Given the historically low levels of demand for rough terrains in Europe, the boot, for the moment, is on the other foot. Well, maybe the rough terrain need not be quite so humble. For, after decades of being scorned by the makers and promoters of all terrain cranes for its traditionally basic and in some respects even technologically dated design, this dog is again having its day.

Unlike in some other categories, the designers at most rough terrain crane manufacturers have never forgotten that a crane is, after all, just a tool, not a showroom model. A tool that for more than 50-years has been relied upon to perform in the harshest and most remote of job sites – often in the hands of less than well-tutored operators and often with less than world class product support. Because of such considerations, over the decades the manufacturers of these workhorses have generally shunned the cutting-edge technology seen on their more expensive all terrain cousins. And when, occasionally, rough terrain manufacturers strayed to the lure of electronic wizardry and other such exoticism, customers quickly gave them a harsh wake-up call. Still, slowly but surely this most conservative of sectors of the mobile crane industry has evolved and developed technologically.

For perspective, it’s worth looking back at the rough terrain landscape of 10-years ago. It was a significantly different place than what we see today.

The product lines of all of the leading manufacturers in the US, Japan and Europe started with small cranes of 10-18USt capacity and in the US most manufacturers still offered lines of small cab-down rough terrains. With the exceptions of Grove & Terex (P&H), the largest cranes of offer were in the 60-70t categories.

Despite their dimensions and high axle loads, rough terrain cranes sold in the Japanese domestic market were road-legal and markedly different from their US cousins. These found little favor in world markets and consequently the Japanese manufacturers continued to produce separate ‘export’ lines to more traditional U/S/-style designs.

Most booms were of four-section (or even three-section) design, generally of four-plate rectangular profile. Five-section booms had become popular in Japan but were still something of a rarity in the US and Europe, offered only on selected Grove and Tadano models. Few booms exceeding 40m length were available: even the largest 90t and 100t P&H and Grove cranes had four-section booms of around 35m maximum length.

The most popular cranes were in the 25t capacity class, with around 25% of the market, followed by 10-15t cranes with 22% (due primarily to strong domestic Japanese demand for small compact cranes) and with 50-60-tonners taking about 18%. Less than 5% of all units sold were larger than 65t capacity.

Mechanical lever controls had still not completely given way to hydraulic joysticks – while everything electronic, including controls, was still widely viewed with deep suspicion about dependability.

Approximately 110 different models ranging from 10-100t were offered by 13 manufacturers. Production was concentrated in three countries with the US and Japan each supplying approximately 45% of world demand and Italy taking somewhat less than 10%.

Japan was the largest consumer market with almost 50% of world demand, followed by North America with 30-40% and the rest of the world taking the remainder. By 2001, global demand had slid to less than 2,800 units – and the aftermath of 9/11 was still to have its seriously damaging impact.

Demand for smaller cranes was also under siege from the ever expanding reach of telehandlers – so much so that manufacturers such as Marchetti evolved its popular ‘Trio’ Series of rough terrain cranes to offer forklift as well as work platform attachments.

As larger-sized all terrains of 200-500t capacity and crawler cranes of up to 750t capacity have become increasingly commonplace on job-sites around the world, the lack of long-reach and high capacity rough terrains automatically relegated them to supporting roles in many applications. The consequence of the self-inflicted technological straitjacket donned by the rough terrain crane manufacturers was that all terrain cranes became the telescopic crane of choice for the vast majority of long-reach and higher-capacity work. This was not because customers necessarily required or desired the vehicular performance characteristics of the all terrain, but simply because there was no choice.

Although rough terrains have still to break the 200t ‘barrier’, as our interview with Manitowoc’s Executive VP of Marketing, Ingo Schiller, suggests, that development may no longer be in never-never land. For, during the past decade, rough terrain crane technology and market demands have evolved at a faster pace than at any time since the early years of its very origination. Predictably, demand for the small-end of the rough terrain product line has continued to diminish, primarily because of the ever-expanding scope and popularity of telehandlers. But, most importantly, the leading manufacturers have made significant strides in shedding the technological ‘straitjacket’ that for so long was a hallmark of this most conservative of sectors.

