT market, boom trucks - cranes mounted on a standard two- or three-axle on-highway flatbed truck - are taking the place of truck cranes further down the lifting capacity spectrum.

"If you look at the popularity of boom trucks, especially around the 50 tonne capacity range, we are seeing a strong increase in demand. Our own NBT50 and NBT55 cranes from the National Crane brand are both extremely popular.

"Customers in the USA looking for a 50 tonne lifting solution are looking more towards the boom truck market rather than the traditional truck crane market. In Europe, customers that would previously have purchased a two-axle all-terrain crane are now looking more at truck cranes mounted on a commercial chassis as an alternative," said Manitowoc's Mr Olivas.

The popularity of truck cranes and boom trucks is perhaps at its greatest in developing markets, where the combination of low cost and the flexibility to mount the crane on different chassis is a compelling proposition.

Jay Barth, Terex product marketing manager for truck cranes said, "This flexibility sees different machines aimed at different world regions. For example, in markets that do not require CE compliance Terex offers the T 340-1, T 340-1 XL, T 560-1, T 780. These models are available with engines that are US EPA 2010 road compliant with ultra low sulphur fuels and engines that are not US EPA complaint and do not require ultra low sulphur fuel."

And once again, demand for this type of crane brings us back to China's manufacturers. There is capacity to build tens of thousands of truck cranes in China each year, and those with a manufacturing footprint there are well-placed to grab a slice of this apparently growing global market.

According to Liugong's Mr Zeng, Chinese crane exports peaked in 2008 at 5000 units, worth some CNY 8.2 billion (US$ 1.2 billion). Exports took a steep dip in 2009 due to the global recession, but preliminary figures for last year show that about 2000 Chinese cranes - most of them truck cranes - were sold overseas.

And of course, the opportunity to export from China is not just open to domestic manufacturers, but also international companies with crane factories there. Terex and Manitowoc for example used last month's bC India exhibition in Mumbai to launch truck cranes in India from their respective Chinese joint ventures - Changjiang and Dongyue.

Cost conscious

So despite the lifting industry's appetite for bigger and bigger cranes, there is also a focus on cost at the lighter end of the market. This may be a factor that plays to the advantage of those manufacturing in China, where lower labour costs and the economies of scale should make for some competitive machines.

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