Self-erecting tower cranes, that unfold themselves and slew at the bottom, are a common sight in mainland Europe. Around 90% of the 3,000 or so sold each year remain in Europe, where they are produced. In the USA, however, the total population is probably still only just into three figures.

According to Liebherr, the US market absorbed fewer than 50 self-erectors in 2001, about 80 in 2002, and fewer than 10 in 2003. Sales in 2002 were aided by that year’s Conexpo show, where Liebherr introduced its 32TT model and had some sales successes.

Of the manufacturers, the most successful currently is Potain, part of the Manitowoc Crane Group. Potain has identified the USA as a growth market for its self-erectors and, according to marketing director Manuel Meurant, is planning to use the Conexpo show in Las Vegas next March to promote the concept. It has already begun to expand its distribution network and is in the process of appointing new dealers.

Potain is not the first to push self-erectors in the USA. When Terex acquired Gru Comedil of Italy in 1998, the then president of Terex Lifting, Fil Filipov, had big hopes for self-erectors in the States. Comedil had already sold a few units in the Denver and Salt Lake City area. ‘I always thought that self-erectors could be good for 1,000 units a year,’ Filipov says today, now retired and living in Monte Carlo. ‘It was pure mathematics, taking from both telescopic forklifts and boom trucks.’ Given that the market for boom trucks is about 2,000 units a year and telescopic handlers is about 9,000 units (more like 12,000 five years ago), self-erecting tower cranes need only to chip away at the edges to reach the kind of number that Filipov envisaged.

Terex, however, no longer seems to be focusing special efforts on self-erectors. It had one sitting in its yard in Wilmington, North Carolina for eight months earlier this year, before placing it with Anthony Crane in Pompano, Florida.

While Liebherr characterises the market for self-erecting tower cranes in the USA as ‘hesitating’, there are a few notable trailblazers, working hard to persuade US contractors of the merits of the concept. It is thanks to them that the self-erector population is rising.

No one in the USA owns huge numbers of self-erectors. The biggest player in tower cranes in the USA has long been Morrow Equipment, the well-established Liebherr distributor. But out of its fleet of 420 tower cranes, just eight of these are self-erecting.

By far the biggest owner of self-erecting tower cranes is California-based SI Equipment. A Potain distributor, it has taken 50 from the French manufacturer, sold 20 (all but one to contractors) and has a rental fleet of 30 units – all since Conexpo 2002. ‘This business is just starting to take off,’ says Jon Tierney, SI’s vice president in charge of sales. ‘We’re doing incredibly well.’

The next biggest is probably Coast Crane, based to the north of SI in Washington and Oregon. Coast is also a Potain/Manitowoc distributor and also began with self-erectors just in 2002 when it acquired a Potain HDT 80 self-erector along with five Comedil top slewers from the failed Sunnen Crane. The rest of Sunnen’s equipment went off to auction. Since then, Coast has sold two of the top slewers but expanded in self-erectors, building up a fleet of 15 Potain self-erectors. It also has six more on order for delivery next year. Five are Igo 50 models, for delivery in May, while the sixth, an HDT 80, will be on show at Conexpo, reveals Mike Heacock, manager of Coast’s tower crane division.

‘It’s a great business for us,’ says Heacock. ‘We’re really focusing on it. We are pretty well established in the Seattle and Tacoma areas and are moving into the Portland market currently.’ Coast has an HD 40 on site in Portland and before the end of the year there will be an HDT 80 at work there too.

Coast benefits from operating in western Canada, where the concept is more accepted, as well as northwestern USA. As the Potain distributor, it has sold about 20 self-erectors into British Columbia, but has yet to make its first sale in the USA. ‘Canada has a different mindset,’ Heacock says. ‘People want to buy there, whereas in the States they’d rather rent.’

The kind of projects that typically are finding self-erecting tower cranes useful are congested sites, building multi-unit residential housing such as student blocks or retirement/assisted living communities, reaching places across the site that a telescopic handler could not get to. Sometimes they are rail-mounted. Typically, they are being hired for three months up to a year. Rental rates depend on size of crane and length of contract and vary from region to region, but a Potain HDT 80, for example, fetches in the region of $10,000 a month, sometimes more, against a purchase price variously quoted as anything between $300,000 and $350,000. The HDT 80 is at the larger end of the category, lifting 1.35t at the end of its 45m jib, and with a hook height of 34.2m and maximum lifting capacity of 6t.

Many self-erectors are self-contained, with fixed counterweight and axle systems built into the tower frame, allowing them to be towed to site. Smaller units can be towed by ordinary pick-up trucks that are so popular in the USA.

The greatest challenge for people trying to sell or hire out self-erectors is persuading contractors to accept as new way of working. ‘The problem in North America is convincing people that these cranes have the capability to do what they want them to do,’ says Pete Tipton, owner of Tipton Steel Erectors in Chattanooga, Tennessee. Tipton has five Potain HDT 80s. ‘I bought my first in 2000. I saw what the machine was capable of doing and saw a tremendous future for it in North America. I’m a great believer in these machines. I’ve used these machines in places where I’ve previously had to use a million-dollar-plus machine. They’ve got tremendous versatility. I’m pushing them hard. I think they have a future but it’s a little slow in coming.’ He thinks that it will be 10 or 12 years for them to become as accepted as they are in Europe.

Tipton is such a believer in the concept that he wants to become a dealer and is one of those companies that is in discussions with Manitowoc Crane Group, he confirms. ‘I intend becoming a dealer, either with Potain or another brand,’ he says.

