Engineering success

16 September 2022


Examining the development of the tower crane sector illuminates the state of both its current and future health. Stuart Anderson reports.

Twelve years ago, during my first visit to the Comedil plant in Fontannafredda, Northern Italy, I had the pleasure of meeting Franc Jost in the offices of Comedil president Ferruccio Moritsch (1935-2011). I was accompanying Terex Cranes president Fil Filipov and my task was to advise him on Terex’s acquisition of a shareholding in the Italian tower crane company.

Ferruccio, himself a highly-accomplished design engineer and entrepreneur, had recently-established a German subsidiary which would be managed by Hr. Jost, an engineer much-respected by Ferruccio. By that time Comedil, while still relatively small, was already becoming a trailblazer in luffing boom and flat top tower cranes.

By that time the spectre of the rise of Chinese tower cranes was only beginning to raise its head in Europe. With Terex in dynamic growth mode concerns over a future Chinese threat were already on the radar and it was an industry which I already knew well. I had already toured China’s crane manufacturers on several occasions but hadn’t yet seen anything that should worry a company like Comedil.

I found the patriarch Ferruccio Moritsch to be a true gentleman with a fierce passion for his products. Over a period approaching 40 years Ferruccio had guided Comedil to become one of Europe’s most innovative tower crane designers and manufacturers. They had pioneered the 16-tonne capacity 202tm CTL 202 luffer in 1987 and also developed tubular jibs and pin connections for their tower cranes. Most memorably Ferruccio and I clashed over Comedil’s use of a mix of painted and galvanized finishes for Comedil self-erectors towers and jibs. During a heated ‘discussion’ I learnt that his way was the only way. Ferruccio’s admiration for Franc Jost ran deep, in a way that is generally only found between engineers.

During this time Comedil was starting to make waves internationally with its highly-competitive larger-sized flat tops and luffers. It had established a Korean manufacturing licensee and re-entered the self-erector market after a nine-year absence. Under Ferruccio’s guidance, Comedil was always technically adventurous and never far behind major trends.

In 2000 during one of my tours of China, I’d met with my friend, Eric Etchart, who went on to become the president of Potain. Prior to joining Manitowoc, Eric had worked with mobile crane manufacturer PPM, as well as Potain – then part of Legris Industries. Within Manitowoc Eric had already spent several years working in China managing their new tower crane joint venture plant in Zhangjiagang. Potain’s business plan meant competing for market share with China’s numerous tower crane manufacturers. He estimated a price gap of over 30% and a field of ‘over 200’ Chinese tower crane competitors. The only possible winning strategy for Potain was superior quality, leading performance and industry-leading product support.

Zhangjiagang started with a mix of seven hammerhead tower crane models of 40 to 320tm capacity. These cranes were small by European standards but met with domestic Chinese building market demands. It also put them head-to-head with the countless legions of local low-cost competition. Under Eric’s leadership the product line was expanded with new topless and luffing boom models of advanced designs. Eric had already become proficient in speaking Mandarin Chinese – a skill that would prove invaluable in successfully soliciting the support of the local town council in bringing the costly new venture to fruition. The similarly tough challenge of reducing operational costs at Zhangjiagang were addressed with a manpower reduction of almost 50% cutting 300 employees to a level of 325. When Eric came on board, essentially all the hi-tech components including hoists, slew drives, etc were imported from Europe – with the predictable cost penalties tied to product costs, transportation costs and duties. Amongst a slew of challenges were these cost penalties offset against the potential penalties of quality and service problems associated with using Chinese components. While Potain had a strong network of international market dealers there was deep discomfort at the mention of cranes being sourced from China. At the outset it had been decided that the Chinese production line would be distinct from that of Europe.

While the Potain brand was well-established and highly-regarded in China, the concept of paying price premiums was not part of the Chinese culture. Consequently it was clear that the success of the operation depended heavily on winning export orders and selling to those few high-profile domestic buyers that could be persuaded to ‘pay’ for quality and service.

Initially, Jeff Brundell, managing director of the company’s Australian dealership, was amongst Potain’s most reluctant international partners but in relatively short order visits to Zhangjiagang and product demonstrations served to increase confidence. By 2003 some 25 Zhangjiagang-built Potains had been sold in the Sydney area and other markets like Korea had also begun to open to these cranes. Within some five years Potain dealers across Oceania, S.E. Asia and the Middle East were enjoying significant successes with the Chinese product.

