Up, Up, and Away for Aerial Work Platforms?

May 2, 2012

The aerial work platform (AWP) market is well into its recovery, led by its bread-and-butter customers, rental fleets. Manufacturers gazing into their crystal balls see growth ahead for the category in general, but also for more low-level access units, niche machines and hybrid choices.

Rental’s renewed demand has been a top-down affair.

The aerial work platform (AWP) market is well into its recovery, led by its bread-and-butter customers, rental fleets. Manufacturers gazing into their crystal balls see growth ahead for the category in general, but also for more low-level access units, niche machines and hybrid choices.

Rental’s renewed demand has been a top-down affair.

“This will be a year of growth in the aerial lift industry, as rental companies continue to engage on fleet replacement programs,” says Steve Watts, Snorkel’s vice president of sales and marketing for the Americas. “The top-tier rental houses embarked on this process last year, and we’re now seeing the next tiers below are also buying again.”

As the recovery progresses, manufacturers such as Snorkel have been adding to their lines. Snorkel has developed a 62-foot platform height articulated boom unit, the A62JRT. According to the company, the machine’s chassis delivers the best inside turning radius of any two-wheel-steer machine in its class. An oscillating front axle, with hydrostatic four-wheel drive, keeps all four tires in contact with the ground—and works whether the machine is stowed or elevated.

“There’s also been a 100-percent reduction in tail swing compared to the previous model,” Watts says. “The up-and-over clearance is 29 feet 6 inches.”

“The national rental companies are definitely re-fleeting,” says Jeff Weido, senior product manager for scissor lifts, aerial work platforms, and small material lifts for Genie. “Big nationals are in a purchase mode because fleets have aged beyond normal usage during the recession.”

JLG notes that it sees a recovery in the boom market in the coming year, but is also casting an eye internationally. “There will also be growth in emerging markets, like Brazil, Russia, and China,” says Jeff Ford, global product director, JLG Industries.

It has introduced the 1500SJ, a 150-foot telescoping boom lift that is the first lift of its size requiring only a weight permit for highway transportation.

Aerial work platform makers found that demand for certain sizes and applications sustained the industry during the downturn.

“The one thing that helped us through the downturn was finding areas in the market that were niche, or new opportunities outside the normal scissor and boom marketplace,” Weido says.

“The biggest chunk of the market is the 19-foot scissor lift, with rental fleets. There were all kinds of 19s sitting around during the downturn, with rental rates at all-time lows at that point,” Weido says. “They were only getting a quarter of what they used to get. In hard-hit markets like Las Vegas and Florida, they were renting for $100 a month.”

One of the opportunities Genie pursued outside traditional markets was the low-level access unit, an alternative to the then-stalled scissor lift market.

“Low-level access units, we call them Runabouts, took off during the downturn,” Weido says. “They’re lighter, self-propelled, vertical mast units, versus an aerial work platform with outriggers. They can take the place of 19-foot scissor lifts in a lot of applications, and they have a little tighter footprint to access smaller areas. Fleet managers were looking for opportunities to rent products other than 19-foot scissors for their jobs.”

Despite having the same capacity as the 19-foot scissor category, the difficulty for low-level access units is that the working platform is smaller. “Two people [on the platform] can be challenging,” Weido says. “Within our family, we’ve developed the GRC-12, a 12-foot unit with an 18-foot working height and a 500-pound capacity, but it’s rated for two people. We’ve found that rental fleets are looking to differentiate themselves, giving the user something they can rent for more jobs.”

Changes in building construction, particularly with hospital buildings and data centers where projects specify the installation of raised flooring to run wires and oxygen lines under the floor, have resulted in a need for lighter units—playing right into the hands of low-level access providers.

“Now that some of these floors are thinner and there are different floor-loading specs, you can’t always use a 2,700-pound scissor lift on that floor,” Weido says. “With the raised flooring and thinner concrete, you have to use a lighter type of lift. They can’t weigh too much. Our GR-20 weighs 2,450 pounds, with a lower psi on concrete.”

Despite gains by lighter, low-level access units, Weido says that scissors are always going to have a place in the rental fleet, with increasing needs for taller units and electric models.

Genie also gets a large number of requests for niche-type applications and customized accessories. The company has made models specifically for the aviation and shipbuilding industries, but rather than manufacturing too many custom pieces or producing a roster full of specialty accessories, the company has created a set of material handling guidelines.

“We’re always being asked ‘Can I put a customized rack in my scissor lift so I can lift pipe?’ and other customization questions, so we developed the guidelines,” Weido says. “This way, we encourage customers to stay within the parameters of the platform but give them flexibility to do their own customization.”

Aftermarket suppliers are also offering an increasing number of accessories for AWPs. One entrepreneur, Steven DeMore, of DeMore’s Innovative Design, offers the Aerial Tool Bin for scissors, booms and other platform lifts. It’s designed to keep hand tools and supplies organized and in workers’ reach.

The 10-pound triangular-shaped tray is a divided organizer that can attach to a square or rounded 90-degree corner of platform railing, secured with two OSHA-compliant locking bolts. A multi-positional magnetic parts tray attaches to the metal strips on top of the bin. A tool belt holder secures a worker’s tool belt to the bin.

“I’ve worked on all types of aerial lifts,” DeMore says. “This product was created out of a real need for increased efficiency, safety, and to ease back strain from constant bending.” DeMore’s tool bin can keep up to 50 pounds of tools and parts off the platform’s floor.

Another growth trend aerial work platform manufacturers are seeing is an interest in hybrid equipment. Although electric-powered scissor lifts have been around for some time, hybrids are infiltrating the boom category. Genie calls its hybrids “bi-energy” products.

“It’s basically our first shot at hybrid technology,” Weido says. “Customers are looking at [hybrid] because fuel cost is something that comes up all the time. With the rising cost of fuel, both construction contractors and rental yards are looking to cut costs.”

Manufacturers have been working on Tier 4 solutions for some time, as most of the category will be affected starting in 2013.

“Emissions control regulations and desire from end users to lower their carbon footprints will drive more innovation in the use of alternative fuels in aerial lifts—especially the development of more all-electric and hybrid-electric lifts,” says Watts. “Customers want cleaner, greener machines that also save them money on fuel bills.

“In addition, the industry always remains focused on safety, and I expect we will see more technologies introduced to further minimize operator accidents.”