Unfolding potential

01 May 2008

An Effer 120-2S and a hydraulic grab that handles and positions electric light poles

An Effer 120-2S and a hydraulic grab that handles and positions electric light poles

Any truck delivering building materials to a construction site in Europe will very likely be fitted with a knuckle–boom loader crane, folded away either behind the cab or at the back end. This highly versatile piece of equipment is used to load and unload the truck and is increasingly used to deliver material not just to the site gate but to the very place the material is needed. For example, with larger knuckle–boom cranes easily managing to lift 6,000 pounds or more to heights and radii beyond 50 feet, a pallet of bricks or roofng tiles can be delivered right into, or on top of, a three or four storey building–thanks to the geometry of these cranes. And using remote controls, the operator can act as his or her own signal person and rigger as well.

The latest models are actually “double jointed” and can bend a few degrees back on themselves. This is a handy development for placing loads through an opening, such as a window or doorway, where the second section of the boom can be raised ‘backwards’, by up to about 15 degrees, in relation to the first section.

Typically, however, the US industry does not rely on its trucks to unload themselves.

It prefers to use a second vehicle to load and unload its trucks–perhaps a small picker, or more often a telehandler, or a forklift often carried on the back of the truck, folded away and mounted on the rear like the Mofet Mounty.

Nor do many US utilities contractors use knuckle boom cranes fitted with a grab for excavating and filling trenches, as is common practice in Europe, where the spoil is simply loaded onto the truck (or the all of oaded).

Partly, the US reluctance to embrace the virtues of knuckle–boom articulating cranes can be attributed to the lack of logistical constraints. In Europe the streets are typically narrower than in the US, work sites tend to be more crowded and there is more benefit to be derived from compact machinery that can self–load and –unload. On US sites there is more likely to be room for a straight boom crane to strut its study.

However, this rational explanation only goes part of the way to explain why the US market for knuckle–boom cranes is smaller than in Europe, per head of population. The population of the UK, for example, is in the region of 60 million and its knuckle boom loader crane market is in the region of 3,000 units a year. Italy has a population of 58 million and a knuckle boom market in the region of 8,000 units a year. The US has a population five times bigger than either of these countries, yet its knuckle boom crane market is on a par with the UK's.

On the council

The seven members of the Articulating Crane Council of North America (ACCNA), set up in 1992 as part of the National Truck Equipment Association (NTEA), collectively sold a little over 2,000 cranes last year, excluding wallboard models. Members of ACCNA are:

Cargotec (Hiab)

Fascan International (Fassi)

Fischer Crane (Amco Veba)

Iowa Mold Tooling

National Crane

North American Lifting Equipment (Effer)

Palfinger North America.

A reasonable estimate of the number of cranes sold by producers outside of this organization might be in the region of 500 units, given that Autogru PM of Italy sold about 150 units in the US last year, according to regional manager Giovanni Tacconi, and Atlas Terex sold something over 200 units in the US and Canada combined (the market in Canada is generally more developed than in the US). We might accurately estimate, therefore, that the total US market for knuckle boom cranes, excluding the special application wallboard cranes, is a little over 2,500 units.

To these numbers one should add approximately 1,000 wallboard cranes. Th ese cranes, a distinctly American product not generally seen in Europe, generally have a much longer first boom section than the stow–away truck loader cranes, and the crane lies along the length of the truck deck. As their name suggests they are produced specifically for handling wallboard.

Th ese numbers have increased only relatively modestly over the years, but there is always optimism among manufacturers of articulating cranes that 'the European way’ will catch on more in the US.

“The American market for articulated cranes has been developing over the last 10 years with a low average growing rate,” says PM's Tacconi, “but in the last three years we have registered a high increase in customers asking for a knuckle boom crane. The USA market of articulated loader cranes is still growing.”

“Growth is in the air,” says Ron de Vries, sales director of Germany–based Terex–Atlas. “We have plans to expand, utilizing our Terex outlets.”

As to why the market is not bigger already, he says: “American customers are conservative and have been working with other of oading devices. For the more ‘installation cranes’ they still use the stif booms and for the ‘delivery trucks’ they have attached to the truck mounted forklift and for the remainder they have not been ‘forced’ to provide this extra service of of oading the truck on the jobsite and lean on local help, like forklifts and telescopic handlers.”

Giancarlo Manzano, marketing manager at Italian producer Efer, adds: “Another issue is the higher cost of articulating compared to straight boom cranes and the fact that, except for a few very specific cases, usually the space on work sites is large enough to allow the use of straight boom cranes, whereas in the typical narrow lanes of European cities, a knuckle boom crane is often a must. Also the manpower cost (lower than in Europe in some US areas) can be seen as a reason for the relatively smaller market size.”

The region where knuckle boom cranes are most likely to be seen is the east, and particularly the northeast. Manzano says that more than 75% of sales are east of the Mississippi River because of “greater population density, better dealer networks, and more knowledgeable customers.” De Vries says it is because of the way houses are built in the east since this is where most of the wallboard cranes are used.

While most of the knuckle booms on the market in the US are made in Europe, National Crane began a push into articulating cranes in the late 1980s and by the mid–1990s had a family of knuckle booms alongside its more familiar boom trucks. While National takes perhaps as much as a fifth of the US market, recent years have seen it focus more of its promotional effort on boom trucks, leaving it more to the European producers and their US representatives to push the concept and take the lead in product development.

Room to grow

On the whole, although Palfinger and Hiab are well resourced companies, the European producers generally have lacked the marketing muscle and distribution networks to make a real impact in the US. With National playing it low key in this sector at the moment, the knuckle boom industry might look to Terex to take the lead in developing the market. Terex–Atlas sold little more than 200 units last year in the US and Canada combined (the market in Canada is generally more developed than in the US). With a little push, De Vries sees plenty of scope for this to rise, and as the benefits of the concept spread, perhaps the market will finally start to take off.


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