The self-erecting crane has been a long time coming in Australia. Italian company Pontello used self-erecting cranes in Australia nearly 30 years ago, when it had three large Potain machines working on a power station project in Queensland. When Pontello left Australia, Denis Tomasel and Marco Pagliari acquired its fleet and set up Seca (Self Erecting Cranes Australia) to operate these cranes.

However, this fleet did not expand and Seca (now Verticon, after a merger with another company) gravitated towards hire of conventional tower cranes as it did not want to be limited in the height of building that it could work on.

Tomasel states that self-erecting cranes are a complex piece of equipment in the way that they fold, and require skilled people to erect them. For this reason, he believes that they are best suited to operators who specialise in their use, and believes that the city-top tower cranes have advantages in their simplicity, reduced space requirements, height range and ability to be tied to a building where appropriate.

The real takeoff for self-erecting cranes can be traced to the activities of Ron Laczko, a rigger and inventor who, when at a trade fair in Bologna to promote a portable crane that he invented, saw the large number of self-erecting cranes on display, and decided to learn more about them. In the course of discussing the sale of his crane design to Potain, he took on the distribution of Potain cranes in Australia, and used his knowledge of the building industry and his contacts to find work for these cranes.

The greatest headway was made with the HD40 crane in Sydney, where the biggest market for these cranes has developed. The focus was on selling direct to builders, and cost comparisons were done with 50t truck cranes, which at that time were hired for two to three days a week, with building materials stored around the site and on the decks. The culture changed from having subcontractors hire mobile cranes to having builders supply site craneage, and the self-erecting cranes required less space than a mobile crane. Having a crane able to work over the top of a site meant that materials could be placed at the workface.

While Laczko relinquished his national distribution of Potain during structural changes within the Manitowoc Crane Group in Australia, he retains an association with Potain, and continues to do some consulting work though he now concentrates on developing innovative materials handling solutions.

While Morrow Equipment has represented Liebherr tower cranes in Australia since the mid-1980s, its main activities have been in hire of electric saddle jib tower cranes, although it does have some self-erecting cranes in its fleet, and has made some sales.

Jeff Brundell, managing director of Manitowoc Crane Group Australia, estimates that Potain has the largest share of the Australian market for self-erecting cranes in Australia, with the HD40 (35m reach, 4t maximum capacity with 1t at the tip) being the most popular unit.

He believes that there could be between 80 and 100 self erecting cranes in Australia, but feels that there is potential for the market to support sales of up to 100 units a year.

In assessing where this market will come from he states: “While there might be some effect on truck crane hire, I think that the main casualties of the increased popularity of self erecting cranes are the traditional rope hoists and brick hoists. These generally require the loads to be handled manually on the ground and on the slab, whereas the self-erecting crane can pick up within a wide area on the ground, and place the load at the work area on the slab. This is safer, and reduces manual handling.”

Brundell believes that there needs to be some structural reform in the industry for self-erecting cranes to reach their potential, stating: “Most principal contractors place responsibility for material handling on projects in the hands of their subcontractors. With a large number of subcontractors on site, the materials handling becomes fragmented, and generally truck cranes are hired as required.

“However, some contractors elect to provide materials handling for all activities on site. Those who take this path tend to be builders of low-rise developments, who often provide their own trades.”

Some larger builders, who often work with a select core of regular subcontractors, and have established work practices and arrangements, have their own self-erecting cranes, and this seems to work well.

Active Crane Hire (Active) has the largest fleet of self-erecting cranes in Australia. Herman Buchberger, one of the founders of that company, previously represented Liftlux scissor lifts in Australia, and when Potain bought Liftlux, Buchberger gained exposure to the Potain self-erecting cranes and saw their potential in Australia.

While Lasco opened up a significant market for self-erecting cranes in Australia, it required a significant investment in equipment to take advantage of the opportunities, and Active provided that impetus. The fleet has now built up to 20 self erecting cranes and 20 city-style tower cranes, all operated on dry hire, but growth has not been easy.

