Getting bigger all the time

12 February 2021


Stuart Anderson, president of Chortsey Barr Associates, analyses the evolution of the global offering for large rough terrain cranes from the first 80t machine in 1978 to today, with 24 models offering capacities of 90t or higher in the market.

Over recent years rough terrain cranes above 90t capacity have established themselves as by far the most important rough terrain class – indeed as one of the most important of any mobile crane class. Truly, this is a booming market and if evidence was needed, the accompanying table illustrates the impressive volume of new models recently developed.

Since 2015, no less than 20 new models of 90 to 160t (100 to 165USt) capacity have been introduced - taking the total number of models presently available to 24 from eight manufacturers. Indeed, the only significant RT crane makers players absent from participating in these larger classes are Japan’s Kato and Kobelco.

It’s now over 40-years since Grove introduced the world’s first truly large ‘classical’ 4x4x4 RT crane – the RT 980 in 1978.

At that time, the ‘massive’ 80USt capacity crane startled the industry and was viewed variously with consternation and disdain by Grove’s many competitors. It was a truly bold move, only made possible by the combined vision of Grove CEO J. Martin Benchoff and his engineering chief Gene Gardenhour.

As we still occasionally see today, such ‘shots in the dark’ open their creators to the potential of harsh ridicule. They come not from easily-justifiable statistical analysis or conventional research but from that rarest of leader, the visionary.

Not as though the world immediately fell under the spell of the new behemoth. Fortunately, such was the reputation and clear-eyed commitment of Benchoff that customers and dealers readily accepted his vision. Within three years over 100 RT 980s had been sold into applications as diverse as the oil markets of Saudi Arabian, Norway’s shipyards and the platform builders of the Gulf and Scotland. But critically the early buyers came from another group with risk-taking in their blood – pioneering crane renters such as Gleason, Anthony, Sparrow and Richter.

Within seven years, some 200 ‘980s’ were in service worldwide, encouraging Grove to follow-up with an even bolder development, the 150t capacity RT 1650. But even though customers were excited at the prospect of this first 8x8x8 ‘monster’, the 1650 proved ahead of its time, not in terms of market potential but ahead of reliable component technology.

The 1650 made first use of Sperry Vickers ‘Power Match’ pressure compensating load-sensing hydraulics operating at 350 bar and when the first four units sold to China had ‘issues’, they proved beyond the capability of local, remote field service.

That episode in the depths of the severe market recession of the mid-1980s was a set-back that took some nerve to overcome. It was time for more measured, conservative steps with the 980 growing into the RT 990 and then the 100USt (90t) RT 9100.

Even with some 250 of these massive high-value cranes dominating job sites worldwide, the competition remained largely moribund. Indeed, the only exception was a small Italian company named ICOMA, based near Milan. Exhibiting typically- Italian entrepreneurial flare, ICOMA decided to leap-frog the mighty Grove with its 100t ‘Hyco’ RT 143. A few years later, having first spread its wings into Germany via an alliance with Krupp, in 1985 ICOMA penned a reciprocal supply agreement with the German subsidiary of P&H Harnischfeger – then the world’s second largest RT crane supplier.

With the emergence of all terrain cranes, much of the engineering capability of Europe’s crane builders was diverted to this exciting new crane category and further technical developments of RTs during the 1990s were largely conservative. Having made substantially no impact on the RT crane market and minimal impact on mainstream truck crane markets, Germany’s strong cadre of crane makers were quick to recognise an opportunity that unlike RTs and truck cranes wasn’t dominated by American and Japanese manufacturers.

The all terrain played to the engineering strengths of the leading German manufacturers – initially Gottwald, then Krupp and then overwhelmingly Liebherr – a manufacturer led by Freddy Bar, a man with the same fortitude and vision as Benchoff.

Sophistication

By the 1980s and 1990s, the technology of cranes was moving onto a higher plane. Ever stronger and lighter steels, more versatile and responsive hydraulics, increasingly reliable electrics opened the doors to lighter cranes with longer and stronger booms.

Technology that threatened to leave the leading American and Japanese manufacturers behind. As far as large RTs were concerned, the boom systems typically employed on American cranes were reaching the limits of their performance capabilities.

However, the challenge facing America’s crane manufacturers was by no means simply one of engineering technology.

Since the very inception of the hydraulic crane in the US in the 1950s, a cornerstone of the concept had been simplicity.

Simplicity that meant with a little help, most owners could fix product problems. Simplicity and reliability had been at the very foundation of the crane rental business, from which thousands of small, family-owned crane hirers had prospered. Sophistication and so-called ‘advanced technology’ scared many of them and this was significant resistance.

