The US truck crane and truck mounted crane sectors are tied closely to oil and gas.

While sales managers and customers were showing increased confidence at 2014’s ConExpo, a sharp decline in oil prices has left many facing tougher conditions than expected.

Andrew Rooke, president and COO of Manitex, says, "ConExpo 2014 was a very bullish show. But it hasn’t come through to sales. Several things have happened since then. We had a slow start to that year. Just before ConExpo, things seemed to pick up. ConExpo was probably one of the most well attended and bullish shows people have seen, not just from North America but internationally as well.

"That enthusiasm petered out. We were expecting the second half of 2014 to accelerate, but it did not. It just gradually slipped away. I think where we are since then, back then, oil was still $100 a barrel, now it’s $40."

This has heavily impacted the boom truck market. Tim Worman, business development manager, IMT, says, "With oil and gas, with oil prices where they’re at, there’s a slow down there. We saw it more on the telescopic crane side. Until oil gets back up, that slowdown will still be there."

It’s not just oil extraction that has been hit. Demand for coal is also down, hitting the mining sector. Worman says, "When we look at the mining market, it really hasn’t changed much over the last few years.

When coal mining began to deplete, that’s really where we saw it hit. In the US, coal mining, is still down. Other mining sectors, out West, still seem to be respectable. There’s some new mines that are going to be opened up."

Even though new oil wells aren’t being drilled, the sector still needs some cranes. Tim Davison, product manager at Stellar, says, "Mining is desperately down. Oil and gas is down, but in a lot of areas it is at a state of maintenance. So, we’re getting a little bit of business from these sectors, but its down considerably because they’re not doing the exploration they were three or four years ago. They are buying new equipment, but in lower quantities. They’re still servicing oil wells, they’re still pumping oil, but they’re not drilling for new wells."

One job that still needs doing is perforating wells, opening the well at different heights to the reservoir. Matt Trefz, market manager, cranes, at Altec, explains, "It’s mainly maintaining existing wells, and perforating wells to access different zones of oil and gas. These are considered workover applications, where they are literally out there on the well site, with everything in position."

As oil and gas rose, larger cranes Manitex had recently launched were buoyed. Rooke says, "Traditionally, energy was a very small part of our business. When energy took off, we were lucky we’d spent a bit of time before that developing product for that market. We were able to exploit that.

"Now, that sector is going through a temporary decline (we assume it’s temporary). We’re happy to be in there, but while our exposure had gone up to 50%, now it clearly isn’t at that level."

That’s not to say there’s no market for larger telescopic cranes. Rooke adds, "The higher capacity products we developed for the energy market are very flexible. They can be used in a variety of markets.

That’s the good news. The bad news for us is that customers can move those products from under utilisation in the oil sector, into an industrial or construction sector that is showing good levels of activities, but that means we’re not selling new product."

Changes to emissions regulations have also restricted sales outside of the US, increasing secondhand supply locally. With newer engines requiring ultra low sulphur diesel, not available in markets like Brazil, it’s harder for cranes to leave the market.

Rooke says, "Five years ago, a lot of surplus product was able to go offshore. With recent emissions regulations, that’s not easy to do."

An unclear road ahead
With demand drivers for construction down since the global financial crisis, and staying down with oil prices low, industry and politicians have sought to push demand elsewhere, with a particular focus on renovating the country’s patchy roads and bridges.

The first attempt came with the stimulus programme. That, however, was not all it was meant to be. Stellar’s Davison says, "The government had the stimulus programme, where they said they were going to put money into ‘shovel ready’ projects. Most of the money actually went to non-shovel ready projects.

That’s probably politically motivated, on both sides of the aisle, everyone had their favourite people, that had pet projects they wanted to do." The AEM, organisers of ICUEE and ConExpo, have joined other industry stakeholders to push for investment here, with the aim being a long term reappraisal of how the country’s highways are financed.

That has had partial success. Davison says, "Road construction in the United States has picked up really well. We’re looking for it to grow even more, as the government gets more money into road construction.

"What’s really going to drive construction, is a true highway bill by the federal government, where they put a concerted effort into spending money on roads and bridges. They were working on that earlier this summer, and there’s hope that they’ll get something done."

Enduring utility
One sector that has seen ongoing growth is utilities, and particularly power line construction. This sector has seen conflicting demands from the public, in a way that has increased rural power companies need for bigger cranes.

Altec’s Trefz says, "The population is interested in more reliable, cleaner and more secure power. But there’s not a lot of interest in securing new rights of way for power transmission. Everyone welcomes the reliability [of mains electric power] but no-one wants power lines in their backyard. That creates the desire to get more onto the existing rights of way, and raising the height of power lines allows you to elevate the voltage safely."

Dave Kuhlman, major accounts manager at Terex says, "For the past decade or so, or even longer, rights of way for power grid construction have been changing a lot, and it’s going to require taller towers to accomplish the terrain they need to run those lines through. Rights of way are changing partly because of property rights of owners, and then generally speaking, the higher lines are off the ground equates to a higher degree of safety for everybody involved."

MAP Equipment, based in North Carolina and serving surrounding South Eastern states, is typical of dealers benefitting from this demand.

