With a population of more than a billion, the one thing India does not lack is cheap labour. For this reason, the use of tower cranes is remarkably limited for such a massive country. However, from a low level demand for tower cranes has grown rapidly in the past couple of years. At the turn of the century, the market for new tower cranes in India was only about 20 to 30 units a year. In 2004 demand swelled to approximately 60 units and then doubled again in 2005 to 120 units, according to the estimates of the country’s largest manufacturer of tower cranes, Shirke Construction Equipment Ltd.

According to chief executive TR Badarinarayan, Shirke had “about 68% of the market” in 2005.

Shirke was established in Pune in western India in the 1940s as a civil construction contractor, which remains its core business. The company began producing tower cranes under licence to Richier in the early 1970s. “Our chairman Mr BG Shirke is very dynamic and is full of vision. During one of his trips to Europe in the early 70’s he came across Richier cranes and met Mr Richier to have the technology transfer of making tower cranes in India,” says Badarinarayan. After Potain took over Richier in 1982, the licence agreement was continued under Potain.

Today Shirke produces the MC 85A, MC 115B, MC 205, MC 310 K 12 and K16 and the MC 475 series. Drive mechanism and critical electronics and safety components are supplied by Potain.

Badarinarayan says: “What we manufacture is identical to the French-built cranes. That is because we follow cent percent the procedure laid out by Potain and we procure the steel and other items exactly as per the specification of Potain. They check each and every item that we manufacture. Their technical person visits us twice a year to inspect our procedure and also the product.”

The result is a Potain crane that is “at least 20-30% cheaper compared to fully imported cranes”, says Badarinarayan. Shirke also exports crane components back to Potain for onward marketing globally, he adds.

The Shirke Group remains family-owned, and though he is now an old man, Baburao Govindrao Shirke – the man who brought tower crane manufacturing to India – remains a very active chairman. Says Badarinarayan: “He is a great man and the live driving force behind all of us. At the age of 88, he is still young at heart and keeps track of up to date activities of the group. He is happy that his vision has finally come true. That is mechanised method of construction in India by using construction equipment such as tower cranes, batching plants, concrete pumps and transit mixers.” (Shirke also produces concrete batching plants and transit mixers with technical know-how acquired from Elba of Germany.)

The three sons of BG Shirke are all in the family business, with the second one, Vijay, being managing director of the group.

Badarinarayan, a mechanical engineering graduate, has been with the company since 1988. “I started my career with this group as a zonal manager (marketing) then as a general manager. I was promoted to CEO of the manufacturing unit, Shirke Construction Equipment Ltd., in 1996 and since then I’m working as CEO.”

Shirke’s 2005 turnover was in excess of Rs 600 Cr ($125m), of which Rs 70 Cr ($15m) came from tower cranes. Shirke produced close to 70 cranes last year, compared to 30 in 2004 and around 10 to 15 in previous years. It has supplied cranes to construction projects ranging from dams and power stations to the ongoing Bandra Worli Sea Link project, comprising a viaduct and cable stay bridge linking the island city of Mumbai to its western suburbs across the water.

Aside from Potain (through Shirke) the only other European manufacturer making some significant inroads into the Indian market is Terex Comedil, says Badarinarayan.

“Comedil has made some dent in the Indian market by picking about 10 or 12 orders during 2005 and about 8-10 in 2004 largely due to special projects coming under duty free imports. The rest of the market is shared by many others including some Chinese,” he says.

The rise in demand for tower cranes in the past couple of years – what Badarinarayan calls the “sudden growth pattern that is sweeping the country” – has been driven the success of India’s software industries and technology support services. For the first time, it seems, projects have fixed deadlines that need to be met. Modern mechanised materials handling is finally essential.

Badarinarayan expects this growth to continue. He expects Shirke’s tower crane production to pass 150 units in the next couple of years.