But slowly the US and Japanese industries began to employ more sophisticated hydraulics and electrics. Even so, with every year they fell technologically behind their emerging German competitors. Customers wanted higher performance but without the risk. The ever-growing challenges of competing in the 1980s and 1990s demanded technically more sophisticated solutions.

The simplicity that customers had grown-up with had to go. It was a difficult pill to swallow that most US manufacturers found extremely challenging. And if further incentives were needed, since the mid-1980s, Liebherr had extended its line of RTs with its own 80-tonne model LTL 1080 with a specification which virtually mirrored that of the 80/90-ton Grove RT 990. Ultimately the writing was on the wall; ‘If you can’t beat them, join them.’

In 1984, Grove acquired the UK’s Coles, while in 1990 Japan’s Tadano acquired Germany’s Faun. In the interim, Grove successfully bid to acquire the ailing Harnischfeger P&H crane business but was denied that opportunity by the US Securities & Exchange Commission. While P&H offered little technical benefit to Grove, its vast machine population and customer base were extremely valuable. The SEC’s decision avoided strengthening Grove but ultimately hastened the demise of P&H. That road blocked, in 1995 Grove moved on with the acquisition of Krupp Mobilkran – a deal which, ultimately, proved pivotal.

Throughout the 1990s and into the early 2000s, Terex Cranes was transformed by Fil Filipov and his team. A turning point came in 1995 with the acquisition of the PPM crane business, by then incorporating the former P&H business based in Conway, South Carolina and the former Bendini RT crane business based in Crespellano, Italy. This brought larger cranes but also the complication of differing design approaches and various manufacturing bases. Despite these challenges the combination propelled Terex to the zenith of the US RT and truck crane market. Terex transplanted the production of the former P&H larger-sized crane production from Conway to Waverly and even installed 100t long booms from its French PPM AT line onto its US RTs.

This mix-and-match approach continued post-Fil Filpov - now using Demag booms on its largest US RTs. Ultimately a more conventional approach to new product emerged with the 2013 introduction of the ‘Quadstar’ series, heralded as a ‘global’ product sourced from both the US and Italy. In 2016 came the RT 90 and RT 100US, which got off to a successful start. Here, guidance had been sought from one of its biggest customers, Bigge, that subsequently ordered a dozen RT 100US cranes with another notable order for four units coming from Transportes Noroccidental of Ecuador. Regrettably, after transforming the operations of the Waverly, Iowa plant, in July 2016 Terex announced it would close and production moved to its Oklahoma City plant. That only lasted a couple of years until Terex decided to cease US mobile crane production.

However, with Crespellano, Italy now as its sole source for RTs up to the RT 90/100US, Terex now again seems to be on a more positive path with the appointment of new distributors in the UK, Portugal and Romania.

During these years, one of the truly remarkable and often overlooked stories of survival and resilience in the US crane industry was that of Link-Belt. Always a fine company with the highest standards, Link-Belt was blessed with great parentage firstly from FMC Corporation and from the mid-1980s from Sumitomo Heavy Industries. The capital investments made through long years of economic challenges enabled Link-Belt to survive and ultimately thrive. Always a company that attracted high-calibre talent in engineering and marketing, step-by-step Link-Belt found opportunities to come out from the shadows cast by their larger adversaries.

In 2002, Link-Belt stunned the industry with their introduction of the first of family of RTs that literally broke the mould. At a stroke, the 100USt RTC-80100 established itself as a game changer. Gone was the fixation with the traditional 4x4x4 configuration – here was a 6x6x6 hydrostatic machine that transformed the always-challenging issue of hauling large RT cranes.

Link-Belt had found an opening upon which they built with cranes of 130-160USt capacity and longer booms to 60m. Within the first four years of production Link-Belts 6x6x6s had established a solid market position with over 300 sold. As stubborn as crane people are to change, for over a decade Link- Belt had the ‘three-axle’ RT market all to itself.

Eventually, Tadano (in 2013) and then Grove (in 2018) decided that there was merit in the three axle concept – albeit with cranes at the top-end of their product lines. But as well as the three-axle RTs have grown in market acceptance there’s no sign of them completely replacing the traditional 4x4x4 configuration. Indeed, during the past three years Link-Belt has added the alternative of large 4x4x4 RTs to its line.

Almost ten years ago, the leading Chinese manufacturers Zoomlion and XCMG decided to take a shot at the RT market – recruiting the technical support of various US and European design teams. It’s fair to say that while they achieved some degree of success with their smaller-sized RTs, sales proved more elusive for their larger-sized cranes. Sany also built a line, most especially focussed on the US market and was beginning to sell quite strongly until the global financial crisis seems to have caused them to downsize their marketing efforts.

Nevertheless, more so that their domestic rivals, Sany has continued to develop the upper size classes of its line.

