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The growth of spider cranes

The number of spider cranes in the UK has boomed tenfold over the past few years as they take market share. Phil Bishop

Anyone visiting Westfield’s new White City retail development in London this summer would have seen something never seen before on a UK construction site.

There were, at peak, some 40 spider cranes – mini crawlers with spider-leg outriggers that must be deployed for lifting – mostly installing glazing in shopfronts.

These spider cranes are becoming an increasingly common sight in the industry, but have never been deployed in such numbers on a single job.

Just three or four years ago there were probably not that many spider cranes in the whole country. At that time the spider crane was analogous to another kind of spider, the spider rest familiar to snooker players.

The spider rest is hardly ever used, but just occasionally the cue ball stops where it is virtually impossible to play without getting the spider out. And so it was with spider cranes.

Today, however, there perhaps 500 spider cranes on the UK hire market, and their numbers continue to grow. The spider crane has grown in popularity thanks to a combination of enthusiastic marketing and tighter health and safety regulations. It is no longer acceptable to have four guys man-handling a 150 kg sheet of glass, and advocates argue that it is far safer to sling a load and lift it from above than to lift it from below using forks.

A mid-size spider crane costs in the region of £50,000; rental rates are around £800 a week. For those that can find steady work for them, there is good money to be made out of spider cranes.

Spider champion

While demand for them is clearly growing, hire companies have had varying success in achieving profitable use. The company most responsible for the rise of the spider crane is GGR Unic, which as GGR Glass hired vacuum suckers to the glazing industry. In 2001 it bought a 2.9-tonne capacity Japanese-made Maeda spider crane to hire out with sucker attachments.

A year later, as the concept took off in the glazing sector, GGR had a hire fleet of 10 cranes, which probably doubled the entire UK population of this type of machine.

In 2004 GGR became the European master dealer for Furukawa Unic of Japan, Maeda’s big domestic rival in spider cranes, offering machines for hire or sale.

With interest growing, Maeda’s dealer, Kranlyft, also began stepping up its sales and marketing. Over the past couple of years sales for both GGR Unic and Kranlyft have snowballed.

GGR Unic operates the country’s largest fleet. It has doubled in the past year to 130 cranes and, thanks to the option of LPG power on its machines, it was responsible for almost all the spider cranes at White City.

No other hire fleets are close to that size yet, but competition is growing. Gill Riley, managing director of GGR Unic, estimates that there are now more than 40 companies offering spider cranes for hire, which is perhaps twice as many as there were at the start of last year.

She says that with awareness of the benefits of these machines still growing, demand has also continued to grow despite the wider economic malaise.

Sales to mainland Europe may have reduced, but the UK hire business has seen no slowdown. “We had our busiest month ever last month,” says Ms Riley.

GGR Unic’s spider cranes are also available through the hire catalogues of HSS and Speedy Hire. Users of spider cranes are no
longer just glazing and cladding contractors, but also utilities companies, local authorities, cemeteries (handling gravestones), British Waterways, shopping centres – anyone who needs a crane to work indoors or where space is limited. GGR Unic has recently found a market on offshore oil platforms.

The key selling point is their compactness; the smallest models can fit through doorways. Products offered by Maeda and Unic range from one to six tonnes capacity, with extended boom lengths of 5.5 m on the smallest models up to 18.6 m on the Unic URW-706. Newer on the market is the Jekko range from Italy, with models of 1.2 tonne and 1.8 tonne capacity.

Leading the pack among specialist mini crane hire companies are the likes of Caledonian Cranes and JT Mini Cranes, both established in the past couple of years.

Growing family

Caledonian, based in Scotland but operating as far south as the Midlands, has about 20 spider cranes, mostly Maedas, says managing director John Stalker.

Its fleet is still growing at a rate of one new machine a month. Mr Stalker says of the market: “We expect the usual seasonal downturn in December and January, but other than that it is very encouraging indeed.”

This year has seen more new entrants in the hire business. Cranes2U, based in Hampshire, got its first crane in March. It now has five diesel-electric Maedas and has ambitions for nationwide coverage. The company is a spin-off from engineering services contractor FSR Maintenance.

