Overhead Traveling Cranes, Hoists, and Monorail Systems

SIC 3536

Industry report:

This classification comprises establishments primarily engaged in manufacturing overhead traveling cranes, hoists, and monorail systems for installation in factories, warehouses, marinas, and other industrial and commercial establishments. Excluded from this classification are establishments primarily engaged in manufacturing cranes except industrial types, automobile wrecker hoists, and aerial work platforms, which are classified in SIC 3531: Construction Machinery. Also excluded from this industry are those manufacturing aircraft loading hoists, which are classified in SIC 3537: Industrial Trucks, Tractors, Trailers, and Stackers.

Industry Snapshot

The overhead traveling crane, hoist, and monorail system industry includes a diverse assortment of products that fit within a narrowly defined segment of the materials handling equipment industry. Not to be confused with various types of mobile cranes used in construction projects, overhead cranes are variously structured machines that "travel" along a runway structure or pair of tracks located above the work floor of a plant or factory. They are further characterized by the presence of a fixed or trolley-mounted hoisting system that is connected to the tracks by a bridge structure, which consists of either a single or double girder.

The industry manufactures three basic kinds of overhead traveling cranes that accommodate the vast majority of materials handling needs. The first type is the overhead bridge crane, which is fixed to an overhead beam running the length of the building. Generally regarded as the most rugged of all overhead traveling cranes, this class of crane is noted for its ability to cover the entire width and length of a plant. The jib crane is the second variety of crane produced by the industry. It is usually mounted to a wall or pillar and is used to service a smaller area of a plant, usually the area of a single workstation. Gantry cranes, which are mounted overhead and are able to service a particular bay or workstation, comprise the third category.

While overhead traveling cranes are sometimes operated manually, they are usually powered by electricity and can be interfaced with automatic guided vehicles, stacker cranes, and monorails for increased efficiency. Accordingly, hoists and monorails, the other major segments of this industry classification, are often manufactured for use in conjunction with overhead traveling cranes. Employed mainly in an industrial capacity, products in this industry are also employed in stone and concrete pre-casting yards, steel fabricating shops, and storage facilities.

According to industry statistics from Dun and Bradstreet, there were an estimated 483 establishments engaged in manufacturing overhead traveling cranes, hoists, and monorail systems for installation in factories, warehouses, marinas, and other industrial and commercial establishments in 2010. Together these firms generated $4.8 billion in revenues and employed 10,657 people. On average, each establishment employed 23 workers who generated annual revenues of an estimated $13.3 million.

Geographically, the greatest number of hoist, crane, and monorail establishments--almost a third of the total industry establishments--were located in six states: Texas, Michigan, California, Florida, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania, Washington, Texas, and Michigan hosted the most industry employees, with almost 40 percent of the total industry workforce. Of the industry's production workers, most (more than 60%) were engaged in manufacturing winches, aerial work platforms, and automotive wrecker hoists, while less than a quarter were involved in producing overhead traveling cranes and monorail systems, with the remainder producing hoists.

Background and Development

While various types of jib cranes and other lifting devices were installed in foundries during the late eighteenth century, and the overhead traveling bridge crane existed as early as 1860, materials handling systems were not widely used in the United States until World War II in 1941. During the 1940s, however, firms that had previously been hesitant to make the large capital investment necessary for implementing an extensive materials handling system were forced to do so in order to meet the production demands of war materials contracts. The fact that the implementation of materials handling systems actually lowered production costs in many cases was only a by-product of the more pressing concern of supplying the military with the necessary weaponry and machinery for winning the war.

New levels of production volume and efficiency demonstrated during the war through the use of materials handling systems led to a phenomenal increase in the use of various types of overhead traveling cranes, hoists, and monorails in the years immediately after. Having demonstrated its potential for lowering production costs during the war, materials handling emerged as the most effective tool for offsetting the rising costs of labor and materials. During this period materials handling research and development efforts evolved into an integral segment of industrial management and engineering education programs as well, legitimizing the discipline of materials handling within both academic and industrial settings.

