Simple can be beautiful16 November 2020
Julian Champkin looks at the knuckleboom market and finds that though sophistication can be sought-after, and increasing size brings new roles, there is still a demand for the basic and simple.
Knucklebooms are workhorses. Their basic job is to load and unload the flatbed truck they are mounted on, which generally carry building materials, bricks, blocks and rooftiles. It is a simple job, and it can be carried out by efficiently and easily by simply-constructed cranes of light or medium capacity.
That at least is the heritage of knucklebooms. As with everything, though, capacities get larger and sophistication grows, in the form of more advanced engineering and especially in added digital systems. That sophistication can helpand some sometimes very greatly; it can add safety, speed and efficiency. There is always a temptation to add an extra feature. There are times when temptation should be resisted.
Long-established market player Palfinger has always invested heavily in enhancing the technology of its machines and its portfolio.
“The most popular product in our range is pretty much the same worldwide and in Europe,” says head of crane product management at Palfinger Michael Völker. “The strongest class by volume is the 15mt to 20mt range, and we think this is fairly universal.
We regularly conduct market surveys. Each country is a little bit different but it always comes out that the 15–20mt is the high volume range.
“In the UK, that means a typical builders’ merchant crane. So a crane that is multi-use, universally applicable, mainly for building materials but also for loading and unloading materials of all kinds. Typical throughout Europe is the two-axle chassis with a light or mid-size knuckleboom on it.”
But with increasing size and sophistication come new applications and niches. “At the other end of the spectrum we have the heavyweight cranes. Once it was that 70mt to 90mt cranes counted as high capacity. Now we have grown to the 170mt or even the 200mt class; and the bigger they get, the more interesting the applications, because the huge advantage of these cranes is that you can reach really high with them, and the flexibility of the multi-joint knuckleboom jibs means you can reach right inside a building, even several storeys high.
That is especially so when they are combined with an additional fly-jib. So knucklebooms are no longer just delivering material to the construction site; they are now themselves part of the site, taking part in the active construction.
They are taking on the role of the small mobile crane, but with the ability also to carry payloads to the site. But they are still true knucklebooms, completely foldable to a width of 2.5m. All but our very largest unit, the PK 200002, folds laterally to that.
“This is a market that has developed over the past two decades. These large knucklebooms are still mounted on flat-bed trucks. Sometimes they take up all the available space, sometimes there is space on the flat-bed for additional payload.
Road regulations play their part in that: some countries have stricter limits on axle loads, and even in Europe the limits vary not only between countries but sometimes also within countries. Generally 32t is the limit beyond which you get into special regulations, when requires troublesome permits and paperwork.
“Here especially two of our newest models, the PK 135.002 TEC 7 and the 165.002 TEC 7, are very successful. They are not high-volume sellers as the smaller cranes, but they are finding their position in the rental market. They were introduced two years ago, as part of our TEC range with polygonal P-profile boom sections.
It is a profile that gives extra strength, and we are now bringing it into our smaller classes also, all the way down to the 26mt cranes. There is little logic in introducing it to our smallest, 5mt cranes, though: the P-profile shows its strength where there are eight or nine booms, where its stiffness and rigidity are real advantages, but those are less advantageous or cost-effective on a three- or four boom crane.”
That is sophisticated engineering; but Palfinger has not lost touch with its knuckleboom roots. “We have been speaking about high-technology cranes,” says Völker, “with lots of software systems and comfort features, and those of course are worth talking about. But our most popular product is in our SLD range, which is a new one. SLD stands for ‘solid’, and the 19.001 SLD is our most successful model.
“It is a workhorse. It is a simple crane. Technical add-ons are possible, and we happily supply knucklebooms with all the addons, all the bells and whistles as you could call them; but of course they add to the complexity of a crane, and to the cost; and the demand out there is for simple cranes, that don’t cost a lot, that will go on forever, that don’t go wrong and if they do go wrong that can be easily fixed without calling in a technical engineer who had a degree in IT and digital computing.
“We crane-makers are a bunch of techies,” he says. “We always want to go higher, better, fancier; but that of course always comes with a price-tag. So we offer a second line, with no compromise on performance or quality, but without bells. People want that, absolutely they do; we have the figures to show it. More people want simplicity than want the highest version. That is the heritage of the classical loader crane. It has maybe three or four extensions for loading and unloading a truck. It is a simple task, that needs to be done, so why not do it simply?” Palfinger’s SLD range would seem proof that the traditional niche of the knuckleboom is still as valid as ever.