Active’s fleet is based around the Potain HD40, with the HD16 used for residential developments up to three floors, and for hillside and waterfront developments. Buchberger believes that this crane does the work of a 30t truck crane, the HD40 does the work of a 50-60t crane, and the smaller city-style tower cranes do the work of larger mobile cranes.

He states that the fleet is showing greater utilisation in 2005 compared with 2004, and attributes this to greater certainty regarding operator qualifications. However as there are around 1,000 self-erecting cranes operating in Munich, which has a similar population to Sydney, he still sees considerable potential for growth.

Cattaneo Australia brought its first self-erecting cranes, a CM60 and CM80, to Australia in 1999, and managing director Antonio Foini says that there are now almost 50 Cattaneo cranes in Australia (Foini also imports the FM Gru city-style tower cranes).

Confused regulatory situation

However, Foini states that a confused regulatory situation has almost halted his sales in the traditional largest market of New South Wales. Despite these problems, some sales of Cattaneo cranes are continuing to be made, with the CM75S4 (36m jib) being the most popular, and units have been delivered right round Australia, with one recently going into Darwin (Northern Territory).

Perth (Western Australia) has emerged as the second most active market for self-erecting cranes, despite being one of the smallest capital cities. D&G Hoist & Crane Hire is unusual in being both a crane hirer and dealer for Potain cranes in its home state (Western Australia) and in the Northern Territory, but the formula seems to work well. The company started by importing two Comedil self-erecting cranes directly, after a trip to Europe to look at scaffolding, but has since sold the Comedils and now has an all-Potain fleet.

This peaked at 10 self-erecting cranes, but is now down to four as the type of work in Perth currently favours city-style tower cranes. D&G has a policy than any idle equipment is available for sale, and this has allowed some local builders to economically obtain their own self-erecting cranes.

Acceptance of self erectors

Managing director Gino de Cesare believes that it was necessary for someone to take the lead before self-erecting cranes took off, but now the Perth market is second only to Sydney in its acceptance of self-erecting cranes. The D&G fleet has the HD40A as the “bread-and-butter” self-erecting crane, with the HDT80 available for buildings to eight storeys, and the MC85 tower crane for buildings in the 15 to 20 storey range. Self-erecting cranes have in the past been mounted on towers to gain extra height, but with the ready availability of city-style tower cranes now, this practice has reduced.

De Cesare sees several obstacles to the wider acceptance of self-erecting cranes in Perth. Among these are the fragmentation of the subcontractor system where builders place crane hire responsibility on the subcontractor; manning issues; the shortage of space on sites; and the popularity of pre-cast construction (and the heavier lifts involved). However, the company also believes that there will be an improvement in the self-erecting crane market when there are more projects of a size that favours their use. To date they have not been seen in regional areas of the state, and their novelty has mitigated against their use on resource projects.

Pindan Constructions is a well-known building construction company based in Perth, and has a fleet of five Comedil self-erecting cranes and two Comedil city-top tower cranes.

The first exposure to self-erecting cranes came on a difficult corner site where a five-storey block of units was to be built on a site with units along both street frontages as well as a block to the rear of the site. This meant that mobile cranes could not be used, and Pindan was struggling for alternatives until a visitor to the site suggested that a Comedil CBR36 self-erecting crane could be used.

Pindan managing director George Allingame and his staff evaluated this crane and decided that it could do the job, but that it would be better to own self-erecting cranes rather than hire them, and bought two new CBR 36s.

A 200t mobile crane lifted the CBR36 into and out of the centre of the block, where it could reach all parts of the construction site. Since that time, Pindan has bought another new CBR 36 and a low hour used CBR 36 and CBR 32, along with two Comedil city-top tower cranes.

The Pindan subcontractors use these cranes for their materials handling requirements, and appreciate the improved site access that they provide. While Pindan prefers to use its self-erecting cranes on projects up to six storeys high, it has built 15m high towers to mount the cranes on, to provide up to 37m under the hook, for handling taller jobs.

