Finding balance despite the downturn

Ray dikes reports on how the world’s leading makers of balanced cranes appear to have weathered the worst of the economic downturn and are talking of recovery in 2010 and 2011.

Recovery might be too strong a word as some have already found new strenght amid the stress and strains of a world in an economic tailspin. But, at least one has shrugged off bankruptcy rumours caused by the scrap market collapse and is trying to bounce back. Balanced cranes get their name from a design which features a parallelogram style boom configuration that allows the machine to be in near perfect balance throughout its entire duty cycle. This new type of crane was invented in 1973 by the French Seram Group, but most of the technology is no longer protected, opening the way for other manufacturers around the world. Who would have thought recovery was possible so quickly? This time last year World Port Development reported the economic troubles were testing the stability of the big balanced crane makers — largely seen as E-Crane (a subsidiary of Indusign), Metso Minerals, and the Seram Group. Undoubtedly there have been projects put on hold, orders fulfilled but the cranes mothballed and not immediately pressed into service, and a flurry of interest, which has sometimes fizzled with a lack of orders. The Seram Group struggled with the decline of the scrap metal market and was forced to make mass layoffs, according to Project Engineer, Pauline Julia. “Seram got new organisation and we focussed on both customer service and product development and improvement” says Julia. And new orders are starting to come in from France and worldwide bringing new business opportunities. However, in sharp contrast, E-Crane Worldwide based in Belgium, simply shrugged off the global recession and had a record year in 2008, reports Bas Tolhuizen, International Sales Manager. “Orders keep coming”, says Tolhuizen. “Lots of ports and terminals need to invest in reliable, durable new material handling equipment to replace one or more older cranes.” And 2009 has continued at a similar record pace and is proving “an extremely busy year” for E-Crane Worldwide.

Greater flexibility

“The outlook for 2010 is just as good with the majority of our production slots already filled”, adds Tolhuizen. Projects that were delayed or put on hold gave E-Crane greater flexibility “to meet urgent requirements of other clients’ and Tolhuizen says some actually resulted in extra business. In North America, E-Crane International USA President Mark Osborne, reports a market slowdown after a record 2008 but also notes encouraging signs of increasing interest with the number of inquiries up for balanced cranes. “We still have a number of projects which started and then were suspended, or in normal times others would have started by now, but have yet to reach a firm contract”, he adds. In 2008, the US operation of E-Crane installed and commissioned 11 E-Cranes. However, while the dollar volume of contracts so far in 2009 is about the same it involves only half of the number of equilibrium cranes as E-Cranes are also known.

And while coal and limestone handling for coal-fired power stations “aren’t doing much at all”, Osborne says aluminium production, chemicals and grain processing are major activity centres for the company in North America and to a lesser extent South America.

US Contracts

Recent US contract successes include:

  • E-Crane is inking a contract with Sherwin Alumina at Corpus Christi, Texas, on the Gulf of Mexico for two rail-mounted, 24.5 tonne capacity, blanced cranes to be used for unloading bauxite essential to the aluminum smelting process. Delivery is likely by mid-2010.
  • The PPG industrial chemical company in West-Virginia has purchased a stationary 11 tonne capacity E-Crane to unload coal used for its on-site power production and steam processes.
  • Two new E-Crane unloaders were sold to Allegheny Energy in 2009 for its Hatfield Station near Uniontown PA, and it’s Fort Martin station near Morgantown WV. Both cranes are being used to unload limestone for a new FGD (flue gas desulphurisation) process at the power plants.
  • And in the biggest turnkey contract of the year at USD7 million, E-Crane has installed a 2000 Series, barge-mounted balanced crane for Power South in Leroy,Alabama. The contract included the crane and two barges, a receiving hopper, a barge hauling system and electrical construction.
  • Osborne predicts that North American balanced crane sales will have a steady recovery through 2010 and business will “spike” towards the end of the year. Asked how E-Crane compares to its major balanced crane opposition, Osborne replies: “Compared to our competition, we are by far and away the best for parts and technical support. We have good-quality people and well-stocked facilities.” And while sales may be lagging, just over 25% of all 45 balanced cranes of all brands operating in North America have currently opted for E-Crane for their service contracts, he adds.

    European successes

    In Europe, the busy E-Crane Worldwide reports these recent sales:

    • A scrap-handling 2000 Series E-Crane for Van Heyghen Recycling (part of the Galloo Group) was installed in October in the Port of Ghent, Belgium. Built on a high gantry on rails, the balanced crane is designed to drive through bends and has a 30-ton lifting capacity in grab mode and 40-ton in hook mode. Galloo now has seven E-Cranes in operation in Belgium and France.
    • A revolutionary new E-Dredger has been installed for Herbosch-Kiere (part of the Eiffage Group) in Belgium. The 1500B Series, model 10290 E-Dredger can reach 29 meters and lift 15 tonnes, going to dredging depth of 18 meters. The machine is being used mainly for river and port maintenance work
  • A specialized version of the 3000 Series E-Crane will start work for PUMA in the spring of 2010 for the construction of the Maasvlakte 2 Seawall project – part of an ambitious expansion of the Port of Rotterdam in Holland.
  • E-Dredger Albatrosh by Herbosch-Kiere

    PUMA will deploy the modified E-Crane from a land base to lift 40-tonne concrete blocks from the existing block dam into the hard seawall of the Maasvlakte expansion and can even be operated during stormy weather.

    Innovations and benefits

    When it comes to innovations, the big three balanced crane makers have been working on the further “greening” of their machines which already have substantial benefits over conventional cranes. Among other recent advances are better PLC systems, further enhancements to Internet or telephone system monitoring to help in troubleshooting and preventive maintenance, and lower horsepower needs to bring greater efficiency and help deliver the lowest possible costs per off-loaded tonnes (energy is saved on every tonne unloaded according to E-Crane and can bring power consumption savings up to 50% while Seram claims energy savings of up to 75%). E-Crane also says other advantages include its unique boom configuration which allows its balanced cranes to reach underneath hatch covers to get material that cable cranes cannot reach; and less material spillage because the cranes use hydraulically opened/closed grabs rather than rope grabs. And in another direction, E-Crane Worldwide has introduced a new MH line the MH900 and MH1200 – smaller material handling machines based on E-Crane technology, but with shorter delivery times. The aim is to fill the gap between the existing E-Crane product line and excavator-based material handlers and bring cost advantages. The partially or completely built cranes can be shipped directly to the site.

    As for the future, the last word goes to E-Crane USA’s Mark Osborne. He believes the balanced crane has a bright future as E-Crane in particular becomes more and more known on inland waterways. More recently, E-Crane has begun competing with bigger crane companies in ship unloading “where we are proving to have a superior product.”


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