US climbing?

24 April 2008

Alimak Hek's new Hek MS 2450 mast climber is designed for lightweight applications such as painting,

Alimak Hek's new Hek MS 2450 mast climber is designed for lightweight applications such as painting, sandblasting, general maintenance and renovation. Travel speed is 9.7 m/min, maximum single-mast lo

First impressions are often the strongest, as the saying goes. And the impression that some US contractors seem to have is that mast climbers are expensive, at least relative to the scaffolding they already have in their yards. 'A lot of masonry contractors already have their own equipment [scaffolding]. Even though mast climbers are more productive, they don't want to invest in new equipment”, says Julian Dunlop, chairman of Dunlop Mastclimbers, the mast climber manufacturer based in Long Island, New York.

Are mast climbers expensive? 'Imported equipment prices are significantly higher in the US than in Europe”, says Mike Pitt, president of Mast Climbing Platform Sales, a sales, rental and training company based near Atlanta, Georgia. One explanation offered is transportation costs, specifically that importers must pay to 'ship a lot of air” in the hollow bulk of masts across at least 5000 km of ocean.

A more significant factor, in the opinion of Mr Pitt, is cost of the overhead of an additional organization in the sales and distribution chain of some importers. 'It is a lot more expensive”, he says, 'and does not add value to the equipment.”

If contractors are worried about the costs, then perhaps it is the development of a vibrant rental sector that will be key to the success of mast climbers in the US. Here, however, there is the issue of logistical and distribution costs associated with the sheer size of the North American market.

As Ernst van Hek, executive vice president of Alimak Hek and president of Hek Manufacturing BV, comments, 'Mast climbing equipment companies cannot rent everywhere in the US; it is too big. The cost of putting infrastructure into place forces suppliers to concentrate resources in areas of high use.”

Business nature

It isn't just the geography of the country that holds back development, it is also the particular nature of the business itself. Bobby Reece, who is Mike Pitt's partner in Mast Climbing Work Platforms, speaking at the APEX conference last September, said that mast climbing rental is quite simply hard work; 'You have to raise your game: it's not an easy business. You need to commit to it; you have to learn what your customer wants to do, become a problem solver. You can't just treat it the same [as a normal access rental business].”

Mr Reece says you don't just buy the equipment and rent it out: you have to become a specialist sub-contractor, with the capability to erect, dismantle, specify and transport mast climbers. You also need a wide knowledge of construction methods, knowledge of contracts and the ability to train your customers in the use of the equipment. As he says; 'A really well-trained customer is actually one of your best sales people.”

Agreeing with Mr Reece is Ed Gibbs, vice president for construction products for Alimak Hek Inc in the US. Alimak Hek should know, because for several years it has been trying to encourage independent rental dealers in the US to establish mast climber rental operations. Mr Gibbs says the company has had some success, but acknowledges that progress has been slow and that it has been difficult to persuade general rental companies to invest in a product that need a 'sub-contractor' mentality.

Mr Gibbs says that while mast climbers are found in large numbers in Florida, they remain in modest numbers in many other major North American cities; 'by and large they are not a tool of the trade, unlike in Florida and the Florida panhandle.”

One key to developing the market, says Mr Gibbs, is for manufacturers to have their own rental operation and use that to introduce mast climbers to end users. That strategy can them lay the seeds for the development of independent renters. Alimak Hek, for example, has its own rental operation in Atlanta, with around 150 machines, of which 100 are mast climbers. Replicating that throughout North America would be an expensive business for Alimak Hek Inc's parent company, and is a step that has yet to be taken by the company.

Scaffolders would present themselves as an obvious target for mast climbers. Mr Gibbs says, however, that many are happy to retain a small number of units for particular applications, and then rely on others - including Alimak Hek - to provide a rental service for any additional requirements. 'You offer re-rental to help, but they never manage to wean themselves off re-rental”, he says, 'They never take the next step.”

