HIAB knuckles down for success

The crane comes from HIAB’s popular XS 122 family, only the highest available specification was good enough. Mounted on a Tata LPT 1613 platform truck behind the cab, it can hoist a personnel basket with two people and their toolkit 20m above the ground with its five-extension outer boom.

Autocar Pro News DeskBy Autocar Pro News Desk calendar 04 Dec 2008 Views icon9130 Views Share - Share to Facebook Share to Twitter Share to LinkedIn Share to Whatsapp
HIAB knuckles down for success
In April this year, when pig iron manufacturer Sesa Industries bought a truck-mounted crane that would enable its maintenance staff to reach the mechanical and electrical equipment situated atop the furnaces at its Bicholim plant in Goa, the safety-conscious company got just what it wanted in HIAB’s hi-tech XS 122 Hi-Pro E-link crane.

Although the crane comes from HIAB’s popular XS 122 family, only the highest available specification was good enough. Mounted on a Tata LPT 1613 platform truck behind the cab, it can hoist a personnel basket with two people and their toolkit 20m above the ground with its five-extension outer boom.

The choice of kit was important: the Hi-Pro control system package with CombiDrive2 remote control and battery backup with cab charger allows the staff in the basket to maneuver the boom with millimetre accuracy via a Bluetooth connection. In this mode the crane cannot be operated manually from the panel on the truck, a crucial safety feature.

When the vehicle’s maintenance routines are over, it does duty as a regular utility crane truck, assisting in internal construction projects in the plant by transporting steel beams and sheets within the complex. A crane of this configuration from this global leader in knuckle-boom cranes costs Rs 35 lakh inclusive of tax and customs. For this customer at least, the cost was no object; safety was of paramount importance.

Commissioning this crane was perhaps a highlight for HIAB in a market where there is little appreciation for a productivity-enhancing device that in most cases costs more than the truck it is mounted on. The earliest HIAB cranes in India came in as far back as 40 years ago, and today there are around 850 of them across the country.

In January HIAB delivered a crane to HCC that is being used on its road projects in Assam, and another to Subhash Projects & Marketing in Delhi for utility use. It is preparing to install and commission a crane for leading Mumbai-based tile manufacturer Super Tiles, which will be used for the loading and unloading of concrete paving blocks weighing 30–35kg each. It’s been only three years now that the company has marketed its cranes itself through a wholly owned subsidiary. Available in a range of capacities from 0.8 to 100 tonne-metres and prices starting at Rs 1 lakh and going up to Rs 90 lakh, it is also the leading brand in India.

Selling a concept

Marketing manager Madhusudan Shetty sees his job as selling a concept, not a product. “All over South Asia, truck-mounted cranes are a very popular and well accepted concept. In countries like Thailand and Malaysia, or even Sri Lanka, every third truck you see has a crane mounted on it. The concept is well entrenched there. Not so over here; we have to virtually push it.” It’s going to take a while yet for the market to accept a truck with a crane as a regular utility vehicle, mainly because of the abundance of cheaper alternatives — labour, pick-and-carry cranes, and chain pulleys, for example. HIAB’s market is growing, but it needs greater exposure.

“There are two ways to address this market. One, to offer a product that is closer to the acceptance norms of the Indian customer, whether those be price, product, or distribution-related. Two, work in conjunction with the vehicle manufacturer so that we can provide a total solution — the customer need not purchase the truck at one place and the wait for the crane to come and be integrated somewhere else,” says director S Srinivas.

To this end the company is engaging with all the truckmakers in the country today, including the new joint ventures Daimler Hero, Volvo Eicher, and Mahindra Navistar, which Srinivas estimates will make up a very small chunk of the total commercial vehicle market for some years. Working with Tata Motors, Ashok Leyland, and Mahindra & Mahindra is what will generate the volumes, he admits, but points out that these in turn want to see the prospect of selling hundreds before they engage in any cooperation.

A fully integrated crane truck is thus some years away. In any case, Srinivas believes it will not take less than four years for crane trucks to reach the level of acceptance as an OEM product that transit mixers, for example, presently enjoy. But he points out that the latter have been built and sold in India for 10 years now, whereas HIAB has marketed its cranes here for only 2½ years. “Still, we want to be there well in advance for the customer to accept us. It’s a price-sensitive market, and the OEMs realise that our products are expensive. They’re obviously going to wait till the volumes pick up to a good level before they consider offering a fully built solution. Hence, focusing on offering a more affordable product is our primary agenda.”

As part of this agenda the company’s engineering centre in Pune and factory in Bangalore have begun working together to design on a new crane system with price and performance characteristics adapted for the Indian market. “We are working on this concept almost day and night and we hope we will have some launches by next year sometime,” he adds.

