From being a niche product only, compact aerial lifts are making their entry into the mainstream rental market, – almost.
Once upon a time, – how it all started
It all started with a front door to a community building in Odense, Denmark, a small town otherwise unknown to the world apart from being the birthplace of Hans Christian Andersen, the fairytale poet. In 1976 this 125 year old community building had a big problem that required a small solution: They needed to attend to some ceiling problems at the “staggering” height of 40 ft., but the only access was through a single door, and the 125 year old wooden floor could only sustain very limited impact. Scaffolding could not be used as they had to reach out over an opening as well as some permanent installations that could not support scaffolding. They needed a lift.
They contacted a small local aerial lift manufacturer, known for its innovative truck mounted aerial lifts, and explained they needed something like that, – except the truck, of course. It should also be lightweight, go through their single front door, self-propelled and operating on batteries. Last, but not least, it should be safe and easy to use.
Six months later in 1977, the manufacturer – E. Falck Schmidt A/S – presented the solution: The world’s first compact aerial lift that could reach the 46 ft. work height, built on a 2.6 ft. wide chassis with three wheels so it could drive through the door, equipped with adjustable outriggers substituting for counterweight, and powered by a battery pack to run the hydraulic drive motors and lift operation.
The manufacturer realized that by their innovative solution to help a local community facility, a new global industry was born. Like the famous fairytale poet, the company had written the first chapter of its own story, as they would come to learn that a lot of customers actually considered it a fairytale when they years later tried to explain that their 138ft work height lift still could go through a single door and their biggest unit, now at 180 ft. work height only needed a double door.
New ideas based on the old principles
Fast forwarding to today, almost 40 years later, the Danish company has been joined by several other European manufacturers to form an entire new industry. The supply and variety of the so-called compact aerial lifts – also known as atrium lifts – has never been bigger, and is today divided into two main categories, generally referred to as either wheel based or track based units. Interesting enough, the original company – now known in North America as ReachMaster – nailed the design concept of what would become the core principle for all compact lifts in their very first attempt in 1977: A narrow chassis, equipped with 4 outriggers that swing out, with a boom system on a rotating turret, run by hydraulics and powered by a battery pack.
From the humble beginnings of 46 ft. work height, the manufacturers today offers multiple solutions with work heights from 39 ft. – 172 ft. Manufacturers from Denmark, Germany and Italy have added new ideas to the basic concept, and each contributed to the evolution of the compact lift industry. Their combined efforts have changed the way many industries are working today.
The first units operated strictly on conventional battery power, but today a wide combination of power choice is available. From conventional and lithium DC batteries, direct AC supply to gas, diesel and a combinations of these in the so-called hybrid versions.
However, the most important common feature they all bring to the market, no doubt, is safer access at height, replacing decades of dangerous and “creative” methods of working at height.
The compact format combined with the substantial work height often prompts the question, – are they safe to use? The answer is yes, and in many ways the dynamics of outrigger based lifts mandates a safer approach to working at height compared to other options.
First, opposite other lift solutions, you cannot drive the lift at height, thereby eliminating the tip-over situations where an operator by mistake drives a unit beyond its stability parameters.
Secondly, sensor systems in the outriggers ensures that the platform of the lift is set-up correctly, locked and that sufficient support is established before the aerial lift functions become operational. They also serve the purpose of detecting if there are any changes in the support surface, and will for most parts in such incident immediately shut down the lift.
Third, the advanced use of CAN bus steering systems in some of the lifts on the market today allows for a number of added safety features, where a unit automatically will detect overloading, driving at dangerous angles (slopes), and some even can detect if the basket is approaching for example a working surface and shut down the unit before the operator by mistake hit a window or a wall.
Overall, as mentioned earlier, the biggest contribution to safety is the ability to replace other access methods, including ladders, suspended equipment, aerial transfer and other methods to reach those difficult areas that cannot otherwise be reached by conventional lifts.
