Over 50 years Japanese cranes and equipment have steadily achieved a quality reputation alternately envied and admired around the world. It’s a reputation that has propelled Japan to becoming the world’s leading exporter of mobile telescopic and lattice boom cranes, exceeding the exports of similar types of crane made in the US and Europe. Yes, the Chinese came with their low prices but their thrust has, predictably, now faded.

Maintaining market leadership around the world imposes complex and sometimes conflicting demands on the manufacturers. Demand for cranes in all their various types and sizes is far from rational around the world. A range of cranes that suits European demand is by no means identical to that suited to North America or indeed japan.

Road regulations remain a big differentiator but local customer preferences and practices as well as construction methods and environmental conditions also impose major changes in crane specifications. No crane maker can economically manufacture products that perfectly suit the needs of customers in every country and application around the world and consequently crane designers must make compromises in planning their product line-ups, while doing everything possible to rationalise their production output for the highest levels of cost-efficiency and flexibility.

For many years now in several mainstream sectors, the Japanese have proven the most flexible and market-driven of all the world’s crane makers but it seems that as soon as one challenge is overcome, another arises. In former years, crane manufacturers sought to meet variable international demand by establishing local-manufacturing bases but long term most such ventures proved commercially unviable. The most recent examples of such adventures involved many manufacturers establishing factories in Brazil and China—and in a few short years closing them amidst deep losses.

It’s worth looking at a few examples of the differences in crane demand that particularly influence the Japanese crane makers.

While rough terrain cranes remain the most popular type of mobile crane in both Japan and North America, the crane specifications are dramatically different. In Japan these cranes are legally-roadable and feature more-sophisticated drive trains and suspensions while not offering pick-and-carry lifting. Mini cranes of 10t–16t capacity are a major factor, due to the congested nature of Japan’s cities. This means that Japanese manufacturers must produce different models for domestic versus international sale.

Because Japan’s rough terrains of 10t–80t capacity are legally roadable, there is only very minimal demand for all terrains of under 100t capacity— while in Europe all terrains of 40t–100t capacity are the mainstream of the market. This means that all smaller-sized all terrains sold in Japan, including Tadanos, are made in Germany, not Japan.

Mainstream Japanese demand for lattice crawler cranes revolves around cranes of 90t–200t capacity with very limited demand for larger cranes popular in North America and Europe. Larger-sized Japanese crawler cranes do not have the ‘comfort’ of a large domestic market demand.

When, some ten-years ago, Japanese road authorities finally began to ban the highway-roading of larger-sized two-axle rough terrain cranes in the 50t–70t classes, it was a watershed moment for crane manufacturers and users. The solution, adopted in very similar but independent fashion by Tadano, Kato and Kobelco, was a design that is the very antithesis of the conventional rough terrain crane.

The replacement now had four axles instead of two, had single highway tyres instead of hi-flotation tyres and a chassis fully 2m longer than previously, with the crane operator seated approximately 6m from the front bumper. In most markets this concept would have been dismissed out-of-hand by customers—but in Japan it has now become the new norm. The problem is that while Japanese users have accepted the new concept, international customers view it as ‘weird’.

As a consequence of the distinct nature of Japanese domestic Rough terrain crane demand, indigenous manufacturers have to produce both domestic-style and conventional export models of rough terrains.

That’s a cost and challenge that few European or American manufacturers would have easily taken on.

Indeed, the vagaries of the Japanese domestic market that once acted as an invisible trade barrier for importers, today, rather perversely, sometimes represent challenges for domestic makers and afford opportunities for importers.

For example, because European market demand for small three and four-axle all terrains is so strong, and Japanese domestic demand relatively weak, imports of 60t–100t Liebherr, Tadano (Faun) and Demag all terrains dominate domestic Japanese demand for these classes of crane.

