HANGOUT. European design aids inspections. (Photo courtesy of Manitou North America Inc.)

Designers in France and Italy have found an innovative way to help transportation agencies stretch their equipment budgets without cramping engineers’ necks during bridge inspections.

Europe’s solution is a new type of telescopic handler that has quietly hit the U.S. market. The units have a typical operator cab and telescoping boom but are attached to an upper works that can rotate 360° and mimic many of the features of a rough-terrain crane. A variety of attachments like winches, platforms and buckets can transform them into several different machines.

Manitou B.F., a French manufacturer that claims to be the world’s largest producer of rough-terrain forklifts, believes that it is "at the head of the pack" with the new telehandler and inspection kit, says Edward Ugolini, director of sales and marketing for the firm’s distributor, Manitou North America Inc., Waco, Texas. The niche machines were first introduced in Europe in the mid-1990s, started appearing in the U.S. in 2000 and now are generating some interest from contractors, rental firms, state agencies and private owners, he says.

Two other producers in Europe are manufacturing similar handlers. They are Merlo S.p.A., a Cuneo, Italy-based family-owned firm, and Terexlift Srl., also of Italy and a division of manufacturing giant Terex Corp., Westport, Conn. Both firms say they are not yet offering the machines in North America.

As usual, the versatility comes at a premium. Base prices top out at $177,000. Buyers also can opt for a $30,000 bridge inspection attachment. Together, the total cost still is one-third to one-half less than a typical "snooper" aerial bucket truck, says Jim Stumpner, Bureau 1 maintenance chief for Illinois Dept. of Transportation. The highway-mobile, dedicated inspection vehicles are "very expensive" to procure and are used "mostly over river crossings where we don’t have the ability to close the road below," he says.