Over some 40-years not only did Potain establish an enviable reputation in China for quality and technology, it also established the benchmark for European tower cranes. License and technology-transfer agreements negotiated by Potain, and others, gave the Chinese limited access to their designs – although, predictably, there was widespread copying of these designs. The reputation won for European technology endures to this day and was further reinforced in 2011 when Zoomlion purchased Jost flat head tower crane technology.

In 2014 Zoomlion introduced its first crane employing Jost technology – the 25-tonne 492 tm capacity T8030-250 flat top manufactured in Chengdu and began exports to Singapore, Hong Kong and Europe. In 2017 the highlight of Zoomlion’s ConExpo exhibit was the 25-tonne capacity T8030-25 flat top available with jibs to 80m. Zoomlion announced it had taken nine orders for the new crane from US and Canadian customers. One T8030-25 worked on the Rolex Building in Dallas, USA, while six were put into service on the Imperial Pacific Resort in Saipan, Western Pacific. In the meantime, Zoomlion was developing a tower crane manufacturing facility in Italy with its partner CIFA.

At Bauma China Zoomlion introduced another crane employing Jost technology, the T600-25/32U, and in 2020 the CIFA plant supplied a 12-tonne capacity T 7020-12H flat top to Slovenia’s largest crane rental company.

JOST’S NEW INITIATIVES

With a steady income stream coming from Zoomlion Franc Jost was able to invest his inventive mind in developing another of his ideas for a new type of tower crane. Having established Jost Cranes in 2000, in 2005 Jost had designed and developed a topless hydraulic luffing jib tower crane – the JTL 108. The primary target market for these cranes has been the UK and, principally, London’s congested urban sites. Since then Jost has developed a full line of hydraulic luffers of up to 300tm capacity. Several hundred Josts are working in London where over-sailing of cranes over buildings is unlawful.

Such is the reputation established by Jost that virtually the entire European tower crane industry has smartly followed his hydraulic luffer initiative. Spain’s Jaso soon introduced their own models and were followed in 2012 by Wolff and in 2015 by Saez. From Italy in 2019 came models from Raimondi, FM Gru and Terex, as well as two models from Potain. Most recently Liebherr has entered the game with its 195 HC-LH 6/12.

These hydraulic cranes have many benefits over traditional electric luffers. With smaller winches they normally need approx. 100kw of power versus the 150 or 200kw needed by traditional luffers. A rope luffer needs electric power for both load hoisting and luffing. They are lighter and being without rope pendants are easier to erect and can work closer together. Of course, they offer much smaller out-of-service radii which can be critical in large cities.

There are mixed opinions about just how big a market can be gleaned by these cranes. As visitors to London will have seen these ‘small’ luffers are everywhere. While they have also developed a market in Australia, so far, that’s about it. The majority of the cranes working in London are generally of up to ‘only’ 250tm capacity but their performance benefits are certainly not limited to small size classes. It may take another design ‘tweek’ by Herr Jost but there seems to be significantly broader market potential for these cranes.

JOINT-VENTURES

While Potain may have been the first European tower crane manufacturer to start Chinese manufacturing, its initiative was being closely watched by its European rivals. While Liebherr already had a substantial presence in the Chinese mobile crane and construction machinery markets, wisely it relented from starting tower crane production in the People’s Republic. However, in October 2006 the market was surprised when Spain’s Comansa announced a Chinese manufacturing venture. Initially Comansa had entered the tower cranes business through a 1966 license agreement with Soteco but was really put on the map with its 1983 acquisition of the flat-top tower crane technology of Sweden’s Linden. Although not universally recognised at the time, we now appreciate Linden’ top-less crane configuration was ahead of its time.

Comansa’s initiative in starting Chinese crane production was facilitated courtesy of an arrangement made with the large, diversified Chinese Jinjiang Hangzhou Group whose activities ranged from environmental energy, non-ferrous metals, chemicals and real estate.

The joint-venture seems to have been formed without the parties fully-recognising the full extent and complexities of the venture upon which they had set course. As has been fully demonstrated over the past 15 years joint-ventures with Chinese partners often turn-out to be something of a minefield and certainly demand the most careful navigation and deep pockets. In any event the parties established their manufacturing base in Hangzhou.

