By Kim Kemp
The need to lift something has been with humankind since we realised that hands were made for holding items. From the first implement used to shovel food into our mouths, we have progressively attempted to increase the weight of things we can lift and, in pursuit of fulfilling this desire, we have become increasingly creative.
For aeons, people have used revolutionary methods to lift really heavy objects and move them to where they are required. The crane’s history, therefore, is closely affiliated with the history of the limits of man’s strength.
While cranes remained hand-powered for centuries — from as far back as the late 6th century BCE, when the Ancient Greeks invented the crane for lifting heavy loads — hydraulics were steadily improving. But it was not until the 15th century that after studying fluid hydrodynamics and hydrostatics, Blaise Pascal ushered in a new understanding of hydraulic principles like fluid density, pressure, and incompressibility. He invented the hydraulic press — the building block of modern hydraulics and the power behind the modern crane.
Variations on this simple leveraging of fluid movement have allowed engineers to create behemoths like the modern Liebherr Mobile Crane.
Spoilt for choice
The notion that a skyline of tower cranes denotes a construction boom is misrepresented, according to players in the construction sector, who point out that many of the tower cranes on view are in fact not in operation, as the construction sector has skidded to a halt, with incomplete projects waiting for the sector to reignite. The cost of a non-productive tower crane is immense. The focus, therefore, has moved rather to mobile cranes, which are more versatile than their stationery cousins.
While there are four principal types of mobile cranes — truck-mounted, rough-terrain, crawler, and floating — there are as many manufacturers from east and west, each claiming to have the better-quality machine. Ultimately, however, both have features that substantiate their claims. What it boils down to, is application, length of project and ultimately, operational and running costs.
As cranes come with hefty price tags, no matter what configuration or type, purchasing is only really an option if the construction company purchasing it has regular, consistent work of the same type. Very few companies can afford to buy a varied fleet unless they have a strong pipeline of diverse projects that would offer satisfactory ROI on the equipment.
According to Mark Bate, CEO of Crane Link Zoomlion South Africa, the company is the sole agent for selling and servicing truck, rough-terrain, and crawler cranes on behalf of Zoomlion, an established Asian crane manufacturer that has made its mark in the country over the past decade. He says that Crane Link Zoomlion South Africa mainly stocks truck cranes, ranging from 25-, 30- and 55-ton, and rough-terrain cranes with 35- and 55-ton capacity. “We mainly sell into crane hire companies, steel erection business, and general manufacturing and construction, while the rough-terrain cranes are mainly sold to the mines and also to crane hire companies,” he adds.
One such crane hire company is Johnson Crane Hire (JCH). Sales executive, Peter Yaman, observes, “If you consider the kind of equipment we provide, it’s very expensive, highly capital-intensive machinery. To buy a crane to do a one-off lift is therefore unfeasible. It therefore makes sense to provide the service, without the client worrying about the wear and tear and maintenance issues.”
For companies that are doing continuous construction work, purchasing their own fleet of cranes makes sense, he points out. “It’s challenging to maintain and upkeep them, as well as being able to offer a wide variety of different cranes for a variety of different client needs,” he says.
Operating a crane is generally a high-pressured, high-profile task and therefore having a reliable piece of machinery is critical. “There is the accompanied urgency to get the work done, as cranes are normally brought in on projects with a tight timeline, or onto a site where there is a breakdown or maintenance is required during a shutdown and operations cannot be offline unduly, in a petrochemical plant, for example.”
JCH’s preference, therefore, is for two established OEMs, namely reliable Japanese manufacturer Tadano and Germany-based Liebherr. Both manufacturers enjoy the lion’s share of the mixed fleet, which also includes a couple of 30t Grove rough-terrain cranes. “We need assurance that the cranes are reliable with dependable backup service, so this is why we have opted for these two established OEMs predominantly,” over what is increasingly becoming an industry move to Chinese brands, Yaman comments.
With a vast 220+ fleet, the company provides a range of cranes, from 8-tonners to gigantic 750-tonners. The fleet comprises from the smaller truck-mounted variety to rough-terrain cranes and all-terrain cranes, as well as crawler cranes and some specialised cranes, with the fleet split about 50-50 between the truck-mounted cranes and the all-terrain cranes.
“With its smaller wheels, the truck-mounted crane is better suited to an urban environment that has established roads, whereas predominantly the Liebherr all-terrain cranes are complete units that have bigger tyres and independently driven axels for better manoeuvrability on uneven under-foot surfaces, able to get into tighter spots,” he explains.
