Rough terrain cranes are a cross between a crawler crane and an all terrain mobile crane. Like crawlers, they are not road-legal (with some exemptions at low speeds in Italy), and so must be carried on a low-loader pulled by a tractor-trailer. But once on a job site, they navigate almost any soft soil conditions, just like crawler cranes, and, to a lesser extent, can pick and carry loads. Unlike crawlers, their hydraulically extending telescopic booms do not require any space to assemble, or significant time to erect. They have also tended to be much smaller than most crawler cranes; but they are getting bigger.

Over the last 20 years, the typical capacity of the most sought-after rough terrains has increased, says Hubert Louque, senior vice president of crane sales at Grove dealer and rental company H&E Equipment. “The most common machine used to be an 18 US ton machine, then it was 30 US tons, now it is probably a 60-tonner.”

There is good demand for large RTs, Louque says, but then demand is everywhere at the moment; most machines sold still tend to be smaller-capacity cranes.

Two RTs with capacities over 90 US tons have launched in the last 14 months, and a total of five have launched in the past five years with capacities over 80 US tons. The new generation of 80 US ton-plus RTs are not the first in this market space. They will never take over from the mainstream, but they have caught the attention of customers.

“The highest growth in the overall RT market is in larger sizes,” says Bill Stramer, Link-Belt’s marketing, sales and customer support vice president. “The market is up, but the big stuff is growing the fastest. We introduced a new 90-tonner last year, and there are other new machines from other manufacturers.”

Stramer says there are several different markets in the gap between an 80 US ton capacity RT and a 120 US ton machine. Link-Belt, for example, launched its 90-tonner to fill a “pretty big” gap between its existing 75 US ton and 100 US ton models. “There is a separate market for the 90-tonner: it doesn’t have as much reach or capacity as our 100 US ton model and is still a big step to the hundred-tonner.” Stramer was coy about the company’s future development plans and whether those plans included a larger-capacity RT. Asked if Link-Belt might launch a larger-capacity model, he paused and replied, “You never know.”

One of the newest launches is the 120 US ton capacity Terex-Waverly RT 1120, launched in August. They have proved popular, according to Luke Lonergan, vice president of Terex dealer Empire Crane in New York state. “The order book is pretty much sold out for 2008. Terex ended up going on allocation, not on truck cranes, but on RTs, because of demand.” Stramer said that Link-Belt is also sold out for 2008.

“The demand, daily and weekly, for 80 US ton capacity and above machines is stronger now than it has ever been,” Lonergan says. Demand is so strong that he is buying older hundred-tonners from Brazil and Uruguay. But Lonergan adds that he has fewer requests for smaller cranes. “We’ve seen a softening in 30 and 35 US ton class machines.”

The big RT market

“Fifteen years ago, a large RT was a rare crane. It was big, tall, and very difficult to move. It was really restricted to mine sites and refineries,” Stramer says. “People are more comfortable now with large RTs. They are being utilised in more applications because of the ease of mobilisation and demobilisation, as well as their on-site performance.”

The new generation of RT has fewer of these limitations, says Stramer, referring specifically to Link-Belt’s 80 US ton capacity RT launched in 2002. “For major rental companies today, the RTC-80100 is a preferential rental tool. It can be transported in two truck loads and provides excellent self-assembly and disassembly. Unlike the old-style large rough terrains, there is no need to remove the tyres, the boom, or winches.”

As Stramer says, this new RT generation has longer booms than before, and re-engineered mobilisation and demobilisation operations that make them faster and easier to move. Most of the RTs offload some equipment, such as counterweight, auxiliary winch and hooks, so the crane can be transported in two loads. Many large models have hydraulically-removable counterweight and removable outrigger boxes, points out Neil Hollingshead, Grove global RT product manager. And with jibs and inserts, these cranes’ tip heights can top 250ft (76m), which is unprecedented for RTs, Lonergan says.

All of the reach, size and lifting power of the largest RTs may have limited their market potential, says the chief financial officer of a US crane rental company, who asked not to be named. “If you look closely at the Grove RT9130E main boom and jib reach [tip height: 225ft], you are in the heavy five-axle AT range. The Grove RT9130E is a lot of crane. But it is not a general-purpose crane. It has great applications, but they are limited. A four-axle AT or a three-axle hundred-tonner is more popular than Grove RT9130Es. If we had the requirement, we could rent it at a high return on investment, but it is not a general purpose machine.”

He said that the company had sent most of its large RTs to Texas for refinery work. “More recently we have been sending them around other jobs. The highest demand is for electric utilities or petro jobs. Other jobs include anything high. Anything an AT has done, that takes more than a month, is probably better with an RT.”

