Lone Wolff: Habib Mikati on Wolffkran in the GCC
Habib Mikati explains how Wolffkran’s single-minded devotion to tower crane technology has led its characteristic red cranes to crowd out the competition on project after project across the GCC
The term ‘specialist’ is frequently overused. It is not unusual for manufacturers to produce diverse and expansive product ranges, while at the same time claim specialist expertise in all things equally. Wolffkran, on the other hand, is a specialist in the truest possible sense. Hailing from Heilbronn in southern Germany, the tower crane manufacturer has remained true to its calling since 1854 — the same year the Suez Canal Company was formed — in an unbroken span of 162 years wholly devoted to the production and perfection of cranes.
This single-minded determination shines through in the way the brand conducts its business — most notably in the unwavering technical support it provides to its customers in terms of design and engineering. And it doesn’t take Habib Mikati, managing director of Wolffkran ISS (but once a technical person and plant manager) to gravitate towards this theme during a discussion about the projects currently employing Wolffkran tower cranes.
In Dubai, he explains: “You can see the biggest assembly of Wolff cranes on The Palm, where ACC has more than 16 of our cranes. Although they have never used Wolffkran before, they came to us because we were able to specially fit and retrofit items for them.
“No other company here was able to do the design — we have placed the cranes on a special slab, so that they would start from a height, not from the ground — and only we could provide them with the solution for this project. Wolff is known for these challenges.”
The cranes are a combination of 7532 cross-headed cranes and some 6031 flat-top cranes. The region’s favourite crane, however, is the 355B crane, a luffing model used extensively on high-rise and densely-populated projects across the Gulf (including another project in the UAE with ACC), but especially so in Saudi Arabia.
Mikati highlights: “In Makkah alone, we have more than 130 355B units. It has also been used on the Princess Nora bint Abdulrahman University, on the King Abdulaziz International Airport, and on the Kingdom Tower — this crane is bread and butter for the contractors.”
And indeed, the Kingdom Tower project in Jeddah was originally employing only Liebherr cranes, but in a turn of events that represents somewhat of a coup for Wolffkran, the tower crane manufacturer is now sharing the project, providing two of the four cranes on the tower, and seven additional cranes across the site.
The reason mirrors the way things went down on The Palm in Dubai. Wolffkran was able to provide what its competitors could not. As Mikati explains: “For the Kingdom Tower, the deal was with Liebherr, but then they took cranes from us because we could give them a bigger winch that has a faster speed.
“We could retrofit a winch from another crane onto a 355B crane — and this is where it comes down to quality. We don’t handle custom orders from our production line, but if you need modification to do a challenging job we will do it. That’s where our engineering department rises to the challenge.
“For the Kingdom Tower they are special cranes, with an upgraded winch compared to the standard 355B — giving them a higher rope speed of up to 294m/minute. The winch is typically used on a higher version of the crane — so it’s a standard Wolffkran production winch — but it was retrofitted onto the 355B.”
He adds: “Now we are also working with them on a wind solution for the free slew of the cranes when they reach the ultimate heights of the Kingdom Tower — because they are afraid that the cranes might hit each other or collapse. We are working on a parking radius solution — to decrease [the radius] — which again, the competitors could not do.”
On the last stages of the Kingdom Tower — above 800m — Mikati notes that the wind factor are larger than the factors at ground level — and that if you leave the cranes to slew, they will hit the building or each other. Equally, however, if you do not release the brakes of the crane and allow them to turn when there is wind, they will act as sails, and risk collapse.
Mikati emphasises: “It is not as easy as it may sound — there are a lot of static and dynamic wind forces that need to be taken into consideration. We follow international codes when manufacturing the cranes, and there are special wind zones: the Middle East is Zone C.”
He continues: “When the wind hits normally — everywhere in the world they have no brakes: they are free to slew — now we want to lock them. We are designing special brakes whereby you can apply the brakes on the crane and move the jib into the parking angle —or even lower than the parking angle — so that it does not hit the building. So in this case the brakes are applied and released: they stop the crane.
“We have done it before, once in Hong Kong and once in the United States, but every crane needs to be studied and designed, and this is one of the challenges of the Kingdom Tower. But Wolff is a 160-year-old company, and when it comes to the crane business, we are there for you with solutions that really show quality.”