The company’s Effer knucklebooms have been in demand, marketing manager Allen Pittard says, "We primarily focus on the utility industry, local REA (rural electrification administration) cooperatives, and municipalities.

"Customers are using Effer’s articulating cranes, for anything from handling poles, materials, and transformers, or to install and erect substations.

"They utilise some different attachments on some of these jobs, like pole grabs, and some different rigging and winch lines, for different applications.

"Two of the units at ICUEE, are the Effer 855 model. They’ve got eight hydraulic extensions on the main boom, and six on the jib. It’ll give you a total vertical height of 125ft, its maximum capacity is 33,000lb. The other model here, the 655, has a six extension boom with six extension jib. In it’s best position, it can lift around 25,000lb.

"The big advantage customers are seeing now with the articulated boom over the straight boom, is these units are able to retract back into a smaller area. Even though their weight is heavy, it’s lower than the stick boom, so allows for more payload. And you don’t have the boom over the payload you’re trying to haul. If they’re working on an transmission line, they’ll take out a load of poles, go out and spot them where they need to be, then come back with their digger derricks or their drilling equipment, and set the poles.

"Or if they need to replace one of the big pad mount transformers, which are used to supply power to big shopping strips or hotels, these can weigh 18-20,000lb. So these can go in, pull a bad one out of the way and put a new one in, and they can haul the transformer on the truck with the crane.

"The way the industry’s changed, with transformers getting heavier and larger, their older equipment can’t handle it. So, they have to sell it off or trade it in, to get something a little larger to meet their requirements."

Possibly the largest crane targeting this market is Terex’s 80USt Crossover 8000, which places a powerful upper on a commercial truck, with cross stabilisers. Kuhlman says, "Primarily utility contractors like mobility and roadability. All the equipment you see here is on a commercial truck mounted chassis, no matter what equipment. That’s why we brought this machine here. It’s the largest crane that’s been mounted on a commercial chassis by any manufacturer. We want to make sure these customers understand that there isn’t a limit to what the capabilities are, what can be achieved with good design and engineering, on a commercial chassis.

"It’s the overall capacity of the crane that the utility industry are looking for. The reach is exceptional, it can go 190ft in the air with a very robust chart. When you’re doing high power line construction, when you’re building new towers for the gird, this gives you a lot of capabilities where previously you would have needed a rough terrain crane or even an all terrain."

The need to combine a powerful crane with all the other tools utilities need, such as augurs, grabs and aerial work platforms, has sparked some fierce competition, and contention over what can, and can’t, be considered a crane.

One of the biggest new cranes in this market is Altec’s 40USt AC40- 152. At the flip of a switch (and with proper set up) the crane can. Altec says, comply either with standards for cranes, or tougher standards for aerial work platforms.

Trefz says. "The AC40-152 is the longest model we’ve built. It has 152ft of power boom. It’s also a very unique product in that it has two unique modes of operation.

"It’s a dual-rated product. When you’re hoisting and positioning materials, it has a crane mode of operation. If you want to work aloft, with human beings in a platform, it has an aerial mode of operation. For this class of product, we’re the first manufacturer to make that functionality available.

"You physically configure the machine for personnel lifting. You must also configure the computer to that set up. There are structural factors of safety, hydraulic factors of safety, stability factors, all of these things must be maintained.

This is defined in ANSI 92.2. This product complies with ANSI B30.5 in crane operations and 92.2 when configured for aerial use."

Altec’s confidence in the crane’s ability to comply with both crane and aerial standards is not shared by its rivals. Elliott sales and marketing manager David Phillips says, "A boom truck has a different standard for lifting and stability than an aerial device does."

The crane standards demand that trial lifts are performed any time a crane is set up for lifting personnel. Phillips’ interpretation of this is as clear as Altec’s certainty that its crane can comply with both standards. Phillips says, "OSHA has decided that if you use an aerial device instead of a crane for these jobs, you can avoid the trial lifts.

Unless the machine is originally designed as an aerial device, you’re not excluded from the cranes and derricks regulations for proof tests and trial lifts before lifting personnel. We’ve taken the approach that we’re not going to dual rate machines.

OSHA says that the only way you can have a machine that is dual rated, is if in either mode, it reaches the most stringent of these criteria."

Elliott’s contender for lifting in this market is the tracked boom truck, the 34142. Phillips says, "It’s a 34t boom truck on a tracked vehicle, with a 142ft boom, and a swing out jib that gives it over 200ft of reach. That can be used with a man basket or with a load line for doing lifting and power line construction. It’s on a tracked vehicle carrier, which is a big deal, as it lets it work off road, in swamps or rough terrain. It has heavy duty outriggers with deep penetration stroke, and is going heavily into rental markets for power line construction."

Just as long powerful booms allow electricity companies to more easily place high power lines, these tracked carriers are helping them work in tough ground conditions.

IMT has developed tracked carriers for its knuckleboom cranes. Worman says, "We’re seeing more demand for tracked carriers for articulated cranes. These off road type vehicles are letting contractors get in where they couldn’t before with a truck. So, if they need to get in to put transformers on poles, they can put digger derricks on them, they can put cranes, and get in territories they couldn’t before. This has been on the horizon now for the last four years, but you’re really seeing them get in the market over the last two years.