Liebherr-Africa was one of the first Liebherr companies outside of Germany, founded in 1958 in Springs.
In the beginning, Liebherr-Africa was responsible for the manufacture and sale of tower cranes, specialised cranes, and concrete mixers.
The story goes that after World War II, during the reconstruction of Germany, Hans Liebherr recognised the need for tools and machinery for the building industry and domestic construction. In 1949, he developed the mobile tower crane, which can simply be erected on site, thereby enabling quick and low-cost construction. Legend has it that the design for the crane was drawn on the ground of his property.
Today, the company sells and supports construction machines as well as mining and material handling equipment for the group.
The Liebherr Group’s crane programme covers equipment for all systems and scales and offers lifting solutions for various civil engineering projects, while its comprehensive mobile crane range extends from 35-tonne models to a heavy-duty crane with a load capacity of 1 200 tonnes. High-speed all-terrain mobile cranes and telescopic truck-mounted cranes, compact cranes and heavy-duty lattice boom cranes are used all over the world. Long booms, enormous load capacities, short erection times, and high comfort and safety standards make its machines flexible and economical.
The gigantic LR 13 000 crawler crane is the most powerful conventional crawler crane in the world, with its main areas of use in power plant construction.
In South Africa, Liebherr recently launched a rough-terrain mobile crane, the LRT 1090-2.1, a welcome addition to the Liebherr mobile crane portfolio. Having been specifically designed with safety in mind, the 90-ton capacity LRT 1090-2.1 crane features an outrigger monitoring system as standard, while the VarioBase variable base developed by Liebherr also comes standard as another means of enhancing safety.
In addition, the LRT 1090-2.1 features a 47m hydro-mechanical telescoping boom system with rope pull technology, enabling the boom to be extended to the required length quickly and easily to provide a hook height of 66m within a radius of 2.5m.
Bates points out that the Zoomlion brand has been in South Africa for over 10 years and the perception that Eastern brands are inferior “is not a major issue anymore”, he says and adds: “We trade in 10-year-old Zoomlion cranes and on-sell them faster than European or Japanese brands,” he claims.
The European standard has always been held as the benchmark for quality, so it’s interesting to hear Bates add: “Zoomlion quality is now up with the European quality standards.” Zoomlion is one of the top six largest heavy equipment manufacturers in the world and claims to have the largest crawler crane factory globally.
He continues: “We have sold over 300 cranes, so we have a very strong client database that gives our products great references. The perception issue also is eliminated once a client arrives at Crane Link premises in Midrand — it clearly has the most professional set-up in the industry,” he adds with conviction. All Zoomlion products come with full factory warranty support that has both technical factory support and warranty spare parts held in South Africa.
Industry focus and finance
Another crane hire company that is well recognised in South Africa is Concord Cranes, a transport service company, part of Industrial Services Holdings, Inserve. CEO Herman van Staden explains that Concord Namibia is located in Okahandja, covering the northern and central territories of Namibia, and represents the group’s first concerted push into Africa.
Concord AngloV3, Concord Castle, and Concord Elcon make up the lifting services side available in South Africa. The group’s 170-crane fleet, ranging from a 7T to a 550T, was recently enhanced with the acquisition of a new 750T crane, which gives it a significant advantage in the heavy-lift sector, Van Staden points out. The fleet comprises hydraulic mobile cranes, which includes all-terrain cranes, rough-terrain cranes, truck cranes, and tower cranes, with underhook height capabilities of up to 145m.
Market segments include cellular, civil, steel erection, construction, engineering, film production assistance, mining, petrochemical, ports, steel, and wind farms. “We are a preferred provider of professional, compliant lifting services customised according to our clients’ specific needs. Our fit-for-purpose lifting services are combined with exceptional technical support and safety as well as regulatory compliance, hence our ISO 9001, 14001 and OHSAS 18001 accreditations,” Van Staden elaborates.
A key focus is the redistribution of existing assets to improve the utilisation rate, which also expands the group’s client base and gives it added visibility in a highly competitive market. “There definitely are opportunities out there, especially in logistics. We want to get our name out there and use our service and aftermarket support as a key sales tool.”
While JCH will supply the odd small rough-terrain crane to the construction sector “for pouring concrete on site or handling steel work, for example” and they may also assist in erecting or dismantling a tower crane, it’s not the key focus of their business. One focus is mining, which is serviced through its Rustenburg, Burgersfort, and Middelburg branches, located in the heartland of the coal, platinum, and gold mining belt. It is in this region that JCH undertakes its maintenance work.
