The Australian market for new rough terrain cranes is effectively fought out between Grove and Tadano, as Terex Lifting does not actively market the Terex rough terrain cranes in Australia, new Kobelco rough terrain cranes are no longer available and Kato is just returning to the market now with a rough terrain crane, having not had one available for sale in Australia for some time.

Lampson Australia managing director Phil Lunn outlines the advantages of rough terrains: “For site work requiring a hydraulic boom crane, a rough terrain crane is less expensive than an all terrain crane, and with its short wheelbase and four-wheel-drive-and-steer, it is much more manoeuvrable than a truck crane. In addition, it is a one-man crane, saving around $A120/hr compared to the alternatives, which require a two-man crew.” While Lampson Australia is best known for its large fleet of Manitowoc crawler cranes, it has built up a fleet of around 24 Grove rough terrain cranes, ranging in capacity from 20t to 90t, and it regards these as important assets.

Australia’s booming economy is led by the resource sector, which is a major user of RT cranes. Looking beyond Australia’s shores, Sarens has used a number of Terex rough terrain cranes on the Goro Nickel project in New Caledonia, one of the largest resource projects in the world.

Freo Machinery is typical of crane companies supplying the resource sector. Freo is one of the fastest growing private crane hire companies in Australia, and its fleet encompasses virtually all types of cranes. Its greatest presence is in Western Australia, where the resources sector is booming. The company has depots in the major mining centres, and has rough terrain cranes at each branch. Its fleet is a mix of Grove, Kato, Tadano and Kobelco brands, in 20t, 35t, 45t, 50t, 55t and 120t capacities. Boom lengths vary between 26.8m and 48.6m. More cranes are on order to meet future needs. The crane mix is deliberately broad.

Australia is the fourth largest market for Tadano truck cranes, and receives a good supply of these. However, Australian buyers must compete with Tadano’s domestic consumers (estimated to take 80% of production), as well as its many other export markets. According to Tadano importer James Equipment, demand outstrips supply. Strong enquiries have been received for rough terrain cranes of 50t and upwards, with longer booms.

The market for secondhand imports from Japan, both in Australia and globally, is even stronger than the market for new cranes. The biggest advantage that Australia has in this regard is its time zone, which places it up to seven hours ahead of Middle East markets.

Purchase pressure

As late model stock has become harder to find, and the choice facing buyers is to purchase older machines, or pay a higher price for the newer stock when it is available. Because so few late model machines are on offer now, it is often necessary to commit to purchase when the crane is first offered.

Because of this, at least one company buys first and asks questions later. Huntingdale Cranes is one of the longest established crane hire companies in Melbourne, Victoria. It started out as a division of a transport company, but changes of ownership eventually saw the two businesses separated. It was not until a change of ownership in 2005, when Keith Kelton and Ron Atkins bought the business, that rapid growth took place which saw rough terrain cranes become an increasingly important part of the overall business. In that time dry hire and sales divisions were added to the business, with rough terrain cranes forming the backbone of the dry hire fleet and the bulk of the sales stock.

The new owners source the bulk of their rough terrain fleet overseas, and adopt the approach of finding the equipment first, and then finding suitable work for it once it is landed in Australia and meets Australian standards. Stock additional to internal requirements, or being retired from the Huntingdale Cranes fleet, is offered for sale.

By having rough terrain cranes available for wet or dry hire, Huntingdale Cranes is able to service the traditional wet hire industrial shutdown applications within Victoria, and put cranes on long-term dry hire on projects around Australia. The rough terrain fleet covers the 20t-50t range, and the bulk of it is of the Tadano brand, because of the backup in Australia, the company says. However, it says it also considers Kobelco rough terrain cranes because they have reasonable support in Australia, can sometimes be bought for less than Tadanos, but can be hired out for similar rates.

Importing used cranes into Australia is not a simple matter of locating stock, shipping it to Australia and offering it for sale. Cranes over 10 years old, and cranes without a maintenance history regardless of age, have to be inspected to meet Australian Standards. Tyre sizes approved for use in Australia have to be fitted. Documentation and signage has to be translated (used crane dealer Gleason Cranes has a full-time interpreter on staff). The load chart has to be recalibrated to Australian Standards. There may be other requirements, which can vary from state to state, to allow cranes to be road registered.