In many cases the industry is now offering cranes with substantially the same reach and quality of control and operator environment as like-sized all terrains in classes now up to 150USt (130t). For the likes of Grove, Terex and, to a lesser extent Tadano, these developments flow, in large part, from the long-term process of cross-pollination and product rationalisation that stems from their acquisitions of the all terrain technology of Krupp, Demag and Faun respectively. Meanwhile Link-Belt must be recognized and congratulated for the boldness and innovativeness of its product developments without the benefit of such acquisitions.

One of the recent key developments has been the introduction of rough terrains of 130USton (120t) capacity by Grove (2002), Link-Belt (2008) and Terex (2009) and 150USt (135t) by Grove.

At the same time long 45-50m five-section booms have been introduced on rough terrains of 100-130USt (90-120t) capacity by all the players, and very long 53-60m booms have been introduced on rough terrains of 100USt and 150USt (90-135t) by Terex and Grove respectively.

Electronic crane controls have been adopted on the larger Grove, Link-Belt and Terex models, and single-cylinder pinned telescopic booms have been adopted on the largest Grove and Link-Belt models.

Chicken or egg?
Hand-in-hand with the availability of these larger capacity and longer reach rough terrains has come recognition of the relative merits of these cranes by customers and with it a significant transformation in the structure of crane market demand. This is clear to see when analysing the balance between the sales of all terrains and rough terrains by capacity class.

In 2005, on a worldwide basis, sales of rough terrains and all terrains of 50-65t capacity were almost equal. However sales of larger-sized all terrains in the classes up to 135t (150USt) capacity exceeded those of rough terrains in a ratio of 4:1. Last year, sales of rough terrains in the 50-65t classes exceeded those of all terrains in a ratio of approximately 70:30 while in the larger sizes up to 135t (150USt), sales of rough terrains exceeded those of all terrains by approximately 10%. In both categories, this represents the first time since larger-sized all terrains established their market presence that larger sized rough terrains have regained market dominance.

As the table on this page shows, one factor is the increasing number of manufacturers and models contesting this most attractive of sectors. During the past twelve months new or up-dated models have been fielded by Grove (RT 9130E-2 and RT 9150E), Link-Belt (RTC80110 SII), Tadano (GR 1000XL-2) and Terex (RT 100) and this year will be enjoined by the already announced Global-Zoomlion RT
100 & RT 110 models and the XCMG RT 120E as well as potentially a new larger Sany model.

In the year 2000, only slightly more than 20% of global market demand for rough terrains of all sizes was for cranes of 50t capacity or greater and less than 3% was for cranes of 80t capacity and larger. By 2005, rough terrains of 50t and greater capacity had increased their market share of the total rough terrain crane market to over 30%, while rough terrains of 80t and greater had increased their share to over
5%. Last year rough terrains of 50t and larger were nudging a share of 45% of the entire rough terrain crane market while sales of rough terrains of 80t capacity and greater were accounting for close to 15% market share. What’s more, these global market shares would have been significantly higher but for the fact that the world’s second largest rough terrain crane market – Japan – accounting for over 1,000 units in 2011, is dominated by 25t and very small, compact 10-13t rough terrains which collectively account or over 80% of domestic Japanese demand.

Indeed, Japan is the only major market for rough terrain cranes that is not participating in the re-balancing of telescopic crane demand in favour of larger-sized rough terrains. In Japan the largest rough terrains sold today are the new generation of four-axle cranes of 60-70t capacity. These are now sold as a replacement to the former 2-axle rough terrains that in the past were allowed to travel on Japan’s highways with axle loads as high as 15-20t. The four-axle rigs are the unified response of Japan’s crane builders. These Kato, Kobelco and Tadano cranes have the merit of very long 43-48m six-section booms and, of course, the usual excellent quality. However it is indeed a stretch to brand these cranes as ‘rough terrains’ given their all-round highway tyres and overall vehicle length of 12-to-13m that sets the operator some 6-to-7m behind the advancing boom tip on the highway. This begs the question as to whether a return to the truck crane would represent a safer option.