Aldino Zeppelli, senior vice president cranes for Hiab, is seeing a trend towards larger-capacity machines. “We have a very strong position in the small and medium segment, of cranes specialised in fast and continuous loading and unloading operations; that set of models is doing very well with fleet owners. But we also see a constant increase in the bigger heavy and super-heavy cranes.” That, he says has been much helped by Hiab’s recent acquisition of Italian manufacturer Effer. The purchase was made at the end of 2018.
“Those larger cranes are smaller in absolute numbers of units sold,” says Zeppelli, “but there is an increasing interest in them from new markets. The 90–150tm range is actually very vital, especially for Effer.
“We have been noticing in the last few years that customers whose activities relate to logistics and construction are moving towards bigger units that allow them to broaden the types of jobs they can do. They are trying to move away from the limitations of smaller crane units.” And increasing sophistication also finds an echo: “In the US and Western Europe there is a great interest in our technologically advanced cranes with digital automation to make operation safer and productive, even for novice operators.”
Most Hiab loader cranes are now digitally connected to the factory, he says. In May this year Hiab announced a free version of their connected web portal service HiConnect; the full, subscription version is now rebranded as HiConnect Premium. HiConnect in its non-payment form lets Hiab customers receive information to improve safety and utilisation as well as keeping track of service needs and maintenance dates based on actual usage, equipment operation times and used capacity. The information is available in real time and can be accessed on PCs, smartphones and tablets.
“The demand for cranes with bigger capacity is certainly increasing worldwide,” says Fabio Riccò, sales manager Asia Pacific of Amco Veba. The company built its success on the small-to-medium range but has gradually expanded to bigger cranes of over 30tm capacity.
“Over the last couple of years we have been introducing our New Generation range, that offers the best lifting capacity/weight ratios as well as innovative technologies.
They cover the range between 9tm and 60tm. In the 60tm class we are introducing the new VR60 and VR66 models. They are designed to provide performance together with some unique features like the dynamic load chart and automatic folding/unfolding. The same features are available on all the NG series including models VR23 and VR26, which are 19tm and 21tm cranes. Those are the smallest in the market that have endless rotation,” he says.
Amco Veba were intending to show new applications at IAA show, which of course did not take place this year. The effects of Covid are now ‘echoing’, says Riccò, on demand and productivity; “but we dispatch cranes all over the world. Our presence worldwide is strong enough, to maintain a sustainable level of orders.”
The company is planning to soon expand its range even further. “At the beginning of 2021 we will also launch new models of large size cranes,” says Riccò. “Our R&D engineers have already validated the design; fatigue tests and functional tests have been carried out on prototypes, and currently two units are in field to collect feedback from expert users.”
Fellow Italian manufacturer PM Oil&Steel Spa produces machines from the smallest 3tm up to the very large 200tm PM 210 SP, but they too are finding greatest demand for their products is in the medium and super-heavy range.
“The trend is to lift more, and heavier; customers are therefore always looking for bigger sizes. So PM is investing strongly in the super-heavy range,” says export manager Marco Castiglione, “and we will be developing new products with new solutions in the medium and heavy range. Our R&D department is working on them and they will be ready next year.”
Not that they are neglecting the smaller capacities: “Our intention at IAA was to show our new small range, from 8t up to 11t. We introduced them at Bauma in 2019 but we wanted to re-introduce the range complete with fly-jibs and new features.”
PM has also enhanced the digital sophistication of its machines. “We have on-board electronics that can guarantee increasingly precise and intuitive control of all the crane’s manoeuvres as well as its stability,” says PM’s R&D engineer Matteo Ferrari. “From 2021 we are adopting the CAN Bus system throughout our range which allows increasingly advanced control of functions such as the anti-saturation system, automatic shutdown and opening of the crane and an anti-oscillation system.” But he points out the dangers of tech for its own sake and the joys of simplicity: “Technology must be at the customer's service. It must be something present but ‘invisible’, which makes work operations easy, intuitive, and precise.
“Simplicity must also be integral to maintenance: components must be easy to access. Our diagnostics are guided by the PM Power Tronic electronic control unit, and remote assistance is possible through the Gateway system.”
Higher-capacity knucklebooms have always been a speciality of Cormach. “That is a deliberate policy,” says export manager Marco Comensoli. “Our range starts at 16tm; rather than try to compete with large volume producers at the lighter capacities it means we can concentrate on fewer but larger models. And there is still plenty of demand for larger knucklebooms.”
Most popular in the UK, he says, is the 95000. “It mounts on a three-axle tractor and can lift 1,050kg at 25m vertically.
Together with our 50tm and 60tm crane that is one of our most-sold canes in the UK. The UK market has always been one of our most important. Brexit and the current exchange rate have meant that the market has shrunk quite sharply; we hope it will come back.