The 10-year inspection rule poses a problem for rough terrains bought new, says Phil Lunn of Lampson. Although he says that he finds that the Grove rough terrain cranes last well, and stand up well to heavy usage and difficult conditions, he says that they are difficult to justify economically.

For hydraulic boom machines, the 10-year rule requires pulling the boom out, and is quite expensive. While the cranes could conceivably operate up to 1,500 hours a year, operating hours for a one man-one machine could be limited by the availability of the operator and could be as low as 800 hours a year, of which only half of that may be when the crane upper is working. This provides a relatively small base over which to amortise the costs of the 10-year inspection.

Sometimes though, older machines serve market needs better than new ones. When it decided to modernise an aged crane fleet, Tutt Bryant Crane Hire got lucky. The company formed as Tat Hong Rental in 1997, but became a public company under its current name in 2005. It is a national crane hirer specialising in dry hire, particularly in the oil and gas industry. Like Lampson, its hundred-plus crane fleet is mostly crawlers. Because of the industries that it serves, Tutt Bryant also has a requirement for rough terrain cranes, and has 19 machines: the bulk of them 50t Tadano units of around 1990 vintage. These cranes are equipped with a 41.2m main boom, and have been in high demand. However they now are reaching the age where their reliability and running costs are not at the level required.

As most rough terrain cranes have shorter boom lengths than this (typically 33-35m) Tutt Bryant faced a dilemma with its replacement programme. It is a sister company to Kato distributor BT Equipment and, although there was no compulsion to purchase from within the group, Tutt Bryant became aware of Kato’s plans to develop a new range of rough terrain cranes and held off its purchase decision until firm data on the new machines was available.

The Kato SL650R has a 65t capacity and 44.5m main boom, with a needle jib and luffing fly jib also offered, and this machine was chosen to replace the existing cranes. The first of an initial order of three of these arrived in November 2007, with a further five on order, and the fleet replacement will continue after that at the rate of around one per month.

Smaller alternatives

While the mining boom is certainly stimulating demand, the long waiting list for articulated pick and carry cranes may also be forcing some traditional users to look for alternatives, according to Tadano importer James Equipment.

At the small end, one alternative might be city cranes. The mini rough terrain (city crane) market goes back to the 1990s, when restrictions on importing used cranes into Australia were lifted. Gleason Cranes was a pioneer in this year, and managing director Chris Logan lays claim to developing the market for late model rough terrain and city cranes imported from Japan. Truck cranes were also a large part of this business.

Originally the city cranes (also known as mini rough terrain cranes) were imported in 7t and 16t capacities: crane development saw this change to 10t and 20t capacities. These machines are well-suited to general crane hire. West Australia’s Freo Machinery, for example, runs mini rough terrain cranes in 7t, 10t and 16t capacities for use in urban areas.

In Australia, RTs up to 20t capacity can generally be registered to run as street-legal on public roads, but RTs 25t capacity and up need to be transported. These regulations, which favour small cranes, may help support the city crane market. Australia’s regulations are, however, more strict than Japan. For this reason, RTs in Australia cannot compete as effectively with truck cranes as they do in Japan.

One particular mini RT crane has proven especially popular, the 7t Kobelco RK70, despite no longer being in production. Huntingdale’s Ron Atkins sees it as an ideal machine for an owner operator starting out in crane hire, as it is affordable, reliable, versatile and popular with smaller clients such as the domestic market, small steel erection projects and the like.

Laurie Patterson of Patterson Mobile Crane Hire (PMCH) at Boneo on the Mornington Peninsula, south of Melbourne, Victoria, bought his first 7t Kobelco RK 70 mini rough terrain crane in 1998. It was one of the first in the country (it was imported secondhand, through Gleason).

Other crane hirers initially had a poor regard for the crane, and thought it was too small to be useful, Patterson says. When the crane found regular work such as placing steel in difficult locations, setting light poles and even providing aerial access with a custom-built man basket, people started to take notice, and the RK 70 is now represented in many fleets. In serving a relatively small area, Patterson has needed each machine in his small fleet to be versatile.