FSR specialises in industrial relocations and machinery moving.

Cranes2U director Mark Roberts says FSR saw the benefit of owning a spider crane but could not justify it financially unless it got some hire revenue from it.

Cranes2U.com began in March with a Maeda MC405, the largest spider in the Maeda range at 3.8 tonne capacity and 16.8 m lifting height. It soon bought another MC405 and, with enquiries coming in for smaller cranes, it added a pair of MC285s, which lift 2.8 tonnes and have a maximum boom length of 8.7 m.

“We thought one would be good for our own business but couldn’t afford to own them without hiring out,” says director Mark Roberts. “But you can’t do it half-heartedly, so we set it up as a business entity in its own right.

“It’s been very good. We have spent quite a bit of money on producing literature, sent it out to customers and the feedback we’ve had has been tremendous.

“I’m excited about it. I’m hoping that by the end of the year we’ll have at least 10 cranes and two, if not three, regional depots.”

He is hoping to make acquisitions to grow quickly. Ms Riley says traditional mobile crane hire companies are also becoming increasingly interested in adding spider cranes to their fleets. Established mobile crane hirers that have diversified to spiders include Bernard Hunter, Emerson, City Lifting and King Lifting.

For companies that own them alongside mobile cranes, however, success appears mixed. “They have become a useful tool in the market,” says Paul Clancy, Emerson’s technical manager. But he finds utilisation of Emerson’s four units unpredictable: “They can be really busy for quite a period and then we’ll have all four of them in the yard.”

City Lifting also has four units, alongside fleets of freestanding and truck-mounted tower cranes as well as mobile cranes.

Powers of persuasion

Managing director Trevor Jepson says although hire rates are still good, despite the growing competition, this has only persuaded several potential end-user customers, such as glazing contractors, to buy their own rather than hire.

“We’ve not gone into them big time,” Mr Jepson says. “To do it properly you need to do it bigger, but we’ve got other things to concentrate on. You can’t focus on everything.”

To achieve the necessary focus, Wolverhampton mobile crane hirer Dewsbury & Proud has this year set up a separate company called Mini Crane Hire Midlands with two spiders and a conventional mini crawler, a Maeda LC 785. Managing director Tim Proud says: “They are getting busier. In this extraordinary market they are the one thing that’s chugging along nicely.”

He is getting as many enquiries as he can handle, he says, and rates are holding up “unlike other sectors”. Cranes2U.com has also bought a Maeda LC785.

This 4.9 tonne capacity model is a different type of mini crawler crane. It is based on a zero-tailswing mini excavator and unlike the spider cranes it has an enclosed operator’s cabin.

It does not have outriggers, but does have the benefit of pick-and-carry capabilities. While the Maeda and Unic brands have led the way in the spider crane concept, both in the UK and worldwide, there is a newer brand on the market.

Light touch

These Jekko cranes, smaller and lighter than the Japanese models, are produced in Italy by IMAI and promoted in the UK by Clark Cranes & Access.

Owner Mick Clark says he has 11 Jekko spider cranes in his hire fleet, including the SPD 360 and SPD 500. The latter is the largest of the Jekko spiders, with a maximum lifting capacity of 1.8 tonnes. It is able to lift 650kg to its maximum working height of 10.7 m, extendible by 4 m with the addition of a hydraulic fly jib.

Like other spider crane specialists, Mr Clark says demand for this niche machine is “absolutely definitely” growing. Contractors are finding new ways of exploiting them. While indoor jobs and confined spaces generate much of the demand, Clark Cranes & Access had a spider crane on a building project in Edinburgh.

While spider cranes are often used for glazing buildings from the inside, here a Jekko was placed on the roof for 10 months to lift glazing from above.

The approach was the same as a tower crane, except the hire rate was much cheaper for the contractor, Mr Clark says. “I’ve had good money out of them while they’re working,” he says.

And this seems to be the common theme. Hire companies that are specialising in spider cranes, work hard to promote them, and help contractors see the benefits they can reap from using them appear to have very healthy prospects.