A bright day dawns in the east

18 September 2014

It’s been at least ten years since Cranes Today last visited Japan. This summer, Will North made up for that with visits to four of the country’s leading international crane builders, Tadano, Kobelco, Hitachi-Sumitomo (HSC) and Maeda. The four companies discuss the state of the market, at home and abroad. We visit each of them in turn, starting with Maeda in Nagano, then heading south to HSC in Nagoya, Kobelco in Akashi, and ending up with Tadano in Takamatsu.

For a long time, Japan's economy has struggled with financial crises: first the lost decade of the 1990s, and then, after growing with the world in the early 2000s, being hit twice, first by the global financial crisis, and then by the devastating Great East Japan Earthquake. Trapped between economic and geologic structural weaknesses, one might expect Japan's crane builders to be downcast. But over the last year, some product lines have seen astonishing growth.

Beyond its immediate tragic effects, the earthquake shook Japan's already fragile economy. Junya Oro, general manager, industrial machinery, at Maeda, says, "Since the earthquake in 2011, the economy has not yet recovered."

However, the earthquake has bought demand for Maeda's diesel compact cranes, the LC series. Oro says, "The LC series, has been selling about double in the earthquake recovery area and in metropolitan areas."

Tadano has seen similar growth. Tadashi Suzuki, senior executive officer, says, "Last year, the total number of mobile cranes sold was 2,279 units: a 24% jump from previous years." A lot of these sales are driven by reconstruction since the tsunami.

The same is true for crawler crane manufacturers. Takemichi Hirakawa, general manager, corporate planning and administration department, Kobelco, says, "In the first year after the earthquake, demand did not increase very much. Last year, the investment in reconstruction started. Total demand for crawlers in Japan, last year, increased 30-40% compared to 2012. This year it increased 15%. Most of this demand is in the North East."

Hitachi-Sumitomi reckon overall demand growth for crawlers may have been even higher. Tomohiko Kurose, president, marketing sales and customer support, says, "The complete domestic market for crawler cranes was about 300 machines annually in 2012. Last year, in 2013, it was 473 machines, almost 70% higher."

Investing in the future
Growth isn't just being driven by past tragedies, but by hope for the future. In 2012, Tokyo was picked to host the 2020 Olympics. That, combined with prime minister Shinzo Abe's 'Abenomics' programme of stimulus through infrastructure spending, has given a boost to construction in Tokyo and the country's other metropolises.

Tadano's Suzuki sees this leading to a sustained period of growth: "Infrastructure, such as bridges and tunnels, is aging and needs to be upgraded. On top of that, Japan is enjoying a lot of benefits from Abenomics, which is stimulating the economy.

Tadano's Suzuki says, "The Olympics brings very good prospects, especially in metropolitan areas. The crane business is very con dent, which has accelerated demand for mobile cranes. I hope demand will rise again this year, 4 or 5%, and will stay at a plateau up until 2018-19. Most of the construction for the Olympics will be completed by 2018-19. Then, we may come into a different phase. But, for the next two or three years, I'm optimistic."

Kobelco's Hirakawa makes a similar prediction: "[The Olympics] has inspired our customers to make investments. We have had many enquiries from customers even more than our production capacity. We expect this situation to last until 2017-18."

Hitachi Sumitomo's Kurose is a bit more specific in where he forecasts growth. He predicts growth in Tokyo and its metropolitan area, and in the parts of the north east most severely hit by the earthquake and tsunami. He says, "Until the first half of next year, there will be the same atmosphere as now. In the second half and later, we're not sure. But the Tokyo metropolitan area will be stable, because of projects related to Olympic Games.

"The highways in the Tokyo metropolitan area, were constructed 50- 60 years ago for the previous Olympic Games in 1964, so it is necessary to repair some parts and rebuild some parts. We expect, from our side, a lot of demand for foundation machines for work on jobs like motorway flyover pillars."

Across the sea
Japanese manufacturers have built strong international reputations for their machines. It's no secret that many Western manufacturers source their smaller crawlers from Japan, with Kobelco supplying Manitowoc, IHI supplying Terex, and Hitachi-Sumitomo supplying Link-Belt. At the same time, the country's truck cranes have a strong reputation for their balance of cost and reliability.

The world's minicranes are almost all built in either Japan or Italy. With both countries squeezed between the sea and mountains, compact cranes that can work in tight spaces are a natural development.

Maeda has looked to another of Italy's leading product types, lorry loaders, in its latest development, a new series of minicranes with knuckleboom jibs, aimed at European customers. The MK series was prototyped at Bauma 2012, and has already received 150 orders ahead of going on sale next month.

Hitachi-Sumitomo's Kurose sees opportunities in the surrounding region. He cites Hong Kong as one area that is currently booming. Mainland China however is more of a challenge, he says, "Price competition is very high, so Japanese products are weak. But we have a chance to promote our foundation cranes, because while China manufactures very good lifting cranes, there are not so many foundation and heavy duty cranes. Here, we have a chance to come into the market again."

Kobelco's lead export markets are South East Asia and the Americas. Hirakawa says, "In Asia, we have a very strong distribution network, also including our excavator business; the brand is very popular. We have strong dealers in Singapore and Indonesia, the same dealers as for our excavator company.

"In the US, our market share was increased from 2004-2005, after we formed the agreement with Manitowoc. After we supplied our machine to Manitowoc, our reputation in the US has been getting better." One of the key products in the US has been a 110t crawler, used to erect drilling equipment for shale gas projects.

One of Tadano's many recent overseas investments has been in Thailand, where it has established a loader crane factory in Bangkok. Shinichi Iimura, executive officer, international sales, acknowledges the challenges of the country's current political crisis, but then says, "Most of the demand comes from Singapore, Thailand, and Indonesia. Before, in those markets, used cranes from Japan were very popular. But in recent years, many customers have started to demand new machines."

From graves to glazing:
The first stop on Will North's factory tour was Maeda, in Nagano, 100km northwest of Tokyo. The company's MC electric minicranes, first used in graveyards in Japan, have found success in glazing installation around the world. At home, its bigger LC series compact cranes are used heavily in underground construction. This year, it will soon begin sales of its new MK series knuckleboom cranes, in response to demands from European users.

Developing together:
Cranes Today's Japan tour continued south, with a visit to Hitachi-Sumitomo's factory in Nagoya.

Cutting costs, keeping quality
The next stop on Cranes Today's Japan Tour was at Kobelco's plant in Akashi, close to Kobe, home of parent company Kobe Steel. Earlier in the week, at the company's Tokyo head office, CEO Akihiko Tsukamoto has been working to cut procurement costs and improve production efficiency.

From the seaside, to the ocean:
The final stage of Cranes Today's tour of Japan took Will North to the southerly island of Takamatsu. On first seeing its location in one of the country's more rural regions, or folding stiff Western knees under a tatami table in one of the island's traditional restaurants, it would be easy to think the company is, like its home, Japanese of the old school. But, with impressive plants and direct links to the sea, as well as an ambitious policy of global acquisitions and expansions, it is perfectly located to serve its customers around the world, while bringing the best of the country's more modern traditions of design and production innovation.