As technology--especially in the field of electronics--progressed during the 1950s and 1960s, gradual improvements were made in overhead traveling cranes, hoists, and monorail systems, enabling the industry to carve a profitable niche in the larger spectrum of materials handling equipment. As industries were being pressured to increase production while employing the same amount of floor space, equipment that could move materials overhead offered several advantages over its competitors in the broadly defined materials handling industry. While most types of conveyor systems, for instance, occupied a considerable amount of floor space, overhead cranes kept this space free for other production activities. Offering this ergonomic advantage, the hoist, crane, and monorail industry grew into a $500 million a year business by the early 1970s, employing over 16,000 people.

As the 1970s progressed, the introduction of computer technology revolutionized the field. While the development of solid-state logic had signaled the end of many of the bulky relay-type controls of earlier years in storage-retrieval systems, the same technology could not be applied to complex one-of-a-kind systems without a relatively high capital investment. The widespread availability of microcomputers, however, solved this problem, enabling cranes to be regulated by programmable controllers. Rather than investing large amounts of capital to perform specialized tasks requiring automation, companies were often able to use existing hardware for a variety of tasks, changing only the computer software to accommodate the desired new function. Largely through the improvements in efficiency engendered by these technological advances, the overhead traveling crane, hoist, and monorail industry more than doubled the value of its annual shipments by the end of the decade, while increasing its production workforce by only 7 percent.

Although the 1981 passage of the Economic Recovery Tax--which offered incentives to companies that invested in the modernization and expansion of production facilities--held promise for a strong decade for the materials handling business as a whole, such expectations did not hold true for most segments of the broad industry group. While the conveyor and conveying equipment industry enjoyed steady increases in revenues during the early and mid-1980s, the hoist, crane, and monorail industry lagged behind, suffering nearly a 50 percent decrease in revenue between 1981--the industry's best year of production, with over $1.4 billion in shipping--and 1987. The increased use of robotics, the fastest growing segment of the materials handling industry in the 1980s, was partially responsible for this decline. Revenues for the hoist, crane, and monorail industry steadily improved during the late 1980s, however, as the nation's economy grew, enabling businesses to purchase materials handling equipment they had put off buying earlier in the decade.

The volume of materials handling equipment is generally thought to be closely correlated to the condition of the U.S. economy as a whole. Accordingly, the recessive conditions of the early 1990s resulted in sluggish patterns of growth for all segments of the materials handling market during this period. Lacking the cash flow to justify new purchases of equipment, most companies relied on existing machinery to meet materials handling needs. The hoist, crane, and monorail industry, however, went against this general trend. While shipments for the industry's counterparts in the conveyor and conveying equipment and industrial truck and tractors industries fell 5 percent and nearly 12 percent, respectively, manufacturers of hoists, cranes, and monorails enjoyed a 20 percent increase in shipments between 1990 and 1991.

About 168 establishments, employing 7,900 people, were engaged in the manufacturing of hoists, overhead cranes, and monorail systems in 1994. These companies combined produced $1.07 billion in industry shipments that year, a drop from 1991's $1.21 billion, but a slight improvement over 1992 and 1993. The manufacturing of overhead traveling cranes and monorail systems accounted for about 47 percent of total shipments, as did the production of various types of hoists. Miscellaneous hoist, crane, and monorail products made up the remaining 6 percent.

Many companies made heavy purchases of materials handling equipment in the late 1980s and so made minimal capital investments in the early 1990s. As equipment aged and the economy continued to improve, capital investment rose in the late 1990s. However, much of this investment was in retrofitting of existing equipment, rather than new equipment purchases. Orders increased within the industry in early 1996, rising almost 6 percent in the first quarter over the last quarter of 1995. The renewed health of the U.S. automobile manufacturing industry also translated into an improved financial outlook for the overhead crane, hoist, and monorail industry. Industry shipments grew consistently throughout in the late 1990s, from $3.13 billion in 1997 to $4.50 billion in 1999. Shipments reached $5.12 billion in 2000. Employment increased from 17,784 workers in 1997 to 22,528 workers in 2000.

