Australian Cranes & Machinery (ACM) is a privately-owned business: its current Managing Director Ben Potter is the third generation of his family to lead the business, which was established in Melbourne to sell mainly P&H and Kobelco cranes to the Australian market. ACM has held the agency for Kobelco for at least 12 years, distributing crawler cranes and other products in Australasia, New Zealand and the Pacific islands including Papua New Guinea. Since 2007, ACM has been undergoing a transformation, establishing a strong market position in elevated work platforms (EWPs), otherwise known as aerial platforms or, colloquially, cherry pickers.
In 2016, ACM purchased a plant hire company serving its current footprint. This is a side of the business that it is expanding: not everyone wants or needs to own its own cranes or EWPs, and other customers may have only short-term need for the equipment. This strategic acquisition gives ACM a steady revenue stream which is less affected by the vagaries of the construction industry. It also provides a useful vehicle for it to field test the new equipment of its own design and manufacture coming out of its Melbourne assembly facility, explains Michael Kobilke, ACM's Director of Production and Engineering. After two decades working for leading German crane manufacturer Liebherr, he was persuaded to join ACM to lead the company's expansion in product development and production.
Since opening an office in Perth, Western Australia, ACM has a branch in every state and a support team in New Zealand too, giving it the ability to distribute, service and maintain its platforms. The EWP market is rather different from the crane market, says Kobilke. “Many crane companies work with man baskets lifting people up to work at height but our platforms are much more highly customised.” A primary market is rail maintenance, for which ACM produces a range of specially designed, truck-mounted vehicles for measuring and rigging overhead wires. As electrification grows, there has been an expanding need for EWPs like the 16-ton 105SP which has a working height of up to 10m above the rails and a generous 2x2.5m working platform.
These platforms are fully insulated, allowing trained engineers to work on live overhead lines where needed. The truck drives to a level crossing point, aligns with the rails and then lifts itself up onto its built-in bogies, on which it can drive itself along the track at up to 35kmph. If it needs to stop on a cambered curve, it will level itself. Among the customers to which these units have been supplied are Sydney Trains, the Melbourne Metro, Yarra Trams and Queensland Rail. “We think this is an important sector for our products,” says Kobilke. “Over the next five years, Australia will spend about AU$50bn on rail expansion and infrastructure including electrification.” While long haul trains will still be diesel-powered, some mid-range services, for example a proposed system linking Melbourne, Sydney Brisbane, will be electric.
Apart from rail infrastructure, other fast-growing sectors will provide a demand for specialised EWPs. He quotes telecoms as an example. “As the mobile service providers move from 3G to 4G and 5G, all the towers have to be adapted to suit these systems. We have platforms with a jib crane so you can hoist the 150kg antenna up, and the engineer can work from a basket to install it.” The standard procedure has been to use a jib crane to hoist the antenna and then have a man basket on the main hook to do the installation. This is both cumbersome and costly. ACM platforms are completely mobile and the engineer has the controls at his fingertips so he or she can position everything direct from the basket.
The energy sector is providing limitless opportunities as Australia addresses its lack of power lines. Rigging the lines takes an industrial truck: once the lines are in use, the companies need insulated EWPs to maintain them. That's for baseload energy; however, in all global markets the emphasis is shifting to renewables, and wind energy forms a huge part of that. It's a priority for ACM to meet the future needs of this industry – at the moment the largest unit it makes is 40m but that will soon change, promises Kobilke. “We are currently developing a 52m industrial unit mounted on a 6x6 truck. We are also developing a 46m electric or insulated unit, with an insulated jib to give us the safety we require. Our next step, in 2018, will be a 73m unit which we plan to operate on an all-terrain crane chassis.” The 52m and 73m versions, he adds, will be modifiable as rescue machines for fire departments, with water pumped up to the basket. It's a policy of ACM to plan adaptability into its new designs.