To be fair when Comansa and Hangzhou agreed their deal in 2006, it came at a time when Chinese manufacturing businesses were rushing to participated in the booming construction-related industries. Operations in China began with the manufacturing joint venture named Hanzhou Comansa Jie Construction Machinery Co. based in Hangzhou with registered capital of RMB 136 million. The first model was the 18-tonne capacity 21 CJ 290. At Bauma China 2014 the 21 CJ 400 was added with the six-tonne capacity and their first with the Powerlift capacity-boosting feature – the six-tonne capacity 11CJ 132-64.

When the company announced an extension of 38,000m2 to the Hangzhou plant all seemed to be going well. Comansa also continued to roll-out new models as it attempted to cover a greater share of the available market. In March 2015, however, the company announced a restructuring with the name changing to Comansa Construction Machinery (Hangzhou) Co. Ltd. Worryingly, this was triggered by the exit of the powerful Chinese joint-venture partner leaving the Chinese business entirely in Spanish management hands. Indeed, as Andreas Boehm, CEO of Liebherr International – a man well versed in the ways of China – commented at the time “the era of joint-ventures is over”.

By the time that Bauma China 2016 rolled around the domestic Chinese market was headed in the wrong direction. Despite the changes in ownership and management at Comansa CM, however, the new product releases continued. The show saw the unveiling of its first luffing boom model – the CML 190, of 12 and 18t capacity, mounted on a 8m square cross-base with the first unit sold to its Thai dealer Smart (1994). Also unveiled was the CM 1600 flat top available in 10t and 12t versions.

From the outset, it was assumed that the balance of investment/ responsibility within the joint-venture was with Comansa guiding product issues, etc., and with Hangzhou providing manufacturing facilities and staff. However, as many have learned to their cost, leaving responsibility for the product in one partner’s hands can put the other partner at considerable disadvantage. Just how ongoing policies have been reconciled remains to be seen.

To Comansa’s credit they have steadfastly continued to broaden their Chinese product line, even though the financial costs may be proving tough to swallow. At Bauma China 2018 it released a further two luffing boom models – the 18t CML 280 and 18t and 24t CML 310 ¬– as well as upgrading the 21 CM 335 and 21 CM 550 flat tops from 18-tonne to 20-tonne capacity. And, full marks for effort, it has further boosted the capacity of the 21 LC660 and 21 LC750 flat top capacities to up to 50-tonnes capacity.

The past 15 years have seen several costly departures from the Chinese market including Terex Cranes, Kobelco, and many others. At the same time India has become a more popular low-cost base.

Clearly, during the booming market conditions of recent years, the global tower crane industry has exhibited no shortage of innovation. New product development has never before been so frenetic. It’s become much more of a homogenous, technically-integrated market. Virtually all of the players in the top-slewing classes now offer various forms of devices that ‘boost’ capacities by 10%. Ten years ago frequency control was in its relative infancy but is now commonplace. The transition of the mainstream from saddle jib/hammerhead to topless/ flat head has been accomplished with barely a hiccup. Even the more seismic development of the Asian luffing boom market has drawn-in virtually all of the industry’s players and transitioned from being on the fringe to part of mainstream.

At the same time developments in the self-erecting/fast- erecting sectors have been no less extensive. These cranes have grown both much smaller and much larger with considerable increases in reach and speed of operation, erection and dismantling. Quality standards and technology have advanced across the board. Along the way we’ve seen the dimensions/footprints of tower cranes become ever smaller enabling more cranes to operate in ever-tighter and crowded conditions.

At the top-end of the top-slewing sector, the largest and strongest cranes have grown to monstrous sizes that just a few years ago couldn’t be imagined. Leading the upward expansion in the size of cranes, of course, are the Chinese meeting their domestic and global needs for ever taller buildings, massive road and rail bridges, and more powerful manufacturing and energy-generating facilities. In Europe, it has been the ever-growing height and weight of wind turbines that has driven demand for larger-sized tower cranes. At the end of 2014 Liebherr Werke Biberach unveiled its largest crane to-date – the 1000 EC-B 125 Litronic rated 125-tonnes capacity and with 155.5m maximum lifting height.

