In today's market, the biggest issues of product support appear to be parts availability, keeping up with routine maintenance. But eclipsing both these problems is the increasing shortage of experienced maintenance technicians.
“Downtime” is a dreaded word for contractors and crane owning companies are scrambling to keep machines running. Crane maintenance is a specialty trade and requires trained mechanics who are well versed in operations and maintenance issues. For many, the strongest support for the green field technician seems to be technology. Mark Krajci, a technician who travels around the world servicing cranes, says the new worker coming out of school should be able to know how to operate a cell phone with a camera and how to download those to a laptop and e-mail the pictures. In his view, this is the future of product support.
“The future is photo documentation and the ability to send and receive e-mails with photos,” says Krajci, who is president of Mobile Crane Services in Bethlehem, PA. “If every serviceman had a laptop and internet connection, we'd be a lot better off.” He also says the lack of experienced field technicians is the biggest plaque the industry is facing.
Warren Marley, president of Marley Associates in Wyncote, PA, is concerned about fewer numbers of tradesmen entering the industry. The lack of people entering the industry has led him to teach courses at Penn Technology and other community colleges to educate students. Without this help, the industry will face a critical shortage of workers able to maintain its fleet on a regular basis.
Manitowoc Crane Group executives are aware that recruiting workers at all levels is a challenge. To meet this challenge, the company created its CraneCare organization that is charged with the task of training technicians at a range of levels.
“We have training facilities around the globe to support our broad range of products,” says Tom Cioni, director or marketing communications. “We have dedicated classrooms, hands-on service bays, simulators, test benches, and all the necessary diagnostic tools to provide quality education for the many courses which support our Manitowoc Crane Group products.” Cioni says the company trains thousands of operators and technicians every year.
Cleveland, OH-based ALL Erection & Crane Rental says parts availability and the lack of experienced techs are its main issues in product support. Michael Liptak, ALL Erection president, says continuous preventative maintenance for all cranes, regardless of their age, should be conducted routinely. ALL Erection has invested heavily in service, offering full maintenance, engine repair, hydraulics repair and the like at all its 27 locations. The company also owns paint, welding and fabrication shops. They strive to assist customers 24 hours a day, offering jobsite analysis, and providing training and operating assistance at the job site, Liptak explains.
“We provide ongoing training in equipment maintenance that allows us to keep it like new and exceed customers' expectations,” Liptak says. The company still has a 1965 American 5450 (50 ton) lattice boom truck crane that is still active in its fleet since the company was founded 43 years ago.”
The company finds product support techs by posting jobs or visiting technical schools looking for “raw talent,” Liptak says. ALL Erection is also a member of Manitowoc's CraneCare program, enabling ALL to order parts direct from the manufacturer and speeding up service and answers to technical questions.
Manitowoc also implemented its new organization called EnCore, which provides options to crane owners for remanufactured, rebuilt and repaired parts. The company also sells used parts, which, Cioni says, is popular among crane owners with older cranes and who may not want to buy new parts or components.
Emphasis on training
Doug Twyford, vice president of sales and manufacturing at Elliott Equipment, says balancing customers facing initiatives that relate to keeping machines in service against the requirements of business initiatives that drive for stakeholder value and improvements in returns on investments are the biggest issues in product support. To encourage crane service training, the boom truck manufacturer runs Elliott University, a program designed to train techs on Elliott machines. The course consists of two days on the boom truck line and two days on the high reach aerial platform products.
Twyford views product availability and parts dispatching as a big issue. He says parts availability can become problematic. “The desires of maintaining lean initiatives with a high inventory turn rate needs to be balanced against the absolute need to support and service customers in as quick timeframe as possible,” Twyford says.
Elliott Equipment does not offer remanufacturing services, but Twyford says it's something the company is considering. “We do offer an informal manufacturing service. We think there may be some opportunities but one has to be careful in balancing the value of a remanufactured product to the end user,” he says.
Trevor Clark, assistant general manager at Tadano, reports that the company offers training at its headquarters in Houston, and that the company will offer field calls for smaller groups. He says preventing customer downtime has “always been and will continue to be” the number one challenge in today's market. He added that the wide range of products and technical innovations of the last decade have brought increasing complexity to this task.
“We believe our dealers and customers benefit greatly and the more problems they can handle on their own, the lower our product support costs are,” Clark says. “If training is good, then more training is better.”
Getting people to understand the dedication required to the industry is the most important thing, says Carston Larson, president of American State Equipment in Milwaukee, WI. The company deals in new and used crawler cranes, hydraulic truck and rough terrain cranes, boom trucks, and more for Manitowoc, Grove, Liebherr, Kobelco among others.
“In administrative work and part support, wes live or die by our product support,” says Larson. “Our company won't stay in business as a dealership if we don't supply the finest product support available daily. It's our lifeline.” Larson believes that daily inspection of equipment is essential, citing that some of his customers are still running 35-year-old cranes. But he also states that keeping these cranes alive for that length of time is becoming much harder with the shortage of technicians. But he's also quick to add that maintaining older cranes isn't totally dependent on the technician's level of skill – some parts become hard to find as the machine ages. Currently, the company doesn't perform refurbishments because it just doesn't have the manpower.
Spare parts for Liebherr Cranes are Ralf Vieten's specialty, and he knows the struggles of availability. As executive vice president of service with Liebherr Cranes, Vieten cites that product support is difficult in the country because of the geographical vastness of North America. The company has to take an aggressive approach to supplying needed parts. “We have a lot of parts here in the US in our warehouse but, in addition to this, we have an emergency service through FedEx delivering parts from Germany directly to the customers within 36 to 72 hours,” Vieten explains.
But does the backlog of new cranes cause after market parts to become an issue? He says yes, because customers are holding onto to older cranes, which require more and more parts as they run these aged machines non-stop. Liebherr does have remanufacturing services, mostly available in Europe, but the company can repair parts at its Houston facility.
In summary, the message is quite basic but important: maintain units with consistency going no more than one month and invest in the training of field technicians. With parts a struggle to come by, rental yards would be wise to focus on the resources it can control, not what it can't.