The city-top tower cranes tend to be used for jobs where their capacity is needed for the weights involved in table form construction, but would be used on projects beyond the normal reach of self-erecting cranes if available.

With 10 to 12 projects on the go at any one time, Pindan gets full utilisation out of its cranes, and they rarely spend time in the plant yard.

Pindan organises suppliers to deliver steel, bricks and blocks in 1t packages, to suit the capacity of the cranes at full radius. Crane operators earn a tower crane operators ticket, then spend a month with an experienced operator before operating a crane on their own.

Increasing use in regional cities

A trend has been for increasing use of self-erecting cranes in regional cities and mobile crane hirer CIA (Mackay, Queensland) now has three self-erecting cranes in its fleet, with owner Charlie Camilleri saying that this could double over the next year.

Buchberger states: “The uncertainty of the regulatory situation has been a big obstacle to the growth of the market. The first uncertainty has been how to classify self-erecting cranes. They were initially classified as tower cranes, but that classification is for top slewing cranes with the operator in the air, so the self-erecting crane is now being recognised as a separate category requiring its own Australian Standard.”

There has been a long process to develop specific Australian Standards for the design and safe use of self-erecting cranes, with the latter being closest to formalisation.

Buchberger also pointed out operator ticketing as another area of confusion. It is widely recognised that conventional tower crane tickets are not ideal for self-erecting crane operation, and the industry is frustrated that two years of talking about this have had little practical result to date. Some companies such as Active are using European training materials in the interim, and Potain intends to operate a training school at its Sydney branch.

While WorkCover on New South Wales first flagged the need to differentiate training for tower crane and self-erecting crane operators and developed learner, trainer and assessment materials, the Queensland Department of Employment and Training undertook to develop an accredited course for self-erecting tower crane operation to enable delivery through Registered Training Organisations. This course has now received national accreditation.

However, the release of the accredited course has been delayed by the need to tie it to creating a separate licensing class for self-erecting cranes in Queensland, and to general changes in the state flowing from a national agreement to transfer the assessment of competency to perform work in prescribed occupations to the Vocational Education and Training sector.

The draft Queensland regulation for this was released for comment in mid-June 2005. This should clarify the situation for operating self-erecting cranes in Queensland, but the National Occupational Health and Safety Commission is due to revise the licensing standards nationally and is expected to release it for comment this month, and this will be more far-reaching than the Queensland changes to date, so national uniformity of training and licensing will be some time after this, though the training materials when released will be available for use nationally.

Load indicator demand adds costs

A third problem area is the requirement to have load indicators on radio remote controls in New South Wales which, according to Foini, adds almost $25,000 to the cost of a machine, and does not make it economical for a small builder.

He states: “This is not a requirement anywhere else in the world, and the manufacturers are mystified as there are protection systems on the crane to prevent overload.”

Liebherr and Potain suppliers acknowledge this cost level, but supply radio remote controls with the indicators.

The emergence of city-top tower cranes has had a significant effect on the market for self-erecting cranes, and there is almost universal agreement among suppliers that this market is currently more buoyant than for self-erecting cranes.

Esquilant explains: “Compact tower cranes, which today can sit on towers as little as 1.2 sq m, provide a better alternative to self erecting cranes for medium rise developments, and are now being used. A self-erecting crane can require an area 12 to 15m long for erection and dismantling, and this area is not available on many sites.

“The availability of radio remote control on compact top slewing tower cranes has taken away another reason for people using self-erecting cranes in inappropriate applications. This feature is in demand, but some people were not aware that it had become available for conventional style tower cranes as well as self-erecting cranes.”

The city-top tower cranes occupy a very small footprint, and do not require the same space for set-up and dismantling as a self-erecting crane, and they provide a better alternative for medium rise developments.

The availability of radio remote control means that these cranes are similar to operate to a self-erecting crane. Brundell (below) believes that the release of the Igo series machines in Australia will stimulate the market, as it introduces a new generation of technology.