Wheel based The category started with wheel-based units in 1977, and today remains be the preferred solution for indoor applications. The wheel based versions offers maximum maneuverability because of its steering abilities. Opposite the track based versions (that steers by moving the tracks in opposite direction), the wheel based units offer up to 180° front wheel steering. Combined with a much smaller foot print under the wheels than tracks, these units represents the least impact on any delicate surface they operate on.
Most importantly, and true to the original concept, the wheel based units remain the only lifts that can access through a 3 ft. single door, yet provide work height from 72 – 138 ft. Being for in- or outdoor use, the wheel based units require a solid and relative level surface as far as traveling
Tracked based The track based concept has grown in popularity given its ability to travel on uneven surfaces, and thereby represent an alternative to much bigger outdoor lifts. While designed mostly for outdoor use, thanks to the power alternatives available today, they can also be used for indoor use.
The smaller units up to about 60 ft. work height provides single door access like the wheel based units, while the bigger units from 70 ft. to 170 ft. work height needs a double door. However, that in itself is a major achievement, which allows architects the freedom to create tall atriums that otherwise never could be maintained.
As mentioned earlier, the compact lift has slowly changed how entire industries work today. Window cleaners no longer hang from a rope, but have their feet safely planted in a basket combined with a much larger work range translating into higher productivity. Large facilities like airports, convention centers or shopping malls no longer have to close down an entire section for weeks to erect scaffolding, but can move lifts in and out of the area to conduct work during off hours. And tree care professionals no longer has to climb hazardous dead old trees in back yards because they can’t get their bucket trucks in, but can work from a compact lift next to the tree.
Any combination between limited access/ground pressure restrictions and a need for significant work height represents a prime application for compact lift equipment. Additionally, the horizontal outreach capabilities of the compact lifts solves common applications such as reaching out over escalators, openings to floors below and reaching up and over permanent installations.
Thanks to the versatility of these lifts they often also combine the need for several lifts into one, changing the lift inventory of both end-users and rental companies. Obviously, larger cities and metros represents the highest concentration of applications, but they can be found anywhere.
High ROI opportunities for the rental industry
When the first compact lifts came to North America, the rental industry was skeptical and hesitant to embrace the category for several reasons. For one it represented a different approach to logistics and training. Opposite standard lift equipment, the compacts could not just be dropped off, but needed expanded training. Not so much because of the more complex controls, but the need to change the mentality of the rental customer. Secondly, they were also, measured feet by feet, much more expensive than conventional lifts. So for several years they remained a specialty item.
Ironically, two negatives became the positive catalyst for expansion of rental availabilities for compact lifts in North America. The tragic events of 9/11 in 2001 prompted overnight changes to facility security. Areas that was accessible before, could no longer be reached with conventional equipment and facilities began to demand compact equipment, prompting more rental companies to look into the segment. The other big trigger was the economic down turn in 2008/09, causing an almost off the cliff drop in demand for conventional mainstream lift equipment. Forced to look at other revenue sources, the compact segment was now a viable alternative. Presented with the choice between renting out one single 95 ft. compact lift or 25 scissor lifts to get the same revenue opened the eyes of the industry.
The conclusion that European rental companies had come to 10-15 years earlier for different reasons, finally manifested itself among rental companies first in the US, and now slowly also Canada as far accepting the compact category as a permanent part of their rental fleets.
While the process has started, the population concentration and large cities of the eastern provinces of Canada represents an untapped market with great growth potential for those companies that engage in the segment.
Coming to North America
It took almost 20 years before ReachMaster as the first European manufacturer established its own presence in North America in the mid 1990’s, Teupen from Germany followed in 2008 with permanent representation and today more than a dozen manufacturers offers compact solutions through distributors.
Today most of the taller units come from primarily Denmark (ReachMaster Falcon and Omme Lift) as well as Germany (Teupen and Denka) with Italian CMC and Platform Basket offering a few models above 70 ft. work height. Virtually everything else below that work height come from Italian manufactures, including Bluelift, Platform Basket, CMC, Hinowa (marketed in North America as a private label by JLG), Oil & Steel, Easy Lift and Cormidi.
The “think big, but operate small” has finally come to North America.