“We supply cranes to the mines to maintain their plants and, for example, in Middelburg, we have cranes that are on site permanently or on long-term duration, handling ongoing maintenance, keeping the mines in production,” he adds.
Of the projects undertaken by the company, Yaman estimates that mining comprises 25–30% of the workload. He adds however, that the petrochemical industry is also a key area, once again hinging around maintenance work. “One aspect is the day-to-day maintenance required on plants for the likes of Sasol, Engen, SAPREF, and Chevron.” The main work, however, is when a plant periodically shuts down for a scheduled service. This can comprise a sectioned shutdown or an entire shutdown.
Neither of these can be of any long duration and, as Yaman explains, “it’s really short, intensive work as we have to have the plant up and running in as short a period of time as is possible, since the safety aspect of the environment is a major consideration, as is productivity.”
For this maintenance work a variety of cranes are used, from the smaller cranes up to the bigger 750-ton units, dependent on requirement. During a shutdown, they may undertake smaller tie-ins, where they develop or build a new section of the plant that needs to be tied back into the main plant during the shutdown.
JCH also focuses on the power and energy sector, within the infra projects such as Medupi and Kusile, as well as the wind and solar energy arena. The company also undertakes smaller jobs such as unloading containers, dismantling signboards, and other general work; “jobbing”, he calls it.
Finance for capex-heavy assets has always posed problematic, specifically for the smaller construction outfit. Through Zoomlion Capital Finance, the company is able to assist in obtaining the finance required to help fund crane requirements. Initially founded in China, Zoomlion Capital Finance has since become one of the leading finance companies in the world, developing a complete range of finance solutions.
“We are not a bank but rather a solution to financing Zoomlion products,” Bates says and adds, “We consider our customers as partners in business and aim to support and satisfy their requirements.”
With this in mind, Zoomlion now provides new financial instalment loans, as well as a traditional product range, to its customers. Since January 2012, this new service has been managed directly through the support of Zoomlion South Africa.
Yaman says that JCH’s equipment is traditionally financed through the banks.
Replacement and maintenance
Regular fleet replacement ensures that only the best, reliable machines are on offer and Yaman comments that this is capex-challenging exercise because of the high value of the equipment. “Our strategy is to replace equipment, not re-man or overhaul, and in the past five years, we’ve spent over R500-million in replacing cranes. This included selling off some of the older units. We prefer not to sell packages of cranes in South Africa but rather to Europe, Saudi Arabia, and into Africa generally.”
The decision to sell a crane is based on both the number of running hours as well as the age of the unit as, with age, reliability becomes an issue and maintenance costs also escalate.
While all equipment maintenance is carried out by JCH in their workshops, Yaman adds, “Obviously, spare parts come via the OEMs, and any specialist work that we require, we ask for their input. For this reason,” he reiterates, “we have chosen to stick with two renowned brands; we are assured of the backup and service we require to keep our machines in peak running condition.”
Liebherr is also an expert in used cranes, with many years’ experience in marketing used cranes. It guarantees maximum safety and a long service life of used mobile and crawler cranes with its reliable global service network. This includes its own repair centres and the fast delivery of spare parts. Every machine is tested in depth by a crane expert before it is sold, enabling it to guarantee maximum safety of used machines. An optional warranty for Liebherr cranes is also available.
Concord has a continual focus on the upgrade of its fleet and claims to be committed to an ongoing fleet renewal programme to offer clients modern cranes with the latest in safety and mobile crane technology.
In 2014, Crane Link Zoomlion South Africa opened a 5 000m2 warehouse that includes offices, maintenance facilities, product demonstration spaces, machine operator training areas, workshop bays, a parts warehouse, and a wash bay.
It also installed a training simulator for the QY110V mobile crane at the facility — the first of its kind in South Africa at the time. “Our Midrand Sales, Service and Support Centre has state-of-the-art facilities that can facilitate any crane repair or service required,” Bates says.
Commenting on the state of the lifting sector, Yaman observes: “The state of the crane sector is fairly tough, in terms of the economy. So, while the work continues, and we have regular work and contracts that keep us going, new project work is fairly constrained. There’s a lot in the pipeline but the finalisation of these projects seems to be stalling.