For much of their history the large-size 4x4x4 RTs were offered with four or five-section booms of relatively modest boom lengths generally ranging up to 45-to-50m length. Over some thirty years the role of the large RT crane has become established in their various workplaces, such as: service support to big mining shovels and trucks, shipyard work, petro-chemical plant maintenance and bridge building. Over time, machinery users tend to think of particular products for particular jobs and rarely do a little lateral thinking. But slowly things change.

Starting in the mid-1980s when they first entered the US market, Japan’s Tadano has been on a path to develop a global presence. It’s not been a simple journey; for fulfilling the extraordinarily different needs of its home market while successfully competing worldwide, has meant manufacturing and supporting two very different lines of cranes.

In the beginning, Japanese products were relatively cheap but that changed a very long time ago. For as long as many can remember, Japanese products sell on their quality and reliability and it is these traits that, year-by-year, has propelled Tadano RTs to global market leadership. It’s only in the last decade that Tadano has extended into the 100t and larger classes of RTs but such is the reputation that the manufacturer has developed that today, they lead in these classes. The days where the RT crane was a pretty basic tool are gone.

Most modern RTs can lift and move with just as much precision and control as the latest all terrains. Given a machine with sufficient boom and jib, they can handle building construction and maintenance operations just as well, or even better given their more compact dimensions and superior manoeuvrability. Even more enticing is the fact that they offer a significant capital cost advantage as well as lower operating costs.

Recent technical development in hydraulic cranes further broaden the advantages of RTs over ATs. While asymmetric outriggers are offered on both varieties, given the more compact dimensions and tighter turning circles of RTs, that benefit is leveraged further.

On particularly confined or congested job sites, the option of radio remote control can further enhance the ability of a larger RT to get in and around challenges.

Hydraulic luffing jibs available on some large RTs further broaden application potential. Such features as tilting operators cabs that were once the sold domain of ATs can now be found on many RT cranes. And while transporting large RTs is still a challenge, remote control, self-handling of removable outrigger boxes and counterweights have taken much of the time and sweat out of the job.

Lately there has been significant speculation on the possibilities of even larger RTs, with capacity of 200t or greater. Quite rightly the discussion has often circled around the issue of logistics. In that respect the argument is no different from that which stood in the way of the development of the first large tele truck and all terrains.

What, once upon a time, seemed like a big headache—removing counterweights, outriggers etc—is now taken for granted. In the 21st Century, overcoming this ‘barrier’ may be made easier if the focus can finally change from a fixation on high nominal rated capacities to usable capacity ‘at reach’.

Three Size Classes

As demand for large RTs has developed the variety of models has proliferated and gradually formed sub-size classes. As our table attests, the majority of models developed and available are in the 90-100t class. In terms of sales volume these represent over 80% of current demand, according to Chortsey Barr Associates. Whereas earlier generations of cranes in this class generally employed four-section booms, over time boom lengths have increased to a range of 47- 50m and to five section booms. In tune with other types of crane, rating radii has narrowed from the long-held norm of 3m to anything from 2 to 2.5m.

Without doubt market leadership in this class has been seized by Tadano with its GR- 1000XL. Initially introduced in 2011 as a sister machine to the 80USt GR-800XL, this crane has proven astonishingly successful.

Product development has continued with the series now in its 4th generation with numerous improvements including a new tilting cab, larger touch screen, new pump-disconnect, asymmetric outrigger variation, obstacle detection/clearance device and, most significantly, the new ‘Smart Counterweight’ system offering a choice of counterweight extension for increased lift capacities. In addition, the latest GR-1000XXL-4 offers a longer boom of 51m length compared to the 47m of the GR-1000XL-4. By 2015, Tadano reported the shipment of the 1,000th unit and in 2018 Maxim Crane Works placed an order consisting of no less than 15 large Tadano RTs ranging from the GR-1000XL to the GR-1200XL and GR-1600XL-2.

With the closure of its US manufacturing base, Terex’s line of larger-sized RTs is now limited to cranes in the 90-100-tonne class. Choices in this sub-class have significantly broadened with the addition of the new Link-Belt 100|RT and the new 90 and 100t Liebherr cranes. The new Link- Belt 100|RT benefits from carrying a 47.2m ‘full-power’ boom as opposed to the current norm of latch/pinned designs. Link-Belt has paid particular attention to the design of its boom extensions to minimise work-at-height. As has quickly become the norm, Link-Belt’s latest V-Calc system allows asymmetric outrigger configurations with no less than 81 ‘unique calculations’. In addition, the rear axle is available with the option of hydro-gas suspension.

Liebherr’s two sister-machines employ very similar carriers and upper structures with Cummins diesel power. The primary differences are in the boom and counterweighting. While the 90t LRT 1090-2.1 has a five-section 12- 47m full-power telescoping boom employing a cylinder and wire-rope tele system, the 100t LRT 1100-2.1 has a five-section boom 12.6-50m Telematik single-cylinder system with a choice of two tele modes.