This new product family will likely be very similar to what HIAB already sells, Srinivas concedes. “We have the widest range of cranes in the world, so it’s easy for us to pick and choose. But we need something with less sophistication, fewer frills. Today the world has moved from an Indica to a Nano. If they can do it, we want to adopt that philosophy. So what we are doing is like defining a Nano. But we will not let go of our quality philosophy.”

The no-frills crane, which will compromise none of HIAB’s lofty performance and safety standards, is still at least six months away. Another product that’s at an “advanced stage” is a local hooklift, again basically to compete on cost. Both will not be simple product substitutions but rather solution substitutions, he points out.

But unlike the hookloaders, which have somewhat limited markets (predominantly waste management), the unlimited versatility of a HIAB crane allows it to be simplified and made more effective for the more straightforward applications it is typically used for in India. “Besides, we have to remember that the vehicle it will go on is already very cheap. So if you’re going to have an accessory on it, it has to be relatively cheap,” he says.

HIAB has two options — either assembling imported components, or importing raw steel from Sweden and fabricating and assembling the cranes itself, at its parent Cargotec’s acquired facility in Peenya, Bangalore. This factory, acquired from Indital a couple of years ago, presently makes forklift trucks and reachstackers, and is in the process of being converting into Cargotec’s second “multiassembly” unit in the world (the first is in China) with separate lines for the HIAB, Kalmar, and MacGregor divisions.

Production activities on the new, flexible HIAB line will begin in January 2009 with the T-cranes, lightweight stiff-boom cranes for LCVs. “We’ve started trial production, but we expect to achieve total consistency in production only by January,” Srinivas says, promising that there will be new product launches every four months thereafter.

Fit it and forget it

According to Srinivas, HIAB is universally known for a very reliable product; there are rarely any maintenance issues, and downtime is a bare minimum. “Many other companies across the world make this product and some also offer it in India. The problem is, they are not looking at the total solution. HIAB does not want to do a sale for the sake of a sale. We want our customer to be happy with the total solution,” he says.

In this approach, the crane is the central element around which HIAB builds a complete value proposition. The company first talks to the customer and studies the operations he is going to use the crane for, and then specifies the crane with the capacity, features, and functions that are precisely matched for the jobs it is expected to do.

Whereas nine out of 10 pick-and-carry cranes sold are of 12-tonne capacity, Srinivas says, the demand in truck-mounted cranes or demountables is for a variety of capacities. And then there are a number of parameters within each product capacity that the customer can define. Therefore each crane sold is 100 percent tailormade for the intended application.

“We do have cranes with standard capacities, but there are so many other performance features that define a crane — what kind of controls you want, what kind of systems, what kind of hydraulics, what kind of reach, what kind of vertical heights, what kind of attachments, which truck… There are endless permutations and combinations in defining this product. For example, a 12 tonne-metre crane can be supplied in up to 100 variants,” he explains.

There is a lot of application engineering involved, and HIAB works very closely with the bodybuilder at the stage of product definition itself, as the crane is always meant for specific applications, involving brick and block handling or personnel baskets, for instance, and not mere loading/unloading, for which there are several simpler options.

The company uses proprietary software to study the loading with reference to the toppling point of the crane/vehicle combination and then configures the crane from its modular XS system, which consists of five boom systems, one pivot and three radial-compensating link options, and five different control system packages (combining choices of electronic, hydraulic, and control unit components), besides a whole host of attachments for special applications. “It’s easy for me to just sell a product to a customer who doesn’t know much. But I want to be able to look him in the eye afterwards and ask whether he is satisfied with its utility. We’ve had cases in which we determined that our crane would not work in the application the customer wanted it for, and we’ve refused to sell.

“The fact is, we never just sell a crane; we must know the details of what it is going to be used for, because we want to design the total solution. And that is one reason I must say 99 percent of my customers are satisfied with the reliability of the product and with the services we provide. We spend more time training manpower, teaching the operators skills, giving the owner an idea what it’s all about, than any of our competitors,” he elaborates.

HIAB in India presently consists of a team of 20 countrywide, and has about 12 dealers today, in Mumbai, Vadodara, Delhi, Kolkata, Visakhapatnam, Hyderabad, Chennai, and Bangalore. These are typically bodybuilders or rental equipment suppliers, like Satrac Engineering in Bangalore or Express Engineering Construction in Vadodara, who are also customers.

“We are presently focusing on the rental segment, a segment that has still to understand this concept. We are working with some of our own dealers who are in this market on some high-end solutions,” says Shetty. “In fact, one rental player we sold a crane to in Delhi already wants to buy many more of the same type.”

