The new ‘small’

7 February 2020 (Last Updated July 8th, 2020 16:07)

Drawing on the exclusive data collected by his firm Chortsey Barr Associates, Stuart Anderson explains the history of small all terrains, and current sales in the 55-60t capacity class.

The new ‘small’

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In the early days of the all terrain crane, 50 years ago, there was a widespread opinion that this ‘new’ type of crane was basically a rough terrain crane with highway travel capability. Consequently, like RTs, almost all of those early ATs were limited to two-axles and offered pick-and-carry capacities controlled from the crane cab. Indeed, those early ATs were very similar to RTs with larger engines and so on, for faster and smoother highway travel performance.

While one innovative manufacturer—Gottwald—had largely-pioneered the all terrain concept to its own unique designs, the vast majority of those early two-axle ATs were in the range of 20-25t, gradually growing to 30 and 35t capacity. That all changed in 1981 when Liebherr developed a four-axle, 55t AT to win a DMk366m Soviet contract for 333 truck and all terrain cranes. That success led to the 60t LTM 1060 introduced at Bauma 1982 and signalled the beginnings of a radical change, the repercussions of which today are present for all to see.

By that time the idea was taking hold that the tele truck cranes that dominated crane hire fleets worldwide suffered significant limitations. Top of the list was their weak off-road travel capabilities followed by their larger vehicle dimensions and wide steering radii. Changes were also happening visà- vis road regulations. Forced, to some degree, by the heavier GVWs and axle loads of truck cranes as well as all terrain cranes, pressure was growing across Europe for more-liberal allowances. Counterweights, while growing in total mass, were being split to allow pieces to be hauled on support trucks or have their weight more evenly distributed within the length of the crane carrier chassis. Over time, allowable axle weights increased from the previous norm of approximately 9–10t to a standard of 12t and in some cases 13t within Europe. Eventually such weights were allowed furtherafield, in countries like Australia and parts of the US. This opened the door for larger multi-axle ATs to become viable rental tools.

While the capacity-scope and demand for all terrains expanded, ‘small’ two-axle ATs mainly of 25–35t capacity continued to be the dominate AT size-class through the 1990s and into the 2000s. However, during the past ten years demand for small two-axle ATs has steadily declined with several former prominent suppliers such as Coles, PPM and P&H exiting the business. Today, demand has reduced to such an extent the point that worldwide demand is now barely above 100 units/year. This leads one to ask the fundamental question “is there any small crane work left?”. Well, the answer is most certainly yes. However, that work is being performed by older and aging small ATs as well as tele truck cranes of similar capacity as well as boom trucks (in North America), knuckle boom loaders, fast-erecting tower cranes and the ever-growing range of tele handlers.

So, what is the reason for small ATs losing favour? To some extent one might say ‘work demands’. Crane boom lengths have continued their inexorable rise; engine emission regulations have led to larger-dimensioned and heavier diesel engines and power trains—all adding weight and while almost all ATs use the latest, lightest and strongest steels, getting today’s all terrain crane into a two-axle 24y package has never been more challenging. However, technology aside, the big driver is economics. As every crane rental company knows most of the operating costs of a small AT are not measurably lower than that a slightly-larger AT.

So, it’s no big surprise that the trend is to larger-sized cranes— even at the smaller-end of the spectrum. In this case, at the bottom-end of their fleets crane rental companies are now buying more three-axle ATs. But not just the smaller-capacity three-axle ATs in the 45-55t range, but more so in the 60t class. Indeed, today the new generation of three-axle ATs now outsell two-axle ATs in a ratio of 3 or 4:1.

The bigger picture

Up until 2008, it seemed that global demand for all terrain cranes was on an unstoppable upward trajectory. As we all now know, 2008’s global financial crisis dramatically put an end to such aspirations. Consequently, by the end of 2010, demand had fallen by almost 50%. By far, that decline was most-heavily felt in the European heartland markets for all terrain cranes. Indeed, around that time manufacturers were talking about a re-balancing of global demand as shrunken demand in advanced nations was being matched by that of emerging nations. Of course, that ‘balance’ was never going to last— at least in the foreseeable future. For, as the economies of the most advanced countries recovered, so did all terrain crane demand. And while demand in Europe, Australia and North America has recovered it still has not climbed to the dizzying heights of a decade ago. However, one ‘benefit’ of the structural market changes brought on by the financial crisis was a stronger focus on emerging markets by leading crane manufacturers.