By 2020, Kobilke would like to have designed a 140m unit for the wind energy market. “These days wind turbines have hub heights up to 135-145m, so when the cranes are hoisting up the turbine someone has to unhook the chain. Then there is maintenance on the blades, the hubs and the gearboxes: you need to get people up there to do these jobs,” he says. The biggest units currently on the market are 116m, but most of these can't be transported legally on Australian roads. Recognising this gap, ACM wants to push into that market. It also plans a strategic alliance with a manufacturer of heavy cranes to use its all-terrain chassis: “These have the stability and structure to reach the heights we require as well as the transport loading and site loading needed,” Kobilke adds.
All this expansion is planned on machines designed and built by ACM. Since 2007, it has had a manufacturing plant at Melbourne from which it has hitherto issued some 15 new machines a year. But a new 10,000sqm facility with a production workshop and a test shed is under construction and should be ready by March 2018, employing around 60 people on platform assembly. Even this plant will be too small by then. In August 2016, ACM opened a plant in Korea to do the steelwork and pre-assembly of EWP superstructures, which are shipped to Australia for customisation and mounting on the trucks. This facility was expanded in October this year, tripling its footprint, so it's not surprising that more space in Australia is urgently needed.
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The new plant will have a very large 1,600-tonne capacity press brake, line boring machines, laser cutters and automated welding for the higher-run items. It will also have a 20m high shed so that testing can take place under cover. This will be the most comprehensive EWP travel tower and mobile crane manufacturing and repair facility in Victoria, if not Australia. But the next phase is much more ambitious – in October the last car rolled off the line at Holden's Adelaide plant, marking the end of car production in Australia. The huge site is destined to become a business park, and ACM would like to move its HQ and manufacturing there, employing some 200 people and giving priority to former Holden workers who, after all, won't have much difficulty transferring their skills to the tasks of EWP and crane manufacture and assembly.
Kobilke is confident that 2018 will see the number of units produced treble to around 45. “We attended Conexpo this year, and I think I can say that the North and South American market has now discovered us. We have appointed dealers in the USA and Canada, as well as in Chile, Peru and Mexico: already we've received the first orders from North America and are receiving strong enquiries.” And from January, ACM will also have a sales representative working in the European markets. All this marketing activity is matched by a push in production and product development. “I am currently expanding our engineering team,” Kobilke says. “On the design side we have four mechanical engineers, and we have three software engineers working on our control systems.” Not many manufacturers can offer remote monitoring services and the ability to do this is a differentiator for ACM. Maintenance optimisation software is in development that will constantly monitor the machinery right down to the component level.
That will be launched in 2018 to coincide with the international launch of the new ACM 6000 60-tonne hydraulic crane mounted on an Isuzu FYX2500 10x4 automatic truck. “In the crane sector the all-terrain style tends to dominate due to its versatility but truck mounted cranes have an advantage in long distance markets because they can travel at 110kph on the freeway,” explains Kobilke. With an overall weight of 37.5 tons spread over five axles, this crane is the only one of its size that can travel without permits on the roads of Australia and New Zealand. And it is exactly this advantage that will make it attractive in other long-distance markets like the USA and Canada, he believes.
As well as upgrading its in-house computer programmes, ACM is taking steps to optimise its entire supply chain. At the same time Kobilke is planning to source large machinery to handle the high tensile steel imported from Northern Europe to make the larger booms: “We have to get this material into Korea to our suppliers to bend and weld the sections. A lot of these companies are mid-size family businesses, so there's a lot of ramp-up planning with them as they put more people on and increase their capacity.” By 2021 Kobilke would like to establish a facility in the Korea Free Trade Zone that will enable ACM to do its own steel work. By then, he says, the target is to reach an output of around 85 machines a year. ACM Hire is going to be expanded, organically and, if necessary, by further acquisition, until it has a fleet of around 300 machines in Australia, and this in itself will create demand for the factory, which will need to be producing around 40 units a year as replacements.
Meanwhile, Kobilke and his colleagues will be extraordinarily busy. He is in the process of hiring two more engineers, a further megatronic engineer and a design engineer for vehicles, bringing in the best available skills from Europe and Australia. And the rail units, which started this discussion, will not be neglected: they will be showcased at the Building Owners and Managers Association International show (Boma) at Austin, Texas in 2018. Electrification is not unique to Australia: by developing the best, customised EWPs and cranes for all its markets at competitive prices, the European and North American markets are there for the taking.