Knuckleboom Cranes are Taking the Industry By Storm
By all accounts, the knuckleboom crane market is strong and interest in articulated lifters is rising among operators who serve a range of industries. Driving that growth are expanded knuckleboom model ranges, new designs and features, and a host of advanced technologies.
To explore those factors, Crane Hot Line spoke with three manufacturers and providers of knuckleboom cranes in the U.S. Our panel of experts included:
Bernie Faloney, president and CEO, Fascan International
Greg Sneek, product manager, articulating cranes, Palfinger North America
David Morrow, director of sales and product manager of PM cranes, Manitex International
Why are knuckleboom cranes increasingly popular? What are their most common and most unique applications?
Sneek: Knuckleboom cranes are used in countless industries because they are light, have high lifting capacity, take up little space on a truck, and offer unobstructed deck clearance. Some of the major users of knuckleboom cranes are roofing, drywall, concrete, lumber, tree care, railway, utility, municipal, propane, and trenching operations.
The use of various attachments at the end of a knuckleboom crane continues to expand, as does the number of new tools available. The ability to have hydraulic and/or electric functions at the end of the boom enables the operation of these attachments for a broad range of tasks.
Faloney: The capabilities of knuckleboom cranes are nearly endless. The most common applications are unique, simply by their design. For example, material handling, such as for palletized roofing and shingles, insulation, lumber, wallboard, and rebar, are common construction uses. More specialized applications may include placement of forms for foundations, handling reels of cable and transformers for utilities, and lifting air conditioning and HVAC units.
The tree care and railroad industries have also incorporated knucklebooms needs. Smaller knucklebooms are being used as well on public works trucks for debris removal and sewer maintenance. Less common applications for knuckleboom cranes include military use, ship-mounted cranes, the use of man baskets, tower cranes, and pedestal cranes. Their truly unique applications can run from delivering pianos into high rise buildings to hanging Christmas lights.
Morrow: Knuckleboom cranes are used for delivering building supplies, such as roofing, bricks, trusses, concrete forms, precast concrete, and other construction items. They are also used to handle propane tanks, as well as by the utility industry, and in oil field and tree care operations.
One of the most valuable uses for these cranes is when a truck has limited space. An example is next to a building. The crane can lift the load up a number of floors and use the window opening to place the load inside the building or reach over the building and put items on the roof.
What are the latest technologies on your newest knuckleboom models, and what needs were they designed to address?
Faloney: Fassi has brought big improvements to their newest knuckleboom models with an all-new X-Boom design. This new 10-sided design adds considerable strength both vertically and horizontally over traditional six-sided booms. Fassi has also improved its manufacturing capabilities, making it possible to produce the X-Boom with only a single weld.
Together, X-Boom technology, new production processes, and the use of ultra-high-strength steel increases the vertical performance of Fassi knuckleboom cranes by over 50% compared to previous models. Another major step forward in technology for Fassi is introduction of the FX990 Techno Crane Control System.
This integrated control system has the power of three CANBus lines and additional memory. They allow it to become the heart of the entire system. In the FX990 System, one CANBus is dedicated to sensors, one to controls, and the third to the vehicle itself. That third CANBus is an integral part of the Drive By Fassi function that enables the operator to maneuver the vehicle into tight spaces and through close obstacles by using a radio remote control.
Morrow: New innovations include increasing the range of products. For example, the Manitex 210-tm (1,518,931-ft.-lb.) model knuckleboom, when combined with a specially designed jib, lets the crane reach more than 147' horizontally or more than 164' vertically.
Another innovation is the LC option, available for most knuckleboom crane sizes, that allows handling bulky loads in a short radius so items can be loaded under the column for increased efficiency.
In addition, we have a wide range of options to increase safety, some originally designed to meet stricter standards and others specifically engineered to meet market demands. An example is our various levels of interlock technology for outriggers and stabilizers.
Sneek: Over the past few years, Palfinger has been introducing the TEC, which stands for technology, model range. This solution replaces the traditional six-sided boom design with the P-Profile boom.
The P-Profile design reduces weight and provides higher lifting capacity, less deflection, and improved side loading capabilities. Users now expect knuckleboom equipment to have more reach and greater capacity than past models, so our newest cranes offer both more lifting capacity and more outreach.
The technology in these machines comes in the form of advanced mechanical development, and in the manufacturing of the boom system, as well as with electronic features that offer new functions for performance, connectivity, comfort, and safety.
Additionally, connectivity is a trend that continues to grow as owners and fleet managers require more information about performance and service from their cranes.
What is your outlook for the knuckleboom crane market? What trends and issues are affecting growth?
Morrow: Overall, in the knuckleboom crane market we are seeing good demand and strong backlogs. Long-term growth is expected in this segment of the business because of the versatility of the articulated cranes, their ability to work in tight spaces, and the way they can move products up and over obstacles while the vehicle is parked close to an obstruction.
With economic conditions difficult to predict and interest rates up, there is some concern that those factors could lead to softening in both residential and commercial construction.