The ‘Strong’ Mode employs up to just four of the boom sections to a maximum length of 31.3m while the ‘Long’ Mode employs up to all five sections. The Telematik system of the LRT 1100-2.1 also offers automatic pinning and unpinning of tele sections.

The 100t model also carries a heavier counterweight (14t versus 12t) and is correspondingly heavier. and, predictably, the Telematik boom LRT 1100-2.1 offers strong wide-radius capacities. For example, selection of the ‘Long’ Mode on a 26.6m boom offers capacities of 24.1t at 6m radius diminishing to 17t at 10m and 7.7t at 20m. Alternatively, when ‘Strong’ mode is selected, the corresponding capacities are 36.9t at 6m, 21.7t at 10m and 6.2-tonnes at 20m.

The longer 50m boom of the LRT 1100-2.1 offers a greater maximum main boom radius of 42m (1.3t) versus the 40m (1t) max of the LRT 1090-2.1.

Both models offer Liebherr’s popular VarioBase asymmetric outrigger system offering completely arbitrary outrigger beam positioning. Predictably, since their introduction in 2016, the Liebherr RT models have met with broad international market success. ChortseyBarr Associates estimates that unsurprisingly Liebherr has achieved its greatest RT crane sales success in North America with the ‘full-power’ LRT 1090-2.1 proving the more popular of the two cranes.

In recent years Grove has considerably refreshed its entire RT crane line with the introduction of the new ‘GRT’ Series offering models in all three of the larger crane classes. The smallest of these, the GRT 8100, is now produced both at Shady Grove in the US and at Manitowoc’s Niella Tanaro plant in Northern Italy.

This model has already met with significant success – most notably with a 50-unit order placed in November 2020 by Tamimi Rentals of Saudi Arabia via Grove’s long established distributor Kanoo.

While there are now ten models contesting the 90-100t class, customers seeking cranes in the larger 110-130t class have a fast-broadening choice of seven models. Longest-established of these is Grove’s RT 9130E-2, the updated 2011 version of this crane that was a landmark in the 4x4x4 category when first introduced in 2002. The other machine showing its popularity over the years is Link-Belt’s RTC 80130-SII 6x6x6 – another crane updated in 2011 from the original 2002 model.

These models, while differing in chassis configuration, established a boom length for the class at around 49m. This class saw the first Chinese introductions from XCMG (2012) and more recently Sany (2018). However, this is a sub-class that is now attracting increased attention with new longer boom models from Tadano (110t/56m) and most recently Grove, with their 120t GRT 8120 with a seven-section 60m boom which made its first appearance at last year’s ConExpo.

Although, in 1997, Liebherr developed a new 8x8x8 RT in the shape of the 160t LTL 1160, it turned out to be a one-off. It followed in the footsteps of similar four-axle Gottwald and Krupp RT models sold in small numbers to support the German brown coal open-cast mining industry to which the LTL 1160 was supplied.

Top of the tree come three three-axle cranes. While the trail-blazing Link-Belt RTC 80150 did much to establish this class of crane in world markets, Link-Belt, ever-vigilant, recognised the need to strengthen its performance and upgrade it to the current 145t (160USt) RTC 80160SII. First to join the competition was Tadano with its first three-axle crane – the GR 1450EX/GR 1600XL-2.

Tadano pushed the boom length out to 61.1m while adopting a 6x4x6 drive/steer configuration. Finally, Grove caused a stir with its first multi-axle RT since 1981’s RT 1650. Illustrating just how far things have come the new GRT9165 offers the longest boom ever found on a rough terrain crane (62.5m) with the first seven section boom on a 6x4x6 carrier compared to the 8x8x8 of the RT 1650 with its five-section 52.7m boom that, in its day, was world leading.

As an indicator of the broadening appeal of this class of crane, leading US crane rental company, All Erection, ordered four GRT 9165s.

As to the question of the potential of an even-larger RT, though sometimes overlooked, visitors to Bauma China in 2012 may remember seeing the prototype of XCMG’s RT 200E 200-tonne rough terrain. Frankly little has since been seen or heard of this crane but it certainly showed that a crane of this size is technically viable.

Tadano’s GR- 1000XLL-4
A GRT9165, currently the largest roughterrain crane from Grove , from the fleet of Brazilian company TEM – Transdata Engenharia e Movimentação (Transdata). The crane is used for supply and maintenance operations to support offshore oil platforms in the state of Rio de Janeiro
Link-Belt’s 120|RT rough terrain working on the interchange of Interstate 64 and Airport Drive near Richmond, Virginia, the USA.
Terex’s RT 100US
Liebherr LRT 1090-2.1 at work