Heacock has been involved with self-erectors for slightly longer, having previously been with Sunnin before joining Coast. Sunnin started with self-erectors in 1997, firstly with Comedils and then in 1999 bought three Potains. ‘I think what we’ve overcome, and what I had to deal with quite a lot when I was at Sunnin, was persuading people that it could be better than a forklift. In the long run it saves them a lot of money. Once people use them, they rarely decide they don’t like them at the end of the job.’

Pete Tipton has found the same thing. He has a customer base of about a dozen contractors. One of them took a crane for a three month job in Washington DC and kept it for 18 months, moving it from job to job, hiring two more during that time too.

While the likes of SI Equipment and Coast Crane lead the way in the western states today, and other Potain customers are making headway in the market, perhaps the greatest pioneer of self-erecting tower cranes in the USA has been Will Webb, both with his previous business, Webb Crane in Denver, Colorado, and with his newly established Creative Lifting.

Webb Crane was previously a Comedil dealer, but Will Webb – never one to follow the pack – has now allied himself with Italian manufacturer Benazatto Gru and has a fleet of about eight cranes, all self-erecting towers, for sale or hire. The numbers fluctuate as sales are made and new orders are placed to Italy.

Creative Lifting started out by buying the small rental fleet of Benazzato’s former distributor, Hennessy International. Among sales in its first year in business, Creative has sold three 20m-jib Benazzato 193-S cranes to contractors in San Francisco and Colorado.

Webb has worked to move the product line forward for his market, producing steel ballast instead of the concrete ballast that the manufacturer supplies, and adapting the cranes to make them self-contained and readily transportable in all US states.

He is also addressing the power supply issue. While European construction sites readily have three-phase 480V power supply, smaller and medium sized jobsites in the USA have single-phase 240V power. Webb explains: ‘We install transformers to boost the power to 480V, which improves efficiency when the power supply is a long distance from the crane. The transformers are inexpensive and simple. It is not so simple to get three-phase from single-phase (monophase in Italy). We have tried phase converters (costing around $12,000) without success. What we, and I think everyone else, has gone to is portable diesel powered generators. The cost of a modern “quiet” gen set is about $25,000. Most self-erectors have two- or three-speed hoists, which use inverter motors. It requires far more current to change speed than to run at steady speed, which requires a much larger generator. No one has a crane available much larger than a 20m to 22m jib crane. All the manufactures we have tried, Comedil, Peiner, Ferro and Benazzato, have said that they could not supply motors over 3kW, which limits maximum capacity to about 1.5t. The Benazzato 120 model we have has a 10.5kW hoist motor and has a maximum capacity of 2.5 t with two falls of rope or 5t with four falls. It is operating at about 10,500ft elevation on 480V single phase. We specified the components for the electric system. At first Benazzato said it could not be done; then after many drawings and letters and a trip to Italy, they convinced their suppliers to build our crane.’

The latest US company to commit to the self-erector market is P&J Crane Systems of Manassas, Virginia. It has formed a 50:50 joint venture with Belgian manufacturer and rental company Arcomet and has started with six Arcomet-made cranes. P&J, established in 2000, also has a fleet of 30 top-slewers, 10 of which are owned by Arcomet.

All this, therefore, demonstrates that self-erectors are gaining ground in parts of the USA.

Some, however, believe that there is also a market for city class tower cranes, smaller sized top-slewers, often without cabs, and designed to be erected quickly and easily. Paul Studd of Florida-based Comedil dealer MPS sells mostly larger flat-top towers of 300tm and above. He has tried to sell self-erectors, but without great success. But he now sees a market for smaller top-slewers down to the 90tm-class CTT 91, which lifts 1.4t at 50m jib-end.

It is a market that Spanish manufacturer Comansa is pursuing too, with its ‘baby tower’ line of cranes from 47tm to 100tm, through its subsidiary Linden Comansa America (LCA). While the market for this class of crane remains even smaller than the self-erector market, regional manager Matt Dobbs says ‘LCA has achieved its goals for this year and seen an increase in the amount of interest in this type of crane as a new tool.’

He argues that a smaller top slewer provides more speed, reach and productivity than a self-erector, and is also a ‘lower maintenance, longer lasting investment.’

And given that the purchase price of a typical city crane is generally likely to be in the region of half the price of a self-erector, the US industry may learn to accept these too.


A Potain HDT 80, owned by Coast Crane, at work on a residential and retail development in Seattle


In Tacoma, Washington, a Potain HDT 80 owned by Coast Crane is used to build a new Marriott Hotel. This building has two floors of concrete and steel stud framing above the concrete


Coast Crane supplied a Potain HDT 70 for 14 months for the construction of this exclusive Mercer Island residence in Washington state


Coast Crane supplied a Potain HD 40A for three months to build condominiums at the Big White Ski Resort in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada




Creative Lifting offers the 28m-jib Benazzato 296-DS as either 240V or 480V, single-phase or three-phase with steel ballast, tandem axle air brakes system and detachable goose neck for transport. It is shown here working Breckenridge, Colorado






The Benazzato 120, a 40m jib crane, has been adapted by Creative Lifting for 240V or 480V, single- or three-phase power supplies. It is shown here working Breckenridge, Colorado




Breckenridge construction company Mathison has bought a Benazzato 193-S, which has a 20m jib, from new US distributor Creative Lifting


The Benazzato 194S has a 24m jib