Chicago may have lost the 2016 Olympic Games, but the global competitive spirit on the jobsite is still alive. A Windy City contractor is test-driving the world’s largest Chinese concrete pump—and the first of its size to appear on a U.S. construction project.

Concrete mixers feed the hopper.
Photo: Tudor Van Hampton
Concrete mixers feed the hopper.
Tom Rutkowski at the controls.
Photo: Tudor Van Hampton
Tom Rutkowski at the controls.

The pump, manufactured by Changsha-based Sany Heavy Industry Co. Ltd., is wrapping up its U.S. debut at the site of the roughly $1-billion Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago, under construction in Chicago’s Streeterville neighborhood and scheduled to open in 2012.

“This is the first, biggest [Sany] pump used in America,” says Jeff Wang, regional manager at the manufacturer’s Atlanta-based U.S. subsidiary, Sany America Inc.

The machine, a model HBT90, can pump up to 2,700 ft high and 117 cu yd per hour. The same model pumped up the 1,614-ft-tall Shanghai World Financial Center, completed in 2008, says Wang.

Executives of Concrete Structures of the Midwest Inc., West Chicago, say they first saw the pump at the annual World of Concrete exhibition in Las Vegas. There, Sany has made a heavy push to enter the North American market for several years.

The Chicago-area concrete firm purchased the machine and put it to work last summer placing walls and floors for the 1.25-million-sq-ft, steel-and-concrete children’s hospital.

The decision to buy came with some risks, executives say. Because many concrete pumps are sourced globally, clients care less about who builds them and more about who can service them in the field.

Established suppliers, such as Schwing, Putzmeister and Alliance, have the infrastructure to service North American contractors quickly. Options are limited, however, because there are so few suppliers.

Some also are facing financial trouble. St. Paul, Minn.-based Schwing America Inc. is currently in Chapter 11 bankruptcy proceedings. And on Jan. 18, Putzmeister dealer and pump contractor Brundage-Bone Concrete Pumping Inc. and subsidiary JLS Concrete Pumping filed for Chapter 11 in Denver.

Another deciding factor was simply owning versus renting. The Sany machine cost about $400,000, or 10% to 15% cheaper than established brands, providing faster payback.

“For the biggest jobs, we always rent,” explains Vadim Kontorovich, project manager for the Chicago-area concrete firm. “We decided this time, let’s see if we can buy it.”

False Starts

Chicago’s construction scene, as in other big cities, is not always friendly to outsiders.

Adding even more pressure, the pump had some problems right out of the chute. A computer glitch kept the...