H&E’s Louque agrees: “You can’t put a million-dollar crane on a little job, building a gas station or working in lay-down. We use hydraulic cranes to ferry equipment. We use large RTs where we need capacity or lots of boom. It’s not an ordinary application.” He lists possible applications in refineries (“they keep getting larger and larger, and closer and closer together: the lift radius needed keeps growing”), petrochemical sites, bridge and highway construction, and supporting a crawler crane on a windmill farm.

Bill Stramer at Link-Belt says large RTs can go beyond refinery work: “What we found is that the 100-tonner is not just used in mine sites or refineries, but it has found a place in the broad crane rental market of steel erection, industrial site work, bridge and highway construction, as well as wind generation projects.”

Ton for ton, RTs cost less to purchase than all terrains. But some rental companies are getting the same rate for the RTs as for ATs of similar capacity, making margins more flexible.

“Our RT prices are about 25% less than ATs. Cost is not a driving factor, but we do get much better returns on RTs,” says the rental company CFO.

“These large RTs continue to take business away from ATs,” says Bill Stramer at Link-Belt. At one time, ATs were highly utilised in refineries for reach work. But today, with their low profile and good manoeuvrability that allows them get closer to the required lifts, our RTCs are the preferred choice.”

Mike Rice, founder of new crane rental business Continental Crane, agrees: “RTs are being manufactured with bigger capacities and longer boom and jib combinations. They’re doing the work that truck cranes and small crawlers used to do, without requiring the apparatus of truck and crawler cranes: boom storage, transportation, rig-in times, crew size, etc.”

Not everyone shares this view. All Erection president Michael Liptak says, “I don’t really agree that big RTs are cutting into AT sales. With the trend toward larger lifts, it makes sense that manufacturers are responding to demand.”

Grove’s Neil Hollingshead says that activity in the big RTs is “100% due to market growth,” and not from cannibalisation. “Both product lines have different applications and markets.”

The top end of RT market expansion would seem to be in primarily developed markets. “We considered 100 US ton capacity RTs for construction, but as yet we haven’t made a move in that direction,” says Indonesia-based Bill Grosser, head of the crane division of PEC-Tech Services, which owns eight RTs in a mixed fleet of about 70 cranes, “Here we continue to move to ATs to give off-site capacity. There is such a large area in Indonesia to cover. The poor road conditions and poor infrastructure makes it hard to move RTs on low-beds,” he says.

ATs on big wheels?

This extra lifting power has come at the price of simplicity, which RTs have long been known for.

Increasingly, these RTs are benefitting from AT boom-pinning technology, and so they have to accept the other side-effects. Terex-Waverly’s RT 1120 uses a pinned boom manufactured by Terex-Demag; Terex-Bendini’s RC 60 boom is made by French sister company Terex-PPM. The Grove RT130 also uses a pinned boom. “The upper of an RT and an AT have very similar boom length, although it depends on the size of the AT,” says Louque of H&E Equipment. “Some can put up a lot of boom. But the 9130 is about as long as a 100 US ton–130 US ton AT.”

Louque adds that the pinned boom is flexible: it can lift loads in many different configurations. This complicates the use of the crane, because the user needs to choose the correct load chart.

According to Louque, RTs do not pose extra maintenance problems. “From a reliability point of view, RTs are better today than they have ever been. I can tell you that when they do break down, because of the computer, the guy at the local service station has to stay away; it takes a highly-trained technician to fix them.”

At least one nationwide crane rental company does not hire big RTs without an operator. “I am uncomfortable hiring it bare,” says the anonymous CFO. “It looks like an RT. If you have an operator who gets in it, and has only driven a 50-tonner, you have a high incident potential. It is a very sophisticated big RT. You are in another league there.”

Not everyone agrees. Louque from H&E, which also rents a fleet that includes about 20 large RTs out without operator, says that his customers are able to deal with the big cranes: “We rent to someone who has been around a little,” he says.

Mike Rice of Continental Crane also says that the bare model suits RT rental. His fleet of 30-odd RTs, mostly big, are only hired without operator. “We see more contractors leasing RTs and crawlers and operating the machines themselves in lieu of renting operated and maintained trucks, ATs and crawlers,” he says. Formerly of Coast Crane and Maxim, Rice says he started the business because of the increasing demand for RTs and stringent emissions standards put into place in the state of California.

What is clear is that around the 90 US ton capacity level, RTs start to use complicated electronic control systems. The systems are good because they enable the crane to be able to lift more, but on the other hand those same systems change the way the cranes operate, which can be a shock for operators who are not prepared, says the anonymous CFO. “A lot of guys have operated the 90t Grove in wind, and the computer shuts it off.”

He calls the extra training load that such high-technology cranes create a ‘huge strain’. But he adds: “It’s changed, and we have got to deal with it. The crane manufacturer is no longer going to do all of the training. We need to go to the engine manufacturer to get engine training, and sometimes to the transmission manufacturer too. Our guys are handling it. We need, we all need, to provide more training, and then raise our rates to cover the cost. Too many guys are willing to have shortcuts.”