Good times in terms of market demand and financial results encourage manufacturers to broaden their horizons—developing models somewhat beyond their normal comfort zone. But it’s not just ‘good times’—as leading manufacturers glance sideways at the activities of their adversaries, possibly recognising declining shares of demand for particular market segments. Such is the case for large crawler cranes. 20 years ago, Japan was a major manufacturer of relatively large crawler cranes but as the capacity of crawler cranes increased to 600t and larger, the Japanese manufacturers chose not to participate, seeing minimal domestic demand.

That left the market open for the likes of Demag, Liebherr and Manitowoc. No one forecast the bonanza in demand for these large cranes driven by wind turbine farm development, but it is a sector where large Japanese cranes are noticeable for their absence. While Kobelco recently released its new 1,600t-capacity SL 16000 with some ten units sold to date, recognition of a need to address the super-size crawler sector was reflected in 2016 when Kobelco establishing a design liaison operation in Frankfurt.

There are categories of crane in which the Japanese do not participate. Demand for knuckle boom loaders in Japan is generally limited to forestry and recycling applications since small telescopic truck loaders are favoured for hook work. While the likes of Hiab and Palfinger have been able to develop Japanese demand in grabbing applications, the Japanese dominate growing demand for small telescopic truck-loaders. That market has enjoyed strong and growing demand in recent years, exceeding 30,000 units per year. Here Furukawa- Unic and more recently Tadano have established supplementary manufacturing operations in Thailand. An increasingly valuable by-product of these truck-mounted telescopics is the mini crawler crane sector, led by Maeda and Furukawa- Unic. Demand for these cranes, both in their ‘spider’ or ‘crab’ formats or based on mini-excavator bases, continues to grow worldwide.

Due to earthquake regulations, Japanese tower cranes are built to a heavy structural standard that makes them commercially unviable elsewhere. Due primarily to the nature of domestic residential construction, tele handlers have failed to develop a Japanese market.

Against the odds

Total domestic construction spending peaked at ¥80–85trn in the earlyto- mid 1990s, with government investment taking around 35% and private the remaining 65%. There followed approximately 15 years of steady, steep decline in construction investment, which by 2010 had bottomed at around 50% of earlier peak levels before enjoying a modest recovery to the ¥50–52trn level in the wake of the Fukushima nuclear disaster and tsunami. Domestic Japanese demand for mobile telescopic cranes mirrors these investment trends. A staggering total of almost 7,000 mobile telescopic boom cranes were sold in Japan in 1990 before declining by around 50% by 1995 and then entering a long-term slide down to between 1,000 and 1,800 over the 15 years to 2010 before strengthening to over 2,500 by 2015—again due to the massive clean-up and reconstruction efforts driven by the Great Tohoku Earthquake and Tsunami.

Somewhat remarkably, against this backdrop, Japan’s crane makers have steadily increased their global market share. For while domestic crane demand has generally stagnated, Japan’s crane makers have steadily increased their exports and global market share.

How did they do this? One word— quality. That is not too simplistic a statement—for any realistic assessment of the other elements in a crane maker’s ‘armoury’—that is, distribution, market presence, pricing, product support, sales and marketing, and so forth—would not put the Japanese at the top of the tree. It is quality that results in reliability—the most valued attribute a crane can have and that which more than anything else results in profitability and repeat business for the owner.

2015 was a peak year for global sales of Japanese mobile cranes but 2016 witnessed the first decline in six years. Total domestic sales of mobile cranes declined by approximately 12% but the decline in global sales was even more severe. Japanese government investment in domestic construction is expected to have declined in 2017 and while private investment is expected to have remained largely flat, total construction spending is thought to have declined by approximately 4%.

In this climate 2017 was a very challenging year for telescopic mobile crane manufacturers. Domestic demand is expected to have declined year-on-year by around 20% with Japanese overseas sales declining by a similar amount. Domestic sales of crawler cranes were brighter as were those of truck-loader cranes, which increased by 5–6%.