The nature of the project means Wolffkran is tackling problems that no crane manufacturer has ever dealt with before — in the same way the Burj Khalifa made the structural engineers think about the compression of concrete columns at extreme overbearing pressures — but decades of expertise have lent the Wolff team a steely confidence in their methodology.
But technical competence alone does not necessarily keep a company at the top of its game for 162 years. The reason why Wolffkran provides the engineering of the ties and power elements to its customers as a complementary service is because its reputation is always on the line. Mikati affirms: “We will mess with anything except our reputation and safety. This is the philosophy of Wolff and the owner.”
Wolff works particularly hard to ensure that its dealers have suitably certified service teams, and that it is itself on hand to support the client when they require highly technical assistance.
Mikati notes: “When the client requires any service from us, like the design of the ties, where to put the ties and how to hook the crane we answer them directly and CC the dealer at all times, so that they are in the loop.”
“I received one query from someone in Jordan who had cranes from 1976. He wanted to erect them and know the safety factors for them — and we had to answer. I don’t know how he got them, or from whom he purchased, but as long as he has got a serial number we are committed.”
Besides, Mikati says: “Eventually he will have to buy some spare parts, if he wants to erect the cranes. But the consulting is all free. I sent him the designs free of charge — because when it comes to safety there are no barriers over which we will not immediately jump. When you buy a good brand, excellent service is part of that.”
Beyond the 355B, Wolffkran’s range continues on up, through the 500B, 630B and 750B. Wolff also introduced the smaller 275B at Bauma to fill a previous gap in its range. However, there is no theoretical limit to how high any of these cranes can climb, though there are challenges.
Mikati explains: “Power is lost at heights — so contractors often need to install either a generator or a substation to power the cranes. You also need to have bigger cables at elevated heights. We had a crane that was climbing to 540m, and we told them, ‘you need a substation’, because neither Wolff nor anyone can provide the same power from the ground to 540m, no matter how big the cables.”
Rather than limits, the crane industry is about the trade-off between the requirements of the customer, the practicality and the cost.
Mikati notes: “Some people come to buy a crane and say, ‘what is the price of the crane?’ When they ask this question it means they know nothing about tower cranes. Every tower crane is custom assembled, because there are so many factors to consider: the cross-section, the size of the base, the height and the speed that you want. Wolff offers every crane — and this is unique — with two options of winch: standard and fast. The Kingdom Tower has a super-fast, third version that is now standard in our 355B price list, because we have done the engineering.”
Cutting the cost
The trade-off in terms of the 355B is that for many of the projects it is on in the Middle East it is, if anything, slightly too large. Given the recent impact on regional budgets, the timing of Wolff’s launch of the 275B couldn’t be better.
Mikati affirms: “We are introducing the 275B, the younger brother of the 355B, because we had a gap. We have now already received orders for it from our dealers in the Middle East.
“In Germany we were even fighting over who could sell the prototype crane at Bauma, because everybody had customers for it. I definitely think the 275B will be a hit because the 355B has a cost impact — it’s a little bit big.” Mikati continues: “We are also introducing a new version of the 7532, one of our most popular cranes in the world, with a clear head instead of a cross shape — so that you can have multiple cranes overlapping on the same sites. It’s called the 7534, which means that it can reach 75m and carry 3.4 tonnes at the tip.
“Clear head cranes are more difficult to design, and we have other clear-head models, but this was an important size that the contractors have asked for — so it is a customer-oriented model.”
However, while Wolff’s product is without doubt class-leading, it is the quality and standard of the service that Mikati is keen to reinforce as one of the reasons customers stay with Wolff.
He highlights: “With our years of experience, the breakdowns are minimal, and honestly negligible, because we honour service. We don’t allow a contractor to have a delay on their project because of spare parts. We even send large parts, like jibs, which occupy half a container by plane at no extra cost — because when a crane stops at a jobsite you can have 100 people down. That’s why we say people should invest in a good crane, because it’s not the initial cost of the crane; it’s how many people depend on the crane.”
Mikati returns to ACC’s project on The Palm, where he notes the contractor is now bidding to purchase the cranes. “They were on rental, but now ACC wants to buy them, and we have another project with him and it has six cranes now — so he started and he wants to continue.
“Last year was excellent. Work in Makkah is now going down, but Dubai is committed to projects, and at least up until now we are still getting a lot of enquiries, because Wolffkran is into quality product, not mass production.”