Turning to the continuing upturn in demand for rough terrains, given the recent seismic economic developments and natural disasters, market development was by no means balanced across the world. After a serious downturn in 2010, US market demand bounced back with a year-on-year growth of some 70% to register the best year since the heady days of 2007 with close to 1,000 units sold. Having reached the dizzy heights of over 500 units sold in 2008, demand in Western Europe continued its precipitous slide with under 200 units delivered and with the traditional rough terrain power-house market of Italy sinking below 100 units for the first time in more than a decade.

However, not all is doom and gloom in Italy. While Autogru Rigo is no more (though never say never in Italy), the year saw another icon of Italian rough terrain cranes, Locatelli, emerge from administration under new ownership and re-start production. Thanks to the strength of its sales in Africa and the Middle East, Terex Italia (Bendini) is expecting to increase production in 2012. Building on the success of its 20t MG 20.35 ‘Trio’ multi-purpose rough terrain, Autogru Marchetti is developing a new supercompact 25t capacity teleboom crawler crane offering 35m tip height. And, during the past three years Grove’s Niella plant has become a very serious competitor to Italy’s traditional rough terrain crane makers and is now the sole sourcing point for EMEA for its RT 530E-2 and RT 540E models as well as still producing Grove’s all terrains to 55t capacity.

Of the developed markets, Canada and Australia continued their energy-market driven robustness. Down-under, the perennial rough terrain crane dominant market forces of Grove and Tadano have seen the emergence of a new force in the shape of Link-Belt, whose distributor the Baden-Davis Crane Connection has found sales success across the full line of sizes up to and including the 120t RTC 80130SII (sold to Monadelphous). Turning to the emerging markets, while in 2010, North Africa hit levels of demand not seen since the 1980s, last year’s political upheaval was not good news for crane demand which skidded sharply downwards. Compensating for this, the Middle East enjoyed a banner year with the usual suspects of Saudi and the UAE accounting for some 70% of regional demand for rough terrains and collectively almost 300 units.

But the big news was on the other side of the Atlantic. Once again there is a smile on the faces of US crane producers, even if it’s still a cautious one. But it wasn’t just the big guns enjoying the recovery, niche manufacturers such as Manitex’s Badger unit had their strongest year yet with the 30USt cab-down CD 4430 which sold well to the railroads as well as finding pockets of demand in the Middle East. But as Ingo Schiller commented, it was south of the border that caused the most excitement.

Rough terrain crane demand in Mexico increased 50% while South America built on a very healthy 2010 with further growth of 20%. While Argentina’s revival as well as Chile’s traditional strength were major contributors, as Ingo Schiller touches on, it was Brazil that propelled regional demand with well over 100 new rough terrains as well as the usual intake of used cranes.

In Asia, demand in Japan increased by approximately 10%. Tadano’s nine-months sales through December 2011 increased 26% over year-ago results and the company increased its full year forecast to ¥110bn, 22.5% ahead of the previous year. In his report to shareholders, Tadano president Koichi Tadano acknowledged that the Great Tohoku Earthquake had briefly disrupted parts supply but said that Japanese crane production was growing with domestic sales up 13% thanks to replacement of the aging domestic crane population. Tadano’s overseas sales increased by over 42% thanks to demand in the Americas as well as the Middle East due to energy and resource-related demand.

Rough terrain crane demand in China has always been very minimal but this has not deterred the nation’s crane builders from jumping into the rough terrain crane arena with both feet. As our review of the Chinese rough terrain crane model lines of the major players in Table 2 attests, the Chinese are squarely targeting export demand with these products. First to make an impact has been Houston, Texasbased Global Cranes, the international master distributor for Zoomlion’s rough terrain cranes and in reality, the architect of this initiative. Led by company president, Uri Toudjarov, Global has already won significant successes in Africa. In Algeria it has sold ten 55t (60USton) RT 55s, with two more going to Tanzania, and other sales in Libya and South Africa. In the Middle East it has sold 12 RT55s in the UAE. It has also made sales in Russia, Brazil and Chile. Global is just commencing its US market offensive. Rival Chinese-owned manufacturer Sany America’s VP of sales and marketing, Kyle Nape, told Cranes Today his company has already retailed approximately 20 units, predominantly in the 55-60t (60-65-USt) range. It will be interesting to see if XCMG can emulate its truck crane dominance in this new segment.