“A unique feature of Cormach cranes is that we are the only manufacturer to mount the second boom in-line with the column, rather than to one side. On all our models the column is divided in two, and the second boom is between them. It gives much greater stability, especially in the vertical position.
“Our newest crane is the 110tm model. We first showed it at Bauma in 2019, as a prototype, not mounted on a truck, and now it is in production and selling well. It can have eight extensions on the boom and six on the flyjib. It is a big crane, but we have enough requests for it, and it is selling well just now.”
Atlas is based in Germany but has global sales; Dave Keld is their UK sales manager. In the ‘sophistication versus simplicity’ dichotomy he makes the point that, in the UK at least, the basic builders’ merchant is still key to knuckleboom demand. “We concentrate our efforts in the supply of 5tm to 62tm loader cranes. That range covers 90% of all the knucklebooms sold in the UK,” he says. The demand for larger knucklebooms is there, but, he says, is not increasing in the UK market. “There is an ever-present need for new housing, and demand there still outstrips supply; so our most popular product is the Atlas 135.2VE A11 remote control loader crane, which is the ‘go to’ crane for the builders’ merchant market. It is a model that has proven its worth time and again.”
And, concentrating on that sector, their latest projects have been squarely aimed at the brick and block delivery market. “One is a brick and block delivery trailer, towed behind the knuckleboom truck, that allows a 63% increase in deliverable capacity whilst also improving the host trailer’s payload by around 10%–15%. Another is an industry leading telematics system which we shall be introducing within the next two months allowing us to give our customers the extra data and duty cycle information the modern transport industry demands.”
Hyva are also going larger; they have just added a 60tm crane to their Edge Line series. “This is quite a big crane. We are following the market,” says product manager Giuseppe Bevacqua, “and the market is asking for bigger cranes.” The Edge Line already has models down to 9tm; the 60tm model, the largest so far, was previewed at Bauma in 2019 as a protype, and was launched in September 2020 with a slight delay because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
It comes in two versions, the HC601e, which has the standard lifting control system, and the HC661e, with a proportional control system which gives 10% greater capacity. “Each model has two jib options. The ‘light jib’ is best for horizontal lifting; the ‘heavy jib’ is optimised for high and vertical lifting,” says Bevacqua.
The larger capacities share the versatility of smaller ones: “Building sites of course are a good application for our 60tm cranes; but we have sold one crane to a customer who uses it for loading full containers and transporting them between docksides and railway loading yards. Rental companies also like these cranes. Our 66tm E6J2006 crane is especially suitable for vertical lifting; it has found an application on the roads of the Italian mountains, where it is used to place rolls of wire net to the highest part of the hill above the road. The nets are unrolled down the hillside and fixed to the ground as protection against falling rocks hitting the road. So there is a wide range of applications.
“Edge Line is focussing on having a very light and compact crane without losing lifting capacity. We started the line with cranes of 13–18tm; we expanded up and down to 9tm and 26tm because mid-range cranes are the most requested; but requests for high-capacity cranes are increasing. So we launched the 60tm and are now working on a 40tm model, which is currently on job-sites for feedback and should be available next September.”
F.lli Ferrari is following a similar route with its ‘New Age’ line. “The company has a history of small to medium capacity knucklebooms,” says business director Davide Catellani. The ‘New Age’ line ranges from 9tm to 20tm. “Three years ago we introduced a 16tm model, and now we have 9, 11, 19 and 20tm models. So that spans the mid-range and serves a mature market. It has gained good appreciation from customers and dealers. And with the 60tm and the 40tm coming, we are moving more and more towards big cranes.”
The larger-capacity knucklebooms are not the only ones to be moving to new roles. Fassi’s latest offering is a 33tm machine, in their XE-dynamic series. Fassi say that the F345RB is ideal for the traditional role of handling buildings material but can have other niche roles as well: nautical, fishing and railway sectors are some that they suggest.
The particular feature of the crane is a new decagonal cross-section for the extendable telescopic booms. The new section saves weight over the previous hexagonal design and gives a better distribution of forces between the guide shoe and the chassis beam. “That has made it possible to reduce the thickness of the chassis beam, which allows a 15% reduction in weight,” says Silvio Chiapusso, Fassi’s communications director. “It also allows maintenance to be carried out on the guide shoes without dismantling the extension booms. The weight/power ration and the closing speeds of the main and secondary arm have been improved, making it even more efficient.”
Fassi have also adapted their smaller knucklebooms for trucks with compactors for waste collection trucks by adding what they call ACM, which stands for Automatic Crane Movement. It automatically lifts the bin from the ground, discharges it into the compactor on the truck, and then replaces the bin in its housing.