“This I think is created by the instability of the mining industry and in general terms, our economy. This has impacted on the wind and other energy projects that were in the pipeline, which have been stalled,” he adds. “Now the coal-fired power stations are not being signed off and there are few mining projects coming on-stream. So, while there’s maintenance work, there’s nothing new.” The petrochemical industry is also in a state of stasis.
He believes that the environment is one of ‘wait and see’, with investors watching from the sidelines to see what will happen in the country. He maintains that even the big construction companies “are in the doldrums,” and adds, “That said, it’s difficult to lay blame at any one door,” he maintains. The general feeling is that it’s “tough”.
Bates is of a similar view and adds, “The crane market is slow at present. Numerous major construction companies in South Africa are not performing well financially and are actually selling off their crane fleets on auctions, at low prices. This is affecting the new cranes sales market, as many clients are reluctant to invest in new cranes in these difficult market conditions.”
He maintains that in this present environment, the crane hire companies, a significant sector for its Zoomlion cranes, is consolidating, “with many crane hire companies reducing the size of their fleets and running them for longer than they would previously do”. He observes that even the mining sector is “flat with limited sales”.
With the infrastructure and construction sectors constrained by cost-cutting and a lack of government spending, Van Staden stresses that aftermarket support increasingly becomes the main market differentiator.
Yaman says that the wind sector kept the company busy up to about 12 months ago, when new IPP (independent power producers) projects requiring government approval were put on hold.
(The projects represent an investment of R50-billion, while Eskom argues that renewable energy is expensive, and the utility has a surplus generation capacity from its own fleet. – Ed.)
“It’s been relatively slow since then,” he shares and points out that this sector makes up 5–10% of JCH’s work. “Solar also ramped up to a point and then slowed down,” he adds.
Footprint and differentiators
With a significant nationwide footprint, JCH also has a presence in Botswana, Mozambique, DRC, Zimbabwe, and Zambia, where the equipment is normally deployed on larger projects, requiring the bigger capacity cranes for heavier lifting.
Bates says that Crane Link Zoomlion sells into southern African and also Zambia and DRC, while Van Staaden says, “We took a strategic decision to start out by acquiring certain businesses in order to obtain cranes at a premium, the associated client base, and the key expertise involved. Our business is essentially on wheels, and so this has meant an expanding footprint. This gives the group the flexibility to adapt quickly to both market fluctuations and changing client needs.
“We have more cranes to fall back on in the event of a shortfall in any area. We select our crane stock with the aim to protect our margins, cover our costs, and not over-capitalise, and to service our clients’ needs in terms of offering total lifting solutions.”
In such a diverse and competitive sector, Yaman believes that the company’s differentiators are numerous. “First, ours is a service industry and you have to deliver, be on time, be reliable, and have the right equipment for the right job, as well as highly trained operators to expertly operate this high-tech, specialised equipment. A variety of equipment to handle a range of jobs, big and small, is a huge plus, but comes with a hefty price tag. We are, however, well equipped to handle just about every type of job because of our large and diverse fleet.”
He adds that having the right type of numbers within the fleet is also an advantage and cites an example where on a 2010 shutdown project for Sasol, JCH supplied over 100 cranes in one go. “It’s a numbers game,” he adds and describes how on some refinery shutdowns as many as 10 × 100-ton cranes may be required. “You need substantial numbers to be able to offer that service,” he comments.
What gives Concord Cranes the leading edge in the market is its comprehensive service offering and technical expertise, combined with quality equipment and experience. “We also comply with all of the necessary regulations. From a technical point of view, we are right up there with the best,” Van Staden asserts.
“We also have a good feel for the market and can adapt accordingly. Our cost structure is very good, and we focus on proactive maintenance to minimise downtime for our clients, which helps boost their bottom line, and enables them to focus on their core business,” he adds.
While there are sectors in which JCH overlaps with its competitors, one in which it stands head and shoulders (in fact several metres) above other companies, is within the wind farm sector, on the turbine assembly and maintenance side.
What is interesting about the wind industry is that it requires a very specific set of skills, knowledge, and equipment and, with its vast differentiated fleet, JCH is equipped for every eventuality. Yaman explains: “The pressure with the wind farms is to put up as many in as short a period as possible, with the requirement normally at one-and-a-half units to two, per week, completely assembled.” Each turbine can stand at heights of between 80 and 120 metres-plus, necessitating a massive crane for erection. “The pressure comes in moving that gigantic piece of equipment — that cannot simply be packed up and moved — from one hard-stand to the next, quickly. The crane must be stripped from one position and transported to the next hard-stand and reassembled.” For the wind farms generally, JCH uses a Liebherr LG 1750 lattice boom, truck-mounted crane.