On the positive side, inflation is easing, and the supply chain is slowly improving. Utility and infrastructure projects may help drive up overall demand. In addition, we expect long-term growth to come from knuckleboom cranes displacing some legacy truck-mounted cranes.
Sneek: The market for knuckleboom cranes is strong, as many fleets couldn’t meet their replacement and new machine needs due to reduced chassis and equipment availability during and following the pandemic.
As a manufacturer, we are striving to meet that demand with products that exceed our customers’ expectations for performance and reliability.
We also realize that product support is a key part of the purchasing decision for knuckleboom crane users, so we are working to provide and improve technical support and parts availability.
Faloney: We are optimistic for 2024 as we continue to meet increased demand for replacement knuckleboom cranes that couldn’t be built and delivered during the 2020 pandemic, and due to the 2021 computer chip shortage.
However, we are expecting new challenges from possible delays in overseas deliveries due to the labor shortage in Europe, and a limited truck chassis supply caused by the shortage in frame steel. Staying ahead of these issues will be the key to success in the coming year.
Tree Takedowns with Knucklebooms are Safer, More Efficient, and Productive
In the U.S., Altec sells and supports the line of Effer knuckleboom cranes with maximum moments from 2 tm to 300 tm (14,466 ft.-lbs. to 2,169,901 ft.-lbs.). Their popularity, according to Altec, is driven by Effer’s 10-sided boom and the use of Weldox 1300 steel that provides an effective strength-to-weight ratio. For electric utilities, clearing trees from areas near power lines has increasingly been a focus of maintaining service.
However, most utilities don’t perform their own tree work. They rely on outside companies to handle it. For those operations, a unique Effer knuckleboom engineered by Altec and dubbed Heartland is fast becoming a machine of choice.
The Altec EC175-5S-FG Heartland model is built on a 33,000-lb. GVWR Freightliner chassis with a log body and an Effer knuckleboom crane fitted with a 360°, continuous-rotation grapple saw. The unit can reach up 60' or out 49'.
Designed to let operators cut limbs safely without ever leaving the ground or touching the tree, the Heartland crane and saw are operated completely by radio remote control. The operator starts by setting up the Heartland unit near the target tree, explained Andy Price, tree care market manager at Altec.
By remote control, the grapple saw cuts and holds a branch or limb and then puts it directly onto the chipper’s feed table. When only the trunk remains, the grapple saw can grab it and cut diameters within its capacity into sections and lay them in the truck’s log body. The reach and maneuverability of the knuckleboom lets the Heartland’s operator stand away from a potentially hazardous work site. And its ability to put limbs and trunk sections directly into the log body minimizes the number of piles lying on the ground, which reduces turf damage and cleanup time.
The time and cost savings for the tree contractor can also be passed on to the utility. Dan Voss, a certified arborist, helped design Heartland. In 2015, he created a prototype featuring similar components to those now seen on the Altec knuckleboom unit. After two years of R&D alongside Altec, Voss saw the Heartland product introduced. Three years later, Voss reported that he’d taken down more than 5,000 trees with the machine.
The saw on the Heartland was designed specifically for use at the end of an Effer knuckleboom crane. It is fitted with a specially engineered arm running from the tip of the crane to the grapple.
“We knew there would be times we’d want to remove a limb at a crotch but could not get to it the way we wanted,” Price said. “Modifying the arm enabled the operator to dictate how it comes down. With that arm and connections, we also have multiple pivot points, and those pivot points articulate as the cut weight shifts from the tree to the machine, which helps protect the crane.”
A quick disconnect at the end of the knuckleboom lets one person connect and disconnect all four hydraulic lines at once. In addition to the EC175-5S-FG Heartland, Altec also offers the EC225-6S-FG Heartland. It features an Effer 225 6S crane that provides an additional 7' of cutting height and has a rear-mounted configuration that allows operators to set up 10' to 12' closer to the tree. The Heartland model line also includes the EC505-6S+3S-FG, which offers an extended reach of 92'.
If you’re looking for a knuckleboom for your operation, Fascan International (supplier of Fassi cranes), Palfinger North America, and Manitex International (maker of PM cranes), offer a wide range of options and support services.
For U.S. knuckleboom crane operators there are other choices, as well. Cormach cranes, sold exclusively by CraneWorks, feature twin mast columns and large-diameter slewing bearings for better distribution of load reactions.
The company noted that using a cantilever structure with twin mast columns offers greater stability while absorbing and distributing stresses associated with rotation and sudden movements.
Fischer Crane Company, the U.S. importer of Amco Veba knuckleboom cranes, pointed out the manufacturer’s new generation crane features, including 425° of non-continuous rotation, and a double linkage design that provides constant capacity in all positions. Amco Veba knucklebooms also feature a negative angle between the first and second booms, a feature that enables flexibility and easier access to confined and low-overhead spaces.
Seth Skydel is a writer with 38 years of experience covering the trucking, utility, construction, and related markets.