Looking forward, while there are signs of recovering demand in the major export markets of North America, there is less certainty elsewhere. Domestically, the Japanese industry continues to face a crane operator shortage but there is a more general feeling of increasing confidence in the short-to-medium term.

Given political and economic uncertainties that never seem to go away, manufacturers have always proven reluctant to become overly dependent on exports. Even the apparent ‘stability’ of the EU as a market block is now much less predictable. But the likes of Tadano, Kobelco and Hitachi-Sumitomo have patiently built leading market shares in North America while both Kobelco and Tadano have built significant European market positions.


Ask most owners and operators for their impressions of the major attributes of Japanese cranes and first and foremost you are likely to hear is ‘attention to detail’. It’s almost 30 years since the Japanese manufacturers introduced asymmetrical outrigger configurations that have recently become a more mainstream feature of European and American cranes.

Graphic load moment indicator displays were developed in Japan many years before they emerged elsewhere, and precision control features have long been most admired on Japanese cranes. One sector sometimes overlooked for its innovation is the mini crawler crane sector led by Maeda and also fiercely contested by Furukawa-Unic.

In considering the crane manufacturing industry, it must also be recognised that, like the rest of the world, over the years the Japanese have become ever more internationally comfortable and knowledgeable. While the role of the large trading companies (sogo shosha) remains a major factor in the minerals and raw materials extraction industries, their once-pivotal role in opening overseas markets for capital goods manufacturers has faded as the manufacturers have gained first-hand international market knowledge.

All the major manufacturers have well-established operations in the major markets including tie-ups with local companies—Hitachi- Sumitomo owning Link-Belt in the US and Kobelco enjoying a long-term OEM supply agreement with Manitowoc—while Tadano has manufacturing operations in the US—Tadano-Mantis crawler cranes— and Germany, with all terrain cranes.

Both Tadano and Furukawa-Unic have local truck-loader manufacturing operations in Thailand. While most senior management positions are still held by Japanese-natives, most of the leading manufacturers employ senior foreign managers.

If ‘quality’ is the first word to describe Japanese products, ‘conservative’ has long described the management of Japanese capital goods manufacturers. In the distant past the Japanese were sometimes criticised for ‘copying’ but the past decade has seen the Chinese aggressively seek to take on that mantle. In contrast, the confidence that comes with experience and success has encouraged Japanese manufacturers to lead in innovation— not just in detail specifications but in category leaps. A stark example was the 2013 introduction of the world’s largest rough terrain crane—the 145t/160USt Tadano GR-1450EX/GR 1600XL-2—which has proven a significant success. It’s also testimony to how much the landscape has evolved that none of the traditional US rough terrain crane leaders have thus far responded to this initiative.

Indeed, Tadano has made great strides in attacking the upper end of the rough terrain market in recent years. Two years ago, the manufacturer celebrated the shipment of the 1,000th 100USt/80t GR-1000XL/GR 800EX rough terrain since its 2011 launch.

At last year’s ConExpo the company consolidated its leadership claims with the release of the 120USt GR-1200XL—called the 110t GR- 1100EX elsewhere.

On the telecrawler front, it’s been a patient wait for supporters of the Mantis crane business based in Franklin, TN, that Tadano purchased in late 2008. However, the fruits of that acquisition are now being seen—fi rst with the launch of the 120t (130USt) GTC-1200 at Bauma 2016, followed at last year’s ConExpo with the new 60 and 80t (66 and 88USt) GTC-600 and GTC-800, and most recently with the new 35t (35USt) GTC-350. All feature folded oval booms manufactured in Japan and the exclusive Optiwidth infi nite-symetrical or asymetrical track extension system.

The growing popularity of telecrawlers was also refl ected by the 2017 release of the new Hitachi- Sumitomo 650TLX, rated 65t at 3m radius. This is the manufacturer’s largest telecrawler to-date but, like other Japanese telecrawlers, this new model is fi rmly targeted at the domestic foundation market, as opposed to pure lifting applications.

