Nuts and bolts

18 March 2008

Throughout North America there are reports of shortages of cranes and operators. Manufacturers continue to report backlogs of up to a year, and crane rental and operating companies are doing their best to get the maximum productivity from their feets. Cranes are running full tilt on jobsites ranging from high rises and bridges to wind farms and ethanol plants. And as a result of this unprecedented demand for both new and used units, there is fittingly a high demand for crane parts and components on every level and in every capacity.

Duffy Burgower, spare parts manager for Liebherr Nenzing Crane Co. in Houston, TX, says his company continues to expand its warehouse facilities as the demand for spare parts has increased. He says the company has doubled its investment in parts it stocks in the US and that the service center in Houston has had to expand its parts department twice. The company is assessing the need to build an additional warehouse to better service customers, he says.

Liebherr continually analyzes parts needs to assure it has on hand the parts and components in the highest demand. “We carry a large supply of service items, filters, pumps, motors, electrical components, all the way down to small fittings,” Burgower says.

Spare parts component manufacturers report heavy business as well. York, PA-based Garrod Hydraulics remanufactures hydraulic cylinders for cranes. Brian Hollerbush, sales representative for Garrod, says his company's market is strong because new cranes are hard to come by, stimulating the demand for used cranes. Recently, Garrod has partnered with Manitowoc for the EnCore program, an entity that provides options to crane owners for remanufactured, rebuilt, and repaired parts. Hollerbush says EnCore has been a way for his company to keep up with customer demand and to service the Manitowoc brand.

Link-Belt expanding

Link-Belt Construction Equipment's Director of Customer Support John Toher says the company tracks its business by commodities and it is strong across the board. “I believe that's driven by such a tight crane market; every crane that can work is working,” he says.

For those on the outside looking in, the crane market may be a tough one to crack. Helac Corp., a manufacturer of helical, hydraulic rotary actuator lines, finds the crane market a challenge. “The (crane) market has always been a difficult for Helac to penetrate, except for the light duty crane sub-segment,” says Leslie Morgan, director of marketing. “Much of the crane market has massive loading requirements and thus is using a hydraulic motor to drive a slew bearing. For light duty cranes, such as davit cranes, where the requirement is for the bearing, torque-generation and rotation to be combined in one compact package, then Helac's helical actuators can be an ideal solution.”

Lantec Winch & Gear, of Langley, British Columbia, designs and manufactures hoists that are generally hydraulically driven, but the company provides electric drives. Sales Manager Jeff Lambert reports the market is strong, though much of Lantec's hoist business is targeted to the oil and gas offshore crane market. The company sells its hoists to the used crane market through distribution.

“We sell complete hoists and all of our models are in demand to nearly the same extent, although smaller hoists tend to make up the lion's share of sales,” says Lambert.

To meet demand, manufacturers and suppliers have increased their production lines, several operating three shifts around the clock. Lambert says Lantec has increased its manufacturing capacity three-fold, but says the backlog continues to climb.

Liebherr Nenzing Crane has also moved to working three shifts to supply parts.

Hollerbush of Garrod Hydraulics says that since last September, the EnCore Program has helped combat its backlogs and that the company is “staying on top of it now.”

“We are all at the mercy of our component manufacturers and a tight labor market,” says Link-Belt's Toher, but adds that the company has made moves to help meet market demands. The company just announced a $25 million, 90,000 square foot factory expansion at its Lexington, KY facility.

Huntsville, TX based Universal Cranes sells parts for Liebherr, Terex Demag and Grove cranes. Andreas Hoffzimmer, president of Universal Cranes, says the manufacturers tell him that there are only backlogs on certain parts. He believes the manufacturers can't do much more than they already have to increase production to reduce the backlog; the industry just needs to wait it out.

Right now, he says electronic parts and components are in high demand. He said that high tensile structural steel can be up to a 30-day wait because the steel comes from Europe. When asked what his company is doing to deal with strong parts demand, Hoffzimmer is fairly tight lipped but says Universal Cranes has a relationship with five European companies that help supply parts that are delivered quickly. Tires are also reported to be low in stock.

Since it can take up to a year to get a new crane, crane owners have been fixing up older units and putting them out to work. Hoffzimmer says keeping older models running is a challenge, but a necessary effort in the marketplace.

“The demand to keep your crane running now is greater than it's ever been,” says Mark Krajci, president and owner of Mobile Crane Services, in Bethlehem, PA. “You can't get a new crane fast enough [right now] and you try to keep your old crane going but meanwhile it's breaking down more often.”

Older machines are taxing the service and parts departments of all companies, he says.

Technicians needed

With cranes and operators in short supply, it is fitting to note that crane technicians are also in demand. Krajci says there is a need for more technicians, but he doesn't believe that the industry has taken action on hiring and training more experienced techs. The crane industry is far short on the pool of competent technicians that know how to provide crane maintenance, service and repair. “It's such a big problem in terms of training somebody,” he says. “Everyone seems to be trying to make-do with that end of it,” he says.

Burgower says a shortage in trained technicians also affects new cranes. “With more machines, we need more technicians,” he says. In some cases, technicians are coming to the US from Europe.

Hoffzimmer says the shortage of parts doesn't have a correlation with more service techs, but he does believe there is a lack of them.

Additionally, Hoffzimmer says counterfeit parts have become a problem, especially for the large crawler cranes. He says from what he can tell, some companies are using original parts as a prototype and trying to duplicate them. The problem is that most of those products are produced by those who do not have the skills or knowledge to build a structurally engineered part. While re-manufactured parts are a mainstay in the US market, the advent of shoddy counterfeit parts could be a huge liability for manufacturers. In Europe and Asia, counterfeit parts are a continual concern.

Krajci is aware of the counterfeit market, but he doesn't believe it's a huge problem because he says most parts are specific to the manufacturer. “You can't take a boom section from a Liebherr and put in with a Grove – that wouldn't work,” he says. However, both Hollerbush and Burgower do not think non-OEM supplied parts will emerge as a problem.

“Certainly crane manufacturers have their share of non-OEM competitors, but I don't think it's as big as a problem in the crane market as other equipment segments, and the reason is volume,” says Toher.

It's interesting to know what other options crane owning companies have if the OEMs can't supply the parts. Although the consensus claims, for the most part, that counterfeit components and parts are not yet an issue, what are the other options? Hollerbush believes that whatever it takes, companies will do what they have to do to keep the crane running.

“Depending on the part and age of machine, there are a lot of used parts available,” says Hoffzimmer, who adds dealers should be able to find parts for customers without sacrificing quality and safety.


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