The birth of a giant

22 November 2017 by Will North


As Sarens launched its largest crane yet, the SGC-140, Will North spoke to chairman Ludo Sarens about the company’s strategy and to engineering manager Peter Huygebaert about the crane’s design and development.

Sarens has spent more than a year putting the equipment in place for its biggest ever project, Tengizchevroil (TCO). This autumn, it showed off a key component, the SGC-140.

TCO is in many ways the culmination of a long process of both growing mobile crane fleets around the world, and of developing specialist equipment and engineering knowledge.

 The start of the process, Ludo Sarens explains, was simply looking beyond the company’s local market. “In the past, we started in Europe, where it was quite natural to expand where we found there was a market.”

The company soon looked beyond its regional doorstep, to build fleets internationally. The first question when planning this sort of expansion is, again, whether there is a market for such a fleet. Ludo Sarens says, “Not every country leans to having a rental fleet. We want the fleets to be viable on their own. When we went outside Europe, we went to countries where we found a market for oil and gas. It meant there would be work for projects, and such countries can stand a general fleet.”

But, once the company has a rental fleet successfully operating, new advantages show themselves.

“By having a rental fleet, we have advanced knowledge of local circumstances. That helps us get projects, we know all the ins and outs. We also don’t need to go to sub-contractors, we can offer clients a service based on our own performance.”

TCO exemplifies the advantages of this approach. The company’s presence in Kazakhstan both gave it a lead into the project and meant it had the capability in place to take it on.

“In the last couple of years, we’ve put a lot of investment in our project division. TCO was a result of action of getting more into projects. Everything is running to plan. About 80% of the equipment has been acquired.

“Most, 80-90%, was from normal fleet, with about 100 cranes. The specialised equipment, the transition barges, are at the ports. And the SGC will soon be on its way to Kazakhstan.”

Owning the right equipment is only one element of a project like this. Equally important, is having the right people and skills. As the company builds its own equipment, like the SGC-140, it also builds its employees’ expertise.

“We have a division of engineers to design these cranes. Having the engineering capacity, helps when we have special load cases. We look at the equipment, less as something sat there with a chart, but as something we totally know. It makes the equipment more flexible, which has a major impact.”

Designing a giant

One of those expert engineers is Peter Huygebaert. Talking at the SGC-140’s launch, he explained that  large cranes like Sarens’ earlier SGC-120, drive demand for further development.

“Whenever you have a crane that can lift massive weights, the weights go up, so you need the next generation crane,” says Huygebaert.

But there were specific motivations for developing the SGC-140 for TCO.

Huygebaert explains, “The project we are going to do with this crane, we had originally planned to do with the SCG-120. Due to that crane’s lack of availability [it is currently working in Sunderland, England, on an offshore wind project], we decided to optimise the new crane specifically for this project, looking at the lifts we are going to do there and how we are going to operate it.

“At the longest range, it adds 45% more capacity, and at shorter ranges it still adds 15–20%. We wanted to get as much capacity as possible at 50m radius, and the extra capacity at long reach came from the added counterweight needed for this 50m radius capacity. We also upgraded the boom hoist and the reeving. We now have 2km of wire rope on the winches.

“On the [TCO] project, the crane will be standing in one position, picking up modules and putting them down in a stack.

“The dimensions of the ring system are the same, but from experience on the previous crane, we’ve actually updated the bogie design for improved stability. Previously, it was a square bar, now it is a rail. This avoids any slew loads and any other unwanted effects, making it very nice and smooth when it is slewing.”

As well as delivering the capacities the job requires, these improvements and careful attention to the design of the container-sized power packs driving the crane, mean that noise levels are kept below 80dB during operation.

At the SGC-140’s launch, Sarens showed plans for the next in its giant crane series, the SGC-250. Planned for launch in 2019, this crane will offer twice as much capacity at specific radii.

Paying for a giant

As Sarens has built its business, it has not just had to find new ways to lift ever heavier loads, but also new ways to fund its expansion.

Ludo Sarens says, “Where we came from a couple of years ago was typical for crane companies in Europe. We had our own capital, and we used bank debt.

“In the US, most fundraising is done by bonds or directly on the market. A couple of years ago, we went to the bond market. We feel now this is more in line with the equipment we have. For this large equipment, the lifetime is longer than ten years [typical for leasing-backed equipment].

“For the time being, with the investment we have, we are sufficiently covered by bonds and bank finance.”

Securing bond finance though poses its own challenges, Sarens says. “Financiers seem to be unable to grasp with what we do. They try to compare us to equipment rental people. What we have to explain is that we provide a service based on knowledge.

“Even if you look at general rental, just a 60t crane with operator, they take a lot more responsibility than with a manlift. At the high end, there’s a lot more engineering.

“So now, our financiers look at out client base, to see how our market will go based on how the oil and gas and energy markets will go.”

Supporting role

With decades of experience in the family business, Ludo Sarens has strong opinions on the role of mobile crane manufacturers.

“There has been an evolution in the size of our suppliers, we now have four major suppliers: Liebherr, Demag, Grove, and Tadano.”

Sarens expresses concern at the pressures on US stock market listed companies, like Terex and Manitowoc. One might expect that, as part of a family-run business, he would feel more affinity with Liebherr and Tadano. Indeed, he says family-leadership helps with the long-term investment needed for cranes.

But, while praising Tadano for a good year, he is cautious of the management changes at Faun.

As Liebherr increasingly dominates, he worries too about the company’s focus on in house engine supply. By his estimate, “their production, in a year, is the same as Cummins’ in a week.” Some might see advantages in terms of engine optimisation, but he considers that in some markets, it leads to delays in support.