As we look at global all terrain crane demand in late 2019, significant emerging changes are evident. By far the most eyecatching of these is the fastgrowing demand in China. For the very first time In Q3 and in the first three quarters of 2019, the Chinese all terrain crane market was the largest in the world. Few would have forecast this even a few years ago. While the number of cranes sold in China during the first nine months of 2019 were only marginally higher than those of Germany, perennially the world’s largest national market, this is news indeed. Unsurprisingly, with the exception of a handful of Liebherr all terrains, the entire Chinese market continues to be served by domestically-produced cranes. But while in most markets around the world and certainly those in Europe, the majority of all terrain cranes sold continue to be in the mediumsize classes, this is certainly not the case in China. For China continues to be a market overwhelmingly dominated by tele truck cranes. Indeed, after the dramatic slump of 2010–13, truck cranes sales in China have come roaring back with the market consuming a staggering total approaching 30,000 units through nine-months of 2019, an all-time record.

In stark contrast, domestic Chinese sales of three-axle all terrains in the 60-65t class in the first nine months of 2019 were a mere four units. This despite the fact that both XCMG and Zoomlion have recently introduced 60-tonners to the European design model. Of course, China has always been a very price-driven market and four-axle truck cranes in the 50-65t class continue to represent a very major, well-established sector of the Chinese market. Indeed nine-month sales of truck cranes in this class continued to soar—almost reaching 2,500 units. Therefore, production targets for the latest XCMG and Zoomlion ATs must be extremely modest, for it’s clear that the Chinese manufacturers plans in the ‘small’ AT market are aimed almost exclusively at potential export markets.

Of course, such a production and marketing strategy is a very risky one. Developing production experience and volume that feeds almost exclusively from the vagaries of export sales is something most manufacturers avoid by a wide margin. Bottom line, few manufacturers can afford to invest the considerable R&D expenses in such a strategy. However, unlike the manufacturers of Europe, Japan and the US, the Chinese players benefit from having significant government ownership. Right now, the Chinese industry is benefitting from the massive ‘Belt & Road’ global infrastructure network conceived by the Chinese Government and the crane business is booming. But building production volume in the AT sector demands significant presence in the markets of Europe, North America, Australia, etc and thus far after more than a decade of attempts, virtually no significant breakthroughs have been made.

That is not to dismiss the big strides forward in design and quality that the Chinese crane makers have made. The new XCMG XCA 60E is a good-looking crane with a strong specification. Rated 60t capacity with a 10–48m main boom plus 16m bi-fold, you could be excused for thinking it was European which of course is the intention. Novel features of the crane is a ‘repeat’ hoist sequence as well as a pushbutton controlled boom stowing sequence allowing the boom to return to its stowed position. The XCA 60E is one of a rapidlyexpanding series of XCA all terrain models now being challenged by XCMG’s local rival Zoomlion, which at Bauma unveiled a new four-axle 100-tonner as well as the new 60t three-axle ATC 960. Like the XCA 60E the new Zoomlion is a 6x6x6 wheel drive/steer model powered by a 280kW single diesel engine and with a full width carrier cab. It features Brevini winches and Dana slew drives as well as a 10.3-48.3m six-section boom.

Zoomlion says that the new ATs are built in Europe, but it would be interesting to know more about where the fabrications, and so forth, are actually manufactured. In any event there is no doubting the seriousness of the intent of these two very powerful Chinese manufacturers. But winning crane business in the most demanding markets of the world takes more than powerful resources and even advanced designs. What the Chinese have thus far failed to put in-place is a network of local parts and service resources backed by an efficient parts support capability from the factory that the market is willing to trust. When they do that they will indeed change the market.