Meanwhile for over a quarter century, Potain’s largest crane, the MD 2200 has won considerable successes worldwide. With a 130m maximum free-standing height and 64-tonnes maximum capacity MD 2200s have helped build the Three Gorges Hydro-electric project in China, plus performed in heavy shipbuilding and numerous civil engineering projects worldwide. By 2004 the MD 2200 had been upgraded to the MD 3600 and, upon completion of their work on the Three Gorges project, were relocated to the Sutong Bridge project over the Yangtze.

In the spring of 2006 I had the dubious ‘pleasure’ of crossing the great river in a small boat on a very blustery day and clambering onto the concrete base of one of these great cranes, which were now uprated at 160 tonne capacity at 18.7m radius. Of course, in terms of sheer size, these cranes are dwarfed by the latest ‘monsters’ produced in China. 2021 saw Zoomlion introduce the 450-tonne/12000tm capacity W12000-450. Like so many of China’s largest cranes this behemoth goes to work on bridge building.

And while Asia and China especially are booming sooner or later a more ‘sane’ norm must be reached. At the present there seems to be sufficient demand for even the smaller and weaker manufacturers to keep pace with burgeoning demand and breathless new developments. Of course, the longer it lasts and the higher it goes, the further and harsher the fall.

In Europe the leading manufacturers so far have used their experience to maintain a balanced course avoiding overly dramatic expansions of production volume despite the inevitable loss of business due to extended delivery times and inflated costs. With inflation across Europe likely to worsen for at least another year, these pressures are very likely to increase.

As we have recently commented, cost inflation in China is also a factor and under their strict centralised controls there are less in the way of safety-nets. The impact on the Chinese market and industry of the enormous new factories built by Zoomlion and others has yet to be felt. It seems inevitable that as these plants reach optimum production levels, it will further squeeze the hundreds of smaller and weaker Chinese manufacturers.

During the past 15-years the Chinese manufacturers have carved out substantial market positions not only in their own huge home market but also across Asia, the Middle East, and Africa. While, thanks to their well-established networks of top-class dealers, many of Europe’s leading manufacturers have been able to maintain strong positions in the world’s emerging markets, as our recent feature (February 2022) attested there is no doubting as to the market gains made by the Chinese. Fact is that the volume of construction and crane work performed in the emerging markets has grown exponentially. Many of these markets are price-driven with low regulatory standards and various levels of corrupt political regimes.

In Europe, Oceania and North America the threat of the Chinese in our industry seems to have somewhat receded. It can be counted as a blessing that the first ‘challenge’ of the Chinese ‘(2005- 2010) in the crane industry’ was made before their quality had reached an acceptable standard and before they could offer even a halfway decent level of product support. However, there is no doubt that their quality standards have improved, in some cases considerably. It must also be remembered that tower crane markets around the world are driven by different building methods, calling for cranes of varying performance such as capacity, reach and height. As European crane technology has continued to evolve, competing in these markets becomes ever more challenging.

In particular regard to tower cranes, there are other factors to consider. Most significant of these is technology standards and in that respect government so-called ‘red tape’ regulations on safety and the environment. These are often a target for criticism but if we had an open door no doubt things would be much worse.

Second, there’s the very high standard of technological product development set by our manufacturers. In recent years developments in tower crane design have been highly-innovative, in many ways significantly re-shaping the industry. These often add costs and complexity but in addition to enhancing performance, reliability and safety, they act as a barrier to low-quality, low-cost imports.

The expansion in the range of performance offered by ‘self-erectors’ especially over the recent years is also to be warmly-welcomed. In terms of capacity and reach these cranes now often encroach on the ‘turf’ formerly the preserve of small saddle jib/City type tower cranes. It’s a trend that seems inevitable to continue. At some point in the future, hopefully distant future, small cranes of these types may develop a substantial market in China. In fact, small self-erectors are already gaining traction in several emerging markets in SE Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America. Before there can be a significant Asian market for self-erectors, though, entire residential building methods and machinery usage methods would need to radically-change. Until that day comes our European manufacturers can continue to sleep comfortably in their beds without having to worry about the threats offered by these fierce adversaries.

The 25-tonne capacity T8030-25 was a highlight of Zoomlion’s 2017 ConExpo exhibit
Zoomlion’s 450-tonne/ 12000tm capacity W12000-450 has been used for bridge building
Brochure cover for Comedil’s CTL 202 luffer
Crane markets arond the world are driven by different building methods. Credit: Svilen G / Shutterstock.com