Winds of change

16 November 2010

Supply and demand is an ever-changing landscape in any sector. Kevin Walsh looks at the future for mid-range crawlers.

Despite the difficulties faced by many during 2009, the effects of massive fiscal stimulus packages announced by governments across the globe last year are beginning to be felt by the construction industry.

Renewed infrastructure spending, especially in the energy sector, is driving private investment and providing just the tonic for crawler crane fleet operators.

With an estimated global demand for 2,500 crawler cranes each year, new additions to the market are few and far between and must be carefully rationalised.

Manufacturers tend to prefer consistent upgrading of existing models within their product range to maximize productivity and provide the capabilities required for new challenges.

But with progress at the higher lifting capacity ranges continuing apace, notably the development of machines like the 1600t Terex CC8800 and the soon to be released Liebherr LR13000 3,000 tonner, cranes formerly considered mid-range are becoming somewhat overlooked.

Where once crawlers between the 200t and 400t lift capacity range were commonplace for wind farm erection jobs, increasing component sizes with advancements in wind technology, like the development of Vestas’ V112 wind turbine, are meaning larger capacity cranes are needed.

Liebherr’s Mark West, responsible for crawler cranes and foundation equipment sales at the company observes: “A lot of the cranes in the past – the 300t size and the 200t size – were classed as good cranes for windmill load out yards, or handling cranes for windmill parts.

“We’re seeing that either the LR1600-2 600t or the LR1300 is the norm now for handling at ports.”

Overall, the most popular crane in Liebherr’s range for this lifting class is the LR1300 300 tonner, for which the firm has experienced steady sales in previous years.

However for this year so far, Liebherr has only confirmed the sale of one of these cranes with more customers opting for the firm’s LR1200 series, capable of lifting 220t at 4.1m.

West continues: “The 1280 the 1300 were good cranes for actually erecting onshore wind farms, but there is now this push for offshore in the UK, companies that we deal with are actually supplying these cranes just for the load out for offshore. We’re now seeing more of a shift to these cranes used for handling in the yard rather than the actual erecting.”

Liebherr’s development of the W series of narrow track cranes, suited to manoeuvring around the difficult terrain usually present at onshore wind turbine sites, still offers the company’s cranes a competitive advantage over some of their competitors when bidding to supply these sites.

West also expects to see the likes of the 400t LR 1400-2/Wbeing used for the construction of power plants as new nuclear contracts are confirmed throughout the UK and Europe.

Another European manufacturer, Sennebogen, does offer some competition to Liebherr in this range with its 300t lift capacity 7700 Starlifter crawler crane.

Released earlier this year at Bauma, the crane is regarded as a capable alternative in the 300t capacity range.

With the 7700’s cab measuring just 3m in width and weighing 40t, along with booms that can be transported easily by container, the crane scores well in terms of transportability.

Crawler crane hire firm Weldex International are considering adding one of the new Sennebogen’s to their fleet.

Weldex managing director, Dougie McGilvray says: “The Sennebogen is a very good crane, we just haven’t got round to buying any yet.

“Sennebogen tend to make a heavier duty crane than Liebherr do. Sennebogen make them a bit heavier, a bit more robust, but for lifting duties, the Liebherr is still very good.”

However, Liebherr’s main European competition comes in the form of German outfit Terex, whose range of Demag branded crawler cranes are a familiar sight on construction projects around Europe.

Again the largest in the 200-400t range at Terex, the CC2400-1 which lifts 400t at 12m, is most popular with Terex’s European customer base for use installing wind turbines of up to 2MW generating capacity along with general infrastructure projects.

Owing to the trend towards higher load moments, the bulk of Terex research is currently focused on the higher end of the market, along with adapting it’s product range in preparation for the adoption of the stage III b/Tier 4 standard.

Some within the sector are worried about the cost implications of adherence to the stage III b/Tier 4 standards, and expect some of the costs to be passed onto the customer in the form of increased crane prices.

However, to increase customers’ options with regard to crane acquisitions, Terex is committed to providing support through it’s financial services arm.

Speaking at a Terex customer event, Terex Financial Services sales director for the US eastern region, Chris Johnson, said: “As a partnership we are willing to help you refinance your existing fleet and add on to new fleets, and restructures that go hand in hand with refinancing. In a partnership we want you to succeed, because as you succeed, we all succeed.”

This kind of approach will offer fleet owners some comfort as, although at the higher lifting capacity range demand may be there, the finance typically hasn’t been.

British crawler crane fleet operator Weldex International is being very cautious with new acquisitions from European manufacturers owing to the strong Euro.

McGilvray explains: “In the 200 to 400t range we’ve only got cranes from two manufacturers, Kobelco and Liebherr.

“We have got a lot of Liebherrs, so we do like the Liebherrs, but the problem that we’re having now is that the exchange rate is getting very strong against the pound, so we have got to look very carefully at where we’re going in the future, purely on a cash basis.”

Weldex is the fourth largest supplier of crawler cranes for hire in Europe, and so although there will be no immediate departure from buying European built cranes, other firms may start to look further afield to build their fleet.

China rising
In the Far East, booming construction is providing a massive demand for crawler cranes, with China alone accounting, by some estimates, for almost a third of global demand.

Along with firms like Terex who recently acquired Shandong Topower Heavy Machinery in Jinan, and Manitowoc who have had a presence in the region for several years, Japanese manufacturer Kobelco has recently moved into the Chinese market with partner Sichuan Chengdu Chenggong Construction Machinery (CG).

Kobelco will focus on producing 80 250t crawler cranes at the Chinese plant each year to sate some of this demand, focusing on the firm’s CKE2500-2 model.

Already a popular model in China, the CKE2500-2 lifts 250t at 4.6m and features a self-derigging ability, significantly reducing set-up times.

According to Kobelco’s sales and marketing manager Jos Verhulst, since its’ development in 2006 the CKE 2500-2 has helped make Kobelco the world market leader for crawler crane sales in the 200t to 300t lifting capacity class.

“The CKE 2500 is often used as an assistance crane, for tailing duties, usually for construction in the petrochemical sector as this represents the main market.”

Above 300t, towards the end of 2009 Kobelco released the SL4500 400 tonner, which may soon become one of the firm’s most popular models, owing to the fact that the SL4500 is compliant with all international standards.

Verhulst says Kobelco plans to capitalise on their success in the Chinese market by building their own factory in the country within a few years.

They will of course meet some stiff competition from the likes of Chinese manufacturers XCMG, who have been established in the Chinese crawler crane market for nearly 15 years.

XCMG’s QUY series of crawler cranes provides four machines within the class (220t, 260t, 300t and 350t cranes), which although commonplace throughout China, have been markedly less visible on a global scale.

Verhulst comments: “We expect for the Chinese to catch up, they will need another five to ten years.”

A perceived technology gulf between western crane and Chinese manufacturers makes the prospects for the latter in terms of the international market, seem potentially gloomy.

But not so for Weldex’s McGilvray, who believes firms like XCMG have a bigger part to play on the global stage: “Yes, I see them coming over here; I think there’s some in Europe already, so I don’t think there will be a problem.

“It’s all going to come down to cost, at the end of the day.”

High and dry: mid-range crawlers are moving away from wind farm erection High and dry: mid-range crawlers are moving away from wind farm erection
Kobelco's CKE4000c, only available in China, is one of five lines in the firm's 200t to 400t range in that market Kobelco's CKE4000c, only available in China, is one of five lines in the firm's 200t to 400t range in that market
Sennebogen's new 7700 Starlifter Sennebogen's new 7700 Starlifter