The good-looking new 65t crane features a short 30.1m four-section boom of hexagonal cross section.

On the lattice crawler crane front, quite remarkably, Kobelco has dominated worldwide demand for 250t crawler cranes for approximately 15 years. Quality and reliability epitomise the Kobelco 250t cranes. Now, in a move that the manufacturer has spent years planning, a new 300t–350t model is about to emerge. This is no small enhancement. For, during the past ten years, the 300t Liebherr LR 1300 has established itself as the clear worldwide market leader.

The new Kobelco CKE 3000G sets the benchmark very high. Rated 300t at 5.5m radius the standard crane is equipped with maximum 160t upper and 40t carbody counterweight. Maximum main boom length is 90m, standard fi xed jib system is 30.5m on a 78m boom and maximum 66m luffer mounts on a 60m main boom.

Main winches use 28mm wire rope with a third boom-mounted winch and boom hoist using 26mm rope.

Transport weight for the base machine minus winches, mast, tracks and counterweight but with counterweight handling device is 41,475kgs.

Counterweight slabs are mainly 10t pieces and boom sections are 3m wide. Kobelco owners will be delighted to learn that the new crane has the same cab, controls, LMI and fi xed fl y jib as the popular 250t crane.

The biggest surprise in the spec of the Japanese crane is its use of a Scania DC 13 084A 331kW 6-cylinder diesel rather than the predictable Cummins or Mercedes— quite a coup for the Swedish manufacturer. In an exclusive presentation of the new crane to Cranes Today during the recent CICA Convention, Ryusuke (Bruce) Yanagido, marketing manager, large crawler cranes explained that Scania had responded with fl exibility and positivity to Kobelco’s engineering needs whereas other engine makers had responded with a ‘take it or leave it’ attitude.

Testing of the prototype CKE3000G began fully two years ago. Due to space constraints, testing wasn’t conducted at the Okubo main crane plant. Due for release in the Spring is the SHL version of the crane rated 350t at 8m radius with 140t on the crane and 40t carbody counterweight plus 160t on a pallet suspended from a 30m derrick mast at only 13m radius. Clearly this SHL version with its 350t rating is expected to make a signifi cant market impact.

Meanwhile domestic demand for crawler cranes has remained strong, driven in part by stadium and infrastructure work related to the forthcoming Tokyo Olympics. Hitachi-Sumitomo saw its fi scal 2017 domestic sales increase 17% to ¥32,978m ($295m), a welcome counterbalance to an otherwise sluggish global market.

This followed Sumitomo’s increased ownership share in the business from 50% to 66% in March 2017, with the crane business becoming a consolidated subsidiary of Sumitomo Heavy Industries Co. It has now been announced by Shogo Yokoyama, president of the crane business, that effective April 1st 2018, the company will be renamed Sumitomo Heavy Industries Construction Crane Co. Ltd., and that products will be branded ‘HSC Crane’.

On the design front, the HSC SCX 3500-3 was awarded the highly prestigious Best Design Award at the 47th Machinery Awards of the Ministry of Economy, Trade & Industry. The 350t crane has already made signifi cant inroads in the European market and is notable for its innovative short tail swing mast option that allows the swing of the mast to match that of the counterweight for easier set-up and operation in congested sites. Although rated 350t at 5m radius, in most respects the HSC is smaller than the new Kobelco CKE3000G.

One critical decision made by HSC engineers was to adopt a main boom section of 2.5m transport width with the benefi ts of transportability in several major markets. Maximum combination is 60m + 60m luffer and the crane upper has the added benefits of 3m transport width and a tilting operator’s cab. Power is provided by a 272kW (379hp) Cummins QSL9 turbo-diesel and for minimal transport weight, the upper frame can be split in two.

