When New Zealand-born businessman Albert Smith bought Universal Contracting, a crane company based in Brisbane (Queensland, Australia), one of the attractions was the way in which it used crawler cranes.

Smith had a background in contracting, and was more used to crawler cranes being employed on long-term projects, but he saw Universal Contracting use crawler cranes for short-term tilt-up panel work, where sometimes the crane may only be on site for a day or two. The secret was well-trained staff who could ready cranes for transport or work in less time than official factory estimates.

Smith bought Universal Contracting almost two years ago, renaming it Universal Cranes, and has since invested a considerable amount of money in purchasing larger premises with improved access to major roads, expanding the crane fleet, and purchasing a transport fleet.

After examining the operations of the company, Smith came to the conclusion that the biggest single impediment to being able to meet customer expectations of when work would be performed was the availability of transport (at that time local transport companies moved the cranes, and a suitable low loader was not always available when it was needed to move a crane).

This produced a chain reaction, so that the schedule of subsequent customers was also delayed, and this was unacceptable to Smith. He commissioned a six-row steerable machinery trailer in New Zealand, and had it shipped to Australia (this course was taken for availability and price reasons).

However, this was just part of the total picture, as cranes invariably travel with one or more trailers carrying boom sections and counterweight. Again the service to the client was limited by the availability of support trucks, and Universal bought prime movers and extendable trailers to support the cranes. As this application did not involve great distances and continuous operation, the company was comfortable in choosing used vehicles.

However, there was a twist to this, as Smith asked his riggers to gain a truck licence so that they could drive the support vehicles. He reasoned that wages were a higher cost than the amortised costs of the capital investment in the trucks, and it made more sense on short-term jobs for the trucks to stand idle on site while their drivers worked as riggers than to have the trucks driven to and from the depot with a driver but without a load.

The cranes most often moved are a 70t IHI CCH700 and a 100t Kobelco BM900HD. These cranes are designed for quick erection and dismantling, do not require their tracks to be removed for transport, and require at most two support vehicles.

In the past, crawler cranes have rarely been considered for short-term lifts, even when they may be best suited to the lift, because of perceptions about the time taken to set them up and pull them down, and the costs associated with this. However, Universal Cranes, through a combination of control over transport and well-drilled crane crews, has shown the market that these cranes can be competitive with large all terrain cranes in terms of time taken and mobilisation costs. This allows them to be considered on their merits as a crane.

The preferred routine when a crane is to be relocated is that the boom and counterweight are removed at the end of a day’s work, loaded on trucks and returned to base, while the bare crane remains on site, ready for loading. This can take between an hour and an hour-and-a-half at the end of the day, depending on site conditions.

Depending on the distance between sites, the transporter will arrive at site to load the bare crane at around 4am, and then drive straight to the new site, so that it arrives there at around 6am, where it will meet the trucks loaded with boom and counterweight, and a Franna pick-and-carry crane. The Franna is used for handling the boom, counterweight, spreader and toolbox. The crane will then be rigged and ready to work between 7.00am and 7.30am.

On average one of the two tilt-up panel cranes is moved every day, but as there is also a quad axle float in the fleet, it is possible to handle two moves simultaneously.

Universal has ordered the first Manitowoc 12000 crawler crane to come to Australia, and this was scheduled to arrive in mid-October. The crane is the result of Manitowoc input into the Kobelco BM900 design, and is built in Japan. Compared with the BM900, the Manitowoc 12000 has longer, wider tracks; a higher (110t) capacity; self-erection capabilities with the counterweight; and a vertical counterweight such that when the counterweight is removed, the tail swing is reduced. It is of similar weight to the BM900, and can travel without having to remove the tracks.

Smith is looking forward to having a third tilt-up panel crane available, as this market is quite buoyant, and the 12000 offers an increase in capacity over existing cranes, without a penalty in transport costs and rigging times (it may be slightly faster, depending on whether or not it is faster to load the counterweight with a Franna or with the crane’s own jib).