Domestic manufacturers

If the North American market still has vast potential to grow, it at least has some domestic manufacturers who are working hard at establishing the market. Fraco and Hydro Mobile both in Canada, for example, have been successful in developing rental fleets through their dealers. Hydro Mobile, for example, says it has delivered about 3000 units to the US during the last 11 years. As for high shipping costs, someone obviously bore the costs of transporting the 22 mast climbers the company says it has shipped within the past six months from Quebec to Arizona.

Even so, as Ed Gibbs says, some major US markets still have extremely low mast climber populations. Julian Dunlop, for example, says New York City (NYC) should have around 800 machines when you compare it to a market like Boston. Penetration so far is a disappointing 40 machines, all from Dunlop. The reason certainly can't be shipping costs; Dunlop's factory in New Hampshire is one small state distant from NYC.

One explanation offered is local regulations. For example, mast climbers sometimes sit idle after erection while awaiting inspection because they are defined as 'cranes', and the costs and other effects of such controls are hard to quantify. Rather than 'fight city hall', however, Mr Dunlop's solution has been to lobby from within. He sits on an advisory panel of NYC's Department of Buildings, which has recently revised guidelines to reflect the differences of mast climbers.

Productivity benefits of mast climbers can be as difficult to quantify as their costs. One reason is regional variation in mast climber use, which has diversified from earlier, predominantly masonry construction. In NYC and other East Coast areas, and Chicago, recent use has been for waterproofing and for restoration - heavy-duty work involving façade replacement. In the Gulf and Atlantic coast areas and in the West, lighter-duty work is more common.

Light-duty opportunity

One example is installing EIFS (exterior insulation and finish systems) facades, which, according to the EIFS Industry Members Association, is used currently for about 30% of all new commercial buildings in the US. Installation requires five to six trips up and down the building face - to lay out, cut and affix insulation, affix net reinforcing, apply concrete, paint, and caulk - for which lighter-capacity, higher-speed mast climbers are suited. Using mast climbers can save contractors about US$1.25/ft2 (€11.3/m2) in labour cost, according to Mr Dunlop.

Ernst van Hek, meanwhile, points out the value of timely project completion, 'If time is important, contractors will use mast climbers when the building has to finish just as soon as possible.” Alimak Hek has helped provide this significant cost benefit even in countries where labour is cheap.

Likewise Dunlop Mastclimbers, which has just sold two heavy-duty climbers to Construserv, a construction and equipment supplier in Mexico City, where labour costs are about $3/hr, compared to nearer $100/hr in NYC.

For Julian Dunlop, safety and productivity are key issues. He recalls, during a recent trip to Mexico, watching six workers wrestling bottles of welding gas up through levels of scaffolding. He says it doesn't matter what labour costs are, the important question to ask is: 'Do you really want your main assets, your skilled labour, using traditional systems to work?”

Safety is, of course, another card that mast climber specialists can play against the scaffolding market. The US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) reports that scaffolding-related incidents cause 4500 injuries and 50 deaths every year. These accidents cost employers $90 million (€75.4 million) in lost workdays alone. Mr Dunlop is more specific; 'Each accident costs a company $100000 (€83800).”

Safety claims

Advocates claim safety benefits from mast climber use, and while figures are unavailable for the US, International Powered Access Federation (IPAF) statistics lead to the conclusion that training since 2002 has helped drive down the number of serious accidents involving the 1000-odd mast climbers in the UK to zero in years 2004 and 2005. It is ironic that, as Mr Dunlop observes, 'Some people still think that mast climbers are more dangerous. They look for holes to prove that they are unsafe.”

In the long term, it will be rental companies - often prompted by manufacturers - who will develop the mast climbing market, and convince contractors and other end-users of the productivity and safety benefits. The battle, at the moment, seems to be convincing enough rental companies to take mast climbers on.

Bobby Reece may warn that it is hard work, but he also says the returns can be good. He says that starting up a business with 50 new mast climbers, and assuming returns of $500/week, utilisation of around 70%, and a seven-year depreciation period, could give a net annual profit of $350000 to $400000. That should generate some positive first impressions.

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