Modern trailing equipment can handle just about any type of freight, from slippery sand to heavy machinery, but despite constant progress in material science and engine technology, there is a natural limit to how much a classic truck and trailer combination can take on.
If a piece of cargo is too big, too heavy or too bulky for the classic set-up to handle, specialist transport businesses therefore often bring in a so-called self-propelled modular transporter (SPMT) to get the job done. Generally speaking, an SPMT is a combination of extremely sturdy multi-axle platforms that are remotely operated via a central computer system. Capable of pivoting 360° as needed, the SPMT can lift, carry and set just about anything a standard truck and trailer combination can’t – from a 300-tonne gas turbine to a 15,000-tonne offshore platform.
As opposed to a classic trailer, an SPMT unit is motorised and can move independently at walking speed, waiving the need for a prime mover during transit. According to the US Department of Transport, the technology is so effective that it is considered a key element of the nation’s on-going federal highway program – bringing “ultimate flexibility and speed” to complex operations like bridge upgrades, for example.
One of the pioneering forces in the design and manufacture of SPMTs is German company Scheuerle. Back in 1983, the company not only invented the SPMT as we know it today, but also found a way to market it internationally. With a design that allowed for flat rack loading, Scheuerle was able to move SPMT modules effortlessly between Europe and the rest of the world – making it one of the first trailer manufacturing businesses in history to go global. Today, some 70 per cent of all loads over 3,000 tonnes and 90 per cent of all loads over 5,000 tonnes worldwide are being moved with a vehicle produced by the TII Group, which comprises the iconic Scheuerle brand as well as fellow German company Kamag and French heavy equipment specialist Nicolas.
Global Trailer met Dr Axel Müller, President of the TII Group, to find out just how the German powerhouse has obtained such dominance in the heavy equipment market and how it plans to retain it in an increasingly competitive environment.
Q: Despite growing opposition, you can’t really get around the TII Group from a market share perspective. You combine three globally renowned manufacturers of heavy-duty transport equipment under the one roof and have been honoured as a ‘world market leader’ at an event in Germany last month. It’s quite the comfortable position to be in, isn’t it?
A: Yes and no. Of course we are proud of what we have achieved. None of our competitors have reached a presence comparable to ours in the global marketplace, which is an outstanding success for a company that technically still falls in the small and medium-sized enterprise bracket. But we also know that we have a healthy competition that is very capable, so becoming complacent is just not an option.
Luckily, as a group, we benefit from what I call ‘the whole is greater than the sum of its parts effect’. Together, Scheuerle, Nicolas and Kamag have a more than 30,000 hydraulically driven axle lines in the market at the moment. That’s some serious firing power, and I think that’s where you need to be in the SPMT game, where equipment has to be moved around the world all the time. So yes, we’re in a good place, but we also make sure we’re not becoming too comfortable in it.
Q: How exactly are you trying to achieve that? We all know that growing opposition is usually accelerating innovation cycles in manufacturing, so how is the TII Group responding from a technology point of view?
A: I’d like to think the TII Group is leading the way in numbers as well as in technology. Take our Power Booster range for example, often referred to as ‘little SPMTs’ by our customers in the US. This technology adds a diesel-hydraulic power unit (PPU) to a dragged modular trailer. If a truck is too weak to master a steep incline, the PPU will interfere and support it with additional thrust. After arrival at the destination, the truck is uncoupled and the vehicle can be manoeuvred to its final destination with a remote control like a conventional SPMT. This is just one example of how we try to keep pushing the bar proactively instead of reacting to what the competition does.
Q: Apart from that very specific example, what else can the TII Group bring to the table? Can the Chief Executive give us his sales pitch?
A: Absolutely, I’m still very much in touch with the product. There are numerous advantages, as well strategically as technologically. First of all, our vehicles are based on the longest experience in the market and are therefore the most reliable and developed solutions. This refers to preciseness of steering, possibilities of coupling modes as well as to the range of available vehicle variations. Strategically speaking, if you buy SPMTs from the TII Group, you have access to a vehicle that has become a commodity available around the world at any time, offering you the possibility to accept any size of profitable transport jobs even without owning all of the necessary equipment.
Q: You just touched on the economies of scale the TII Group has created in the heavy equipment field. If we look at the Group as a whole, there is a lot of history and experience bundled under the TII roof. Which role does that heritage play for you in the way you approach today’s business challenges?
A: I strongly believe that this joint experience is one pillar of our success and is highly valued by our customers around the world. Scheuerle, Nicolas and Kamag have strongly influenced the history of ultra-heavy transportation and more than once redefined what is technically possible. If there is a transport challenge, the TII Group can offer the solution – there’s little we haven’t done in the past and nothing we would shy away from in the future. That kind of self-confidence can only come with experience.
Q: History is also the perfect keyword to talk more about SPMT design. In 1983, Scheuerle, a member of the TII Group, developed the first SPMT – which impact did that invention have on the heavy haulage industry?
A: The SPMT fundamentally changed the transportation of what we call ultra-heavy freight and influenced whole industries along the way. Virtually overnight, it made transport dimensions accessible that were unreachable with a classic truck and trailer combination before. Take plant construction in the petrochemical sector, for example. Modular construction – prefabricated modules weigh up to 15,000 tonnes and more – wouldn’t be possible without the SPMT. Industries like oil and gas, plant and bridge construction or even mining all use prefabricated modular solutions these days. They eliminate the necessity to locate workers in remote areas and vastly increase safety and quality, at the same time reducing development and construction time. They are cheaper, faster and better – and simply wouldn’t be possible without our SPMT.
Q: From a transport business’s point of view, what made the SPMT so successful on a global scale?
A: The SPMT, contrary to a trailer, is a modular and self-driven system that can be coupled into any length or width. So, if you run a transportation business, you have the possibility to access a huge fleet of modules worldwide via cross hire rental that can easily be shipped to your desired location on container flat racks and coupled into any self-driven transport compound you need. Theoretically there’s no limit to it, and that’s what makes it so successful.
Q: So you’ve not only pioneered a new vehicle class, but also the globalisation movement…
A: That’s a tough question. The SPMT became such a success story because it met an urgent need at the time and has since been improved in a mutual process between our customers and our engineering team, so it’s been a bit of a joint effort. Globalisation has been a thing back then as it is today, we’re just communicating faster these days, so I’m not sure what kind of an impact we had here. What we’ve really pioneered is the philosophy of listening closely to the customer’s needs – it might sound generic but that’s the recipe for our success.
Q: Has selling the product become harder since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis or does your global footprint offset the imbalances in demand that manufacturers of standard transport equipment experience?
A: Our performance in different markets has always varied somewhat depending on political and economic changes, that’s just how it is. But you’re right – overall we have a stable situation due to our global footprint. We have seen some delayed projects related to the situation in the Ukraine but luckily, we are little affected by the situation so far.
Q: A final question, also on a global scale. Your equipment has broken several world records – which jobs have left a special impression on you?
A: A 15,000-tonne offshore module at Aker Stord in Leirvik, Norway´s largest shipyard. If you see such a load on 540 axle lines – that’s over 2000 tyres – you get the fascination behind it.