Liebherr Dominance

There is no doubting the fact that over many, many years Liebherr has made this class of crane its own. With one model after another they have won more business in this class than all competitors combined. That’s a tough thing to do, year-in, year-out. For close-on 20-years successive generations of 55t capacity LTM 1055s have dominated their class. But it has not always quite so decisive. During the late 1980s Krupp gave Liebherr a real run for their money, especially when they introduced their Megatrack suspension system in 1989. In spite of concerns that Grove would fail to maintain Krupp’s innovative engineering when they acquired Krupp in 1995, such fears proved groundless. At the heart of Grove’s line for many years the 55t GMK 3055 with its 43m boom (and Megatrack) sold in very high numbers and continued to provide a solid reference for buyers considering its successor— the 60-tonne GMK 3060 introduced in 2013. At the latest Bauma Grove upped its game with the release of the successor model, the 48m boom GMK 3060L.

Boom length has always been a major factor in buyer’s selection of all classes of telescopic boom crane: a fact that propelled Grove to global market leadership in the 1970s and 1980s and more recently has helped Liebherr retain market dominance. When in 2013 Liebherr unveiled the 60t capacity LTM 1060-3.1, it was the combination of its capacities and 48m boom—as well of course as its roadability—that quickly grabbed the attention of the market. As usual with Liebherr, the specification of the LTM 1060 has continued to be improved, most notably with the introduction of the Vario-Base variable asymmetrical outrigger system at Bauma 2013.

German Cranes prevail

In recent years the long-established dominance of all terrain cranes manufactured in Germany has continued to strengthen. In part this is due to sourcing changes in the industry. In 2016 Grove transferred production of its GMK 3060 from its plant in Niella Tanaro, Piedmont, back to Wilhelmshaven and similarly, production of the Terex Challenger series of 55-60t 'class' crane had ceased in France and their successor models—the Demag AC 55-3 and AC 60-3—domiciled in Zweibrucken. In fact, by 2016-17 Terex was in the process of selling its former PPM plant in Montceau-les- Mines, France. And while Marchetti remains the last surviving all terrain crane manufacturer of Italian origin, the product line of the Piacenzabased company starts with a fouraxle 70t model. Consequently, the share of European AT production in this size class has increased from about 90% five years ago to almost 100% today.

While the LTM 1060-3.1. set the class-benchmark five years ago, in recent times the competition has rallied to improve its offerings to compete more effectively with Liebherr. We have already made reference to the new Grove GMK 3060L which in addition to offering a 48m sevensection Megaform Twinlock boom claims to offer the strongest ‘taxi crane’ load chart in its class, i.e. with 7.5 or 8.5t counterweight in the 36t roadable package. In addition the 3060L is claimed to offer the most compact dimensions in the three-axle segment being ‘almost as compact as a two-axle model’ with a chassis length of just 8.68m. Grove too offers its ‘MaxBase’ asymmetrical outrigger system as an option on this model, which comes as standard with latest version of the manufacturer’s Crane Control System (CCS) which enables the operator to input data such as load, radius and lift height and provides the operator with optimum boom option information.

Also competing in this category are the newly-amalgamated lines of Tadano and Demag. Demag’s AC 55-3 and AC 60-3 began shipping in October 2017 and, of the leading players, these cranes offer the segment’s longest boom at 50m. However, it must be emphasized that these models have saved weight in the boom and elsewhere by being ‘classified’ as 55 and 60t capacity ‘Class’ cranes while their actual maximum rated loads are limited to 35.6t. However, a good idea is the cockpit display in the upper cab that can be tilted to avoid glare and reflections.

One long-running ‘debate’ within the engineering departments of crane manufacturers has been the choice of carrier configuration for three-axle cranes, i.e. whether to go the conventional route—one forward axle and two rear axles— or to go the less-conventional way to what used to be termed a ‘Chinese Six’; two forward and one rear. In this respect, at least, Tadano does not have to make a choice between its two crane lines since both Demags and the new Tadano ATF 60G-3 adopt the latter, less conventional approach. Like Grove’s new GMK 3060L, the new Tadano ATF 60G-3 adopts a seven-section boom instead of the normal six-section booms of the other players. That brings a morecompact closed boom length but also adds cost and the potential for increased deflection. The new Tadano is also quite unique with its diesel engine located in the crane upper—aiding, the manufacturer claims, weight distribution. Indeed, Tadano makes strong play of the axle load flexibility—down to 10t per axle—of the new crane, as well as its outstanding reach.

Quite a game is afoot. Obviously the next step will be to follow Demag’s lead to booms of 50m—or possibly longer. 

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