Steel prices, fuel costs and foreign competition impacted the overhead traveling cranes, hoists, and monorail systems industry during the mid-2000s. Beginning in the late 1990s, fluctuating monetary exchange rates spurred the initial escalation of imports, according to an MHIA report, but since then the U.S. market had become increasingly international because of "a combination of product sophistication and improved low-cost offshore manufacturing capability." This report cited European manufacturers as the U.S. industry's main competitors, with the trade deficit for this industry reaching an all-time high in 2002 ($112 million). However, exports rose again in the years after 2002, as borne out by the U.S. Trade Administration statistics. U.S. exports of overhead traveling cranes, hoists, and monorail systems fell from $257 million in 2000 to $178 million in 2002, but jumped to $189 million in 2003. Higher steel prices, primarily because of increased global demand, especially from China, also impacted the industry. However, China also led the world in imports of U.S. built-up trolley hoists and complete overhead crane systems for five out of the seven years between 1998 and 2004, according to an MHIA study.

The value of product shipments for the industry was $3.01 billion in 2004, up from $2.87 billion the previous year and only slightly higher than the 2002 value of product shipments. The production outlook for the overall material handling equipment manufacturing market looked positive in the mid-2000s, which boded well for the overhead traveling crane, hoist, and monorail systems sector. In 2005, new orders for material handling equipment rose 27 percent over the previous year and shipments increased 25.4 percent, reaching $22.4 billion, according figures from the U.S. Census Bureau cited by the MHIA.

In 2008, manufacturers of hoists, cranes, and monorails held 31.4 percent of industry share and generated $5.63 billion in shipments. Boat lifts manufacturers shipped $90.6 million in products, overhead traveling cranes manufacturers shipped $164.4 million, and industrial plant cranes manufacturers shipped $449.2 million.

During 2009, manufacturers of conveyors and conveying equipment experienced the worst downturn in decades. In fact, new orders in the material handling industry plunged 44.9 percent during the first half of 2009. Overall weak demand in the materials handling equipment manufacturing industry forced companies to initiate significant structural changes and restructuring measures in order to improve efficiency and competitiveness to offset severe declines in orders.

While the economic downturn seemed to have turned the corner in late 2009, recovery within the industry was slow, with no real expansion realized until at least 2011. Despite the economic uncertainty, the Institute for Supply Management (ISM) projected the manufacturing sector would advance into the early 2010s. In the meantime, the industry had to contend with a weak economy, a credit crisis, and high energy costs.

Current Conditions

According to Dun and Bradstreet, hoists were the largest category in this industry in 2010, with total sales reaching $738.6 million, generated by 65 establishments employing 2,069 workers. This category included boat lifts, davits, hand hoists, hoisting slings, and mine hoists. The manufacture of cranes was the second largest category, with industrial plant cranes accounting for $439.4 million in sales and overhead traveling cranes for $152 million. Finally, six U.S. establishments specialized in the production of monorail systems, and together these firms generated $4.5 million in sales in 2010.

By 2010, the construction machinery industry overall was thought to be on the recovery side of the economic recession. According to a report by market research firm IBISWorld, "Better conditions in the construction sector and robust demand for construction machinery from emerging markets will stimulate revenue growth. Furthermore, demand is expected to rebound as dealers restock inventory and exports to China and other emerging markets jump."

The crane portion of the industry was hoping to be aided by the increase in cargo traffic in 2011. According to Cranes Today, there was a 5 percent increase in retail container traffic in the United States in the first half of 2011, per statistics from the National Retail Federation. Crane companies worked to find new ways to deal more efficiently with the workload; for example, one trend was toward tandem lifting, or lifting cargo or other materials with two cranes at once. Said Peter Klein of Gottwald Port Technology, " With lifts increasing not only in weight but also in their overall dimensions, it is not only the demand for more powerful cranes that is growing. There is [also] a growing need for alternative methods of lifting."