Most recently Sumitomo has released the SCX 800E—latest in its ‘E’ Series of smaller-sized crawlers that includes the SCX 550E and SCX 700E manufactured in China. The SCX 800E is rated 80t at 3.2m radius and powered by an Isuzu 140kW (190hp) diesel. It’s available with main booms of up to 54.5m maximum length and with standard free-fall load winches. The base crane has a transport weight of 42.6t inclusive of two load hoist winches, tracks and boom butt but minimum transport width is 3.5m. One additional safety feature that the manufacturer expects will help reduce accidents, is a lock standard on the boom hoist drums which automatically locks and releases the drum depending on operations. A large operator’s cab of 1.04m width that is fully air-conditioned is standard.

International focus

For many crane users in Europe, the re-emergence of Kato is another most welcome development. It’s some 14 years since Kato withdrew from the market when installing the latest generation of EU-conforming diesels didn’t seem to be a viable proposition. The introduction of Kato’s latest generation of City Cranes of 13t, 20t and 35t capacity has proven successful and as Kato executive officer and general manager Hiroshi Ide told Cranes Today, expanding the manufacturer’s European market position is now a top priority.

The other major challenge at Kato’s door revolves around its acquisition of the IHI Construction Machinery and crane manufacturing business—now renamed Kato-HICOM. Ide explained that over the next two years Kato will focus on the consolidation of production of the former IHI lattice and tele boom crawler cranes, hydraulic excavators, and so on, to the Kato plants in Ota, Gunma province and Goka, Ibaraki province.

The acquisition of IHI by Kato raised questions as to the future of Terex’s very successful crawler crane OEM supply agreement with IHI. Following discussions between Terex Cranes president Steve Filipov and Kato, agreement was quickly reached to continue that supply contract. Filipov also confirmed to Cranes Today that the arrangement under which IHI sold and serviced Terex-Demag all terrain and crawler cranes in Japan has now been terminated and that in future Terex plans to sell and service these cranes direct to Japanese customers.

Another segment whose demise has been endlessly forecast over the past 30 years is the truck crane. Ten years ago when the Chinese crane market and industry emerged, Tadano, Manitowoc, Terex and others saw what appeared to be a huge opportunity.

While a couple of thousand truck cranes emerged from the Chinese plants of these companies it was at a very high price and now all of their Chinese manufacturing operations have essentially been disposed of.

And while Japanese domestic truck crane demand is all but extinct, the Chinese did reveal an ongoing demand for truck cranes in Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. But what the Japanese manufacturers heard was that customers wanted truck cranes of Japanese quality.

In late 2016, Kato opened a massive new plant in Thailand, primarily to build truck cranes, with the first model, the 60t 4-axle NK 600RX now available. Not to be left out in the cold, Tadano has introduced the Japan-produced new GT-300EL, GT-600EL and GT-750EL of 30t, 60t and 75t capacity.

In Europe, the Japanese manufacturers face severe indigenous competition—particularly in the all terrain and crawler crane segments and the competition comes not just in the form of crane products but also the infrastructure behind the product.

Obviously it’s difficult for Japanese companies to match the local support facilities of European manufacturers but while it’s a long journey, Tadano has gone further than any other Japanese manufacturer in building a European base. This started back in 1990 with the acquisition of the Faun crane and vehicle manufacturing operation in Lauf and has been regularly enhanced with significant investments and expansions.

Most recently Tadano has focused on investing in its local market representation, starting with the acquisition of its well-established British/Irish and French distributors in 2014 and 2016 respectively and continuing in January of this year with the acquisition of its distributors in Belgium and the Netherlands. Bringing manufacturers closer to their markets must be a good thing and most certainly, Tadano’s presence in the UK market has increased as a result.

Combined with its direct sales and service operations in Germany and Austria this now means that well over 50% of Tadano’s European sales and service is directly controlled. Adding further to Tadano’s European market infrastructure is the crane repair and refurbishment operations now offered from its factory in Lauf, Germany.