The company designs the concept and releases the drawings to the local bodybuilder, who integrates the crane onto the truck under HIAB’s guidance. “We are always there to commission the crane to ensure that it is in line with our safety and installation norms,” he says. Installation and commissioning are directly handled by headquarters in Bangalore for the simple reason that if those are done right the first time, absolutely nothing will go wrong with the crane, he points out; all the user needs to do is change the oil and filters periodically.

In cases where the customer is not from any of the dealer locations, HIAB takes the responsibility for the installation at a bodybuilder the customer chooses. “If the crane is going to be used in a faraway place, we also have to make sure it can be serviced. There have been cases where we’ve said no to the customer because he is in a place where we can’t give him service. But if we have agreed to supply a crane, then we deliver even if I have to fly a man across from here,” Shetty declares.

The company also offers a unique 36-month warranty from the date of installation on the structure, in addition to the 12-month warranty that is standard in the business, and is also committed to delivery of spares in four days anywhere in India. “That’s something no one else will give you in the Indian context. Can anyone guarantee that a weld will not fail? No-one will do that. There are manufacturers who use the same steel for similar products, and theirs have broken in less than six months. Several times.”

This highlights the other part of the story: “In India a warranty is usually a very weak clause,” Srinivas says. “Ours is a genuine warranty from the heart.” More than half HIAB’s sales are repeat sales, and it’s not difficult to see why.

A bigger market for small cranes

Apart from the larger XS cranes, HIAB is also aggressively going after the market for small cranes with its T-series lightweight stiff-boom models, suitable for pickup trucks like the Tata 207 or Ace, or the Mahindra Pik-up, for customers such as small workshops that rebore engines or recondition alternators.

“For example, a Tata dealer might collect engines from different customers. His truck often has to wait for a long time because there’s no crane available, whereas if he has a T-crane, he simply loads the engine on and brings it to his workshop. Similarly, if no labour is available at the unloading points, his vehicle must just stand there waiting for nobody knows how long,” says Shetty. Another market HIAB is looking at is the construction sector, where items like electric motors weighing up to 500kg might need to be moved around within a one-acre plot. T-cranes are ideal here, as they are purpose-designed to lift up to 600kg at about 2m from the column. Mounted on an LCV, they make a far more convenient and flexible option than the big, ungainly hydra cranes that is typically used.

“This is a huge market right now – about 3.5–4 lakh – and probably the only segment of the automotive market that is growing,” he points out. “Even if we get 10 percent of that or even 1 percent it’s something huge. We’re not looking at any numbers at this stage; we’re looking at popularising the concept, then the numbers will pick up.” The one disadvantage with the Ace is that it has not had a PTO, so the crane has had to be operated with a battery, which drains pretty fast. But now this will change with the introduction of the first PTO for the Ace engine from Interpump Hydraulics in Hosur.

Shetty reveals that HIAB is already at work localising the T-crane. “At Rs 3 lakh, the Tata Ace crane costs more, than the Ace itself. We want to reduce the cost of the locally built product to Rs 1.5–1.8 lakh,” he says, adding that this will be the first HIAB product to roll off the assembly line at the Cargotec facility in Peenya in January 2009.

Enhancing the value of a truck

HIAB’s second product for India is the Multilift hookloader, available for prices ranging from Rs 2 lakh to 15 lakh. A hookloader is an extremely versatile piece of equipment that increases the flexibility of a truck by allowing a single chassis to carry a variety of demountable bodies for different applications. It has sold 100 of these so far, many more than any putative competitor, according to Srinivas. The number includes 31 to the Coimbatore municipal corporation under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission for solid waste management. Garbage handling service provider Antony has three Multilift trucks in Mumbai and two in Delhi.

“In Europe and the US the major market for hooklifts is in disaster management. Whenever a disaster strikes, they immediately move five containers of drinking water, one office container, and one hospital container, and in just 10 trips you have an entire relief camp set up. Unfortunately in India our hooklifts have only gone to the solid waste management sector, which is largely tender- and price-driven,” says Shetty regretfully. HIAB did get a number of enquiries from disaster management agencies after it demonstrated its hookloader at the Auto Expo this January, but nothing has come of them yet, he adds. Across the country almost every state government has its own disaster management agency. Shetty says his experience has been that they are active on paper only, and bound by the typical tender mentality of the government.

With the fluctuating foreign exchange rates, importing and selling to either of these markets is not a gainful proposition, he points out: the product has to be localised, the sooner the better.

In conclusion Srinivas stresses HIAB’s commitment to tailoring its products to deliver total customer satisfaction — “that’s why we do a lot of pre-sale work.” Equally passionately, he emphasises the opportunity for truckmakers to gear up for the next level by offering a complete load handling solution.

“This is their chance to co-brand with HIAB globally and in the Indian market. It’s an opportunity for them to provide a total, fully built solution to the customer, and believe me, despite the recession there are still a lot of people who do want this.”
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