Industry Leaders

Industry leaders in the early 2010s included The Manitowoc Co. of Manitowoc, Wisconsin, with sales of $3.1 billion in 2010 and a workforce of 13,300 employees, and Houston, Texas-based Weatherford International Inc., a subsidiary of Weatherford International Ltd. of Switzerland, which registered more than $10 billion in 2010 sales. Terex Corp. of Westport, Connecticut, had revenues of $4.4 billion and 16,300 employees, whereas Columbus McKinnon Corp. of Amherst, New York, had 2010 sales of $524 million with 2,531 employees. The smaller, privately held Morris Material Handling Inc. of Oak Creek, Wisconsin, had annual revenues of $97 million and 800 employees, and Gorbel Inc. of Fishers, New York, had sales of $37.3 million in 2010.


Total employment in the overhead traveling crane, hoist, and monorail system manufacturing industry declined sharply in the early and mid-1980s, climbed to 8,400 in 1991, fell again in 1992 and 1993, and then rose back to 7,900 in 1994. By 1997, total employment in this industry had grown exponentially; reaching 17,784 that year. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, industry employment continued to grow and reached 20,813 in 2001. However, in 2002, employment fell to 15,613, including 10,202 production workers who earned an average hourly wage of $16.77, compared to approximately $14.00 in 1997. The employment figures for the material handling equipment manufacturing industry beyond 2002 give some indication of the employment numbers for the hoist, overhead traveling crane, and monorail system manufacturing segment. In 2002, there were 82,148 employed overall in the material handling equipment industry, with 49,682 of these employed as production workers. In 2004, the number of overall employees had dropped to 73,867, including 45,606 production workers.

While the recovery of the U.S. economy signaled better times for the materials handling workforce as a whole in the early 2010s, blue-collar employment prospects in the hoist, crane, and monorail industry suffered from the very durability of the products they manufacture. With a lifespan of 30 years or more, cranes installed in the 2000s may not need to be replaced until well into the 2030s. As they face the need for new materials handling functions, companies in the future are expected to "retrofit" or modernize older model equipment to cut costs.

The direct production workers in this industry are broadly classified by the U.S. Department of Labor as working within the "general purpose machinery manufacturing" segment of the machinery manufacturing industry. These workers are mostly skilled, or have acquired the knowledge, experience, and particular skills gained through advanced training or education that can include technical schooling and apprentice programs, as well as on-the-job training. Accordingly, they generally earn higher wages than other kinds of production workers. However, employment for these skilled workers was expected to decrease into the 2010s. Consequently, the strongest employment opportunities in the industry in future years will be found, most likely, in the fields of service and technical support rather than in the production of new units.

Research and Technology

For an industry whose fundamental hardware components originated more than a century ago, new developments in product technology have, for the most part, occurred gradually over a number of years as the country's material handling needs have changed.

The most significant of these changes in recent years occurred, similarly to other manufacturing industries, as a result of the development and advancement of solid state logic and computer technology. Whereas overhead traveling cranes of the past were controlled by bulky relay-type systems, models developed since the 1970s were regulated by highly developed solid-state logic and computer regulated control systems. Although older control systems were sufficient for simple storage and retrieval tasks, they were less successful when applied to production functions, which often required the crane to perform a variety of precise movements by several different components. The development of these new forms of technology enabled overhead cranes to perform these complex production tasks more efficiently by reducing the size of control system hardware and improving its flexibility and durability.

In the late twentieth century, control mechanisms for overhead traveling cranes and other types of equipment within this industrial classification were further refined and modernized to accommodate the changing needs of their users. The major developments in this period involved the increased efficiency and wider range of applications for automated cranes regulated by programmable controllers or other computers. Such improvements brought forth the introduction of automated cranes to a wide range of manufacturing environments, servicing locations as varied as an aerospace plant and a textile factory. The widespread acceptance of automated control systems also facilitated a variety of interfacing applications, linking overhead cranes with other types of materials handling equipment, such as monorails, robots, and automated guided vehicles.

Promising technological developments of special note in the late twentieth and early twenty-first century included more sophisticated radio programmable logic controllers, self-propelled floor cranes, cordless and infrared control technology, and retrofitting innovations. Such technology, a compromise between completely manual and robotic systems, was particularly useful where very complex tasks need to be performed (as opposed to robotic systems, which typically perform more simple tasks) and requires minimal training to use, according to the company.

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