VISIT almost any house building site in the UK and the construction industry's preferred way to move materials around will be immediately clear: the telehandler.The machine's popularity has grown to such an extent that it is often the first machine onto a site and the last to leave.
Yet, just as it appears to have reached the height of its powers, the telehandler's dominance is being challenged.At least, so says Colin Hutchinson, who as managing director of Airtek, hirer of self-erecting tower cranes, has a vested interest in bringing about the telehandler's demise.
'We have gone from having no cranes less than two years ago to now having a fleet of 75, with a further 30 on order, and we've not done any marketing yet, ' says Mr Hutchinson.The predicted turnover this year for the joint venture with Belgian crane manufacturer Arcomet, the world's largest hirer of tower cranes, is £3.5 million; for next year that is expected to rise to £5 million.
With 70 per cent of this business coming from the telehandlers' traditional domain of house building, including such high-profile companies as Barratt and Banner Homes, it is not surprising that he is predicting their decline, if not their fall.
'They'll never go completely but, if you look at planning policy over the next five years, things must change, ' says Mr Hutchinson.'Everything now is at least three storeys high, for a start.'
The specific catalyst for this change has been the publication some 18 months ago of the Government's plans for housing developments, PPG3.
He says: 'In the early 1990s you needed to fit between eight and 10 houses per acre.Now it's between 45 and 60 houses.This has meant a complete rethink in the way materials are handled and moved on site.'
It was this issue of moving materials around site and, in particular, the machines used to move them, that first inspired Mr Hutchinson to develop an interest in self-erectors.This interest was stirred during a visit to Ireland.
'The company I went to see had 10 of these cranes, and once I'd seen them the penny dropped that these also had a link to two major causes of accidents on site: falls from heights and vehicle movements, ' he explains.
As well as safety concerns over moving machines around sites, Mr Hutchinson points out that there is the practical issue of machines gaining access to sites in the first place.'You see sites now that don't have an access point, ' he says.'How are you supposed to service these with a telehandler?
Our cranes can be installed on day one and lifted out once the job's finished.'
With most of these sites also in town centres, there are other concerns as well.
'You often have issues surrounding the amount of noise generated on site; these cranes are much quieter than having machines running around all day, ' says Mr Hutchinson.
On site, a base of only 4 m by 4 m is required to house the crane.'We give the crane loadings to the contractor and its engineer decides on a suitable base, ' he explains.'The result is that our cranes work from designed foundations, whereas a telehandler might put its outriggers out 40 times a day on undesigned ground.
'Telehandlers will come under increasing scrutiny, ' he continues.'After all, what are they? To all intents and purposes they're mobile cranes.'
Not that the use of pedestrian-operated self-erecting tower cranes has escaped entirely unscathed from concerns over safe operation.The company's operator training courses, which lead to the awarding of a certificate as a trained pedestrian crane operator, have not yet been recognised by the CITB.
'We're working with the CITB and the HSE to have this training recognised as a course that can be funded through the CITB grant scheme and we should hear in the next few weeks. It's a question of the CITB creating a new category, ' says Mr Hutchinson.
The current training programme consists of one of the company's two training managers spending five days on site.'The crane is working during the training period, 'Mr Hutchinson points out.
The course covers safety awareness, as well as the traditional disciplines of banksman, slinger and driver (all of which can be undertaken by one person on these machines as they are radio-controlled).
To ensure the cranes are not misused they are limited to only 82 per cent of their actual capacity and they have a sealed weight limiting device with automatic cut-out.
According to Mr Hutchinson, it does not take long to convince even profound sceptics, once this training has begun.
He says: 'The managing director of one company wasn't at all convinced, but once we had the machine on site, all it took was for one of his labourers to move two packs of bricks and he was converted.'
With such a conversion rate, how far does he think the self-erecting revolution can go?
'What's the potential market? Well, there are nearly 15,000 high-density developments. Still, we've got to be realistic about where we want to be as a company, and we're not looking for more than 150 cranes over the next 12-18 months.We're happy to be in a niche, provide good service and make a profit.We don't want to get involved in all the problems of plant hire, we want to concentrate on what we do.'
So far, the concentration seems to be paying off.
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