Access between the hard-stands is fairly limited, so a road must be graded.
The ideal crane would be a crawler crane, but the limitation is the road width on which it would need to travel. “One must consider the cost of the road against the cost of the crane,” Yaman adds. The road would generally be 5–6m wide, while a big crawler crane is between 10 and 12m wide.
The cranes used for these lifts are generally lattice-boom cranes. “If you could do the job with a hydraulic, telescopic boom, relocating the crane is slightly easier as you can retract the boom. But even so, none of these cranes can travel with all their accessories and counterweight. For a big crane, 200 tons of counterweight cannot travel on the crane,” he stresses.
A completed wind turbine comprises numerous components, Yaman explains, with the tower alone comprising three or four sections: the nacelle unit that drives the turbine, comprising the generator and power plant, and the blades and the rotor unit.
In the US, the widely used GE 1.5-megawatt model, for example, consists of 35.3m blades atop a 64.5m tower for a total height of 100m. The blades sweep a vertical airspace of just under an acre. The 1.8-megawatt Vestas V90 from Denmark has 45m blades (sweeping more than 1.5 acres) on an 80m tower, totalling 125m.
In the GE 1.5-megawatt mode, the nacelle alone weighs more than 56 tons, the blade assembly weighs more than 36 tons, and the tower itself weighs about 71 tons — a total weight of 164 tons. The corresponding weights for the Vestas V90 are 75, 40, and 152, totalling 267 tons.
The challenge around erecting this colossus is that it is sited intentionally in a windy area, which can then play havoc during assembly. “Cranes and wind are not an ideal combination,” Yaman adds wryly. This factor poses significant risk — risk in meeting the schedule and risk as in danger to a workforce. Also, he points out, flexibility around work hours is key to meeting the schedule, as the weather knows no timekeeping, with instances where assembly may have to take place at night, in the wind’s absence.
“You then have to manage people and their safety, working hours, lighting, and all the lifting equipment — all the logistics and project management,” he stresses.
JCH focuses on lifting and heavy lifting. Yaman explains the difference.
“It’s all well to be able to offer a crane and an operator, but the complete package — particularly on the heavy-lift side — focuses around the planning of the entire operation, including supplying the correct crane and the associated rigging and attachments. The planning and analysing of the risks is huge, as often, specifically with refineries, the sites are congested, and to assemble a crane without damaging infrastructure takes knowing what you are doing. Think lattice boom for example; that 80-metre boom is assembled on the ground and lifted, so that’s the kind of space you require, and you need to analyse the risks around the ground conditions to be able to achieve this without incident.”
Yaman explains that the company undertakes a simulation of a lift prior to the event. “With big lifts, we draw out the site on CAD, position the crane, and accurately measure all the radii — the distance from the crane to where you are going to do the lift. The capacity of the crane is linked to the working radius; the closer the load is to the crane, with the shortest boom, the higher the lifting capacity.”
Yaman assures that while there “is no real qualification” required for someone interested in becoming a planner, an understanding of engineering is an advantage. “The ground loadings that a crane would generate when on site would require analysis, as well as the lifting arrangements, the lifting tackle, and underfoot conditions,” he says.
While Concord simply claims that its operators are vastly experienced and trained to the standards recommended to ensure that it delivers the service required when hiring any of its cranes, JCH is certified to train crane operators as well as to conduct crane inspections. The company is registered as a lifting machinery entity (LME) and the inspectors are certified lifting machinery inspectors (LMIs), who carry out the inspections.
With a 220+ fleet, the company has that number “and more”, Yaman assures, as JCH supplies operators with their cranes. “We have a dedicated operator on a crane — trained specifically for that crane, not on a range of cranes — and we also have ‘spare’ operators who are trained on a range of cranes, who fill in for eventualities.”
For a shutdown project, where a nightshift is required, the spare operators would be enlisted to make up numbers to expedite the process. “This is another differentiator, namely having the personnel to fill this range of demand. There has to be spare capacity for any eventuality,” he adds. “You also have to have depth in terms of ability to train people when required. A strength we have is that we upskill operators from smaller to larger capacity cranes, empowering them to move through the ranks.” He adds, “Our average length of service is 15 years,” he says proudly, with some retiring at 60 after 40 years’ service.