Almost all are the standard designs of inexpensive single-speed CD and double-speed MD wire rope hoists made by hundreds of manufacturers around the country.

Only a small fraction of that total – perhaps as much as 10,000, according to Goto – are chain hoists. “Traditionally wire rope hoists have covered a lot of the market, as in Japan and Korea,” says Harry Ollila, chief executive of Konecranes North East Asia.

But it is this market that is attracting many of the European manufacturers.

“Rather recently chain hoists have entered the Chinese market. There is a very substantial potential,” he says.

“There are thousands and thousands of small industries in China for which chain hoists are ideally suited,” he says. “They need to move loads from 200kg to about 3t.”

But now that there is the money to modernize, he adds, Chinese factories are choosing electrified products because of their convenience and desire for greater productivity.

“Wire rope is ten times as big in China as chain hoists,” said Stahl international sales director Wolfgang Wagner. “But look what happened in Brazil. Ten years ago it had a huge hand chain market, now it’s changed to electric chain. When people are richer, they buy electric products.”

Part of the reason for the potential is that foreign chain hoist manufacturers have an edge of experience over locals.

“Chain hoists have fine mechanics. They are small products, and must be accurately manufactured. It’s not that easy to build a good chain hoist,” Ollila says, although he admits that there are some Chinese manufacturers.

Pekka Lundmark, KCI Konecranes CEO, adds that sales of electric chain hoists exploit a crossover zone between 1t and 2t capacity, in which both chain hoists and wire rope hoists can do the same job.

Kito is also keen to get in on the chain hoist market, and argues that chain hoists are more compact than a wire rope hoist of the same capacity, according to Goto. Chain is easier to inspect for damage than wire rope, he adds, and chain hoists can work above 28°C (100°F), a temperature that would melt the grease lubricating the inner strands of a wire rope.

Demag has sold its new design of chain hoist, the DC COM, for a year in China. Manual chain hoists are not fast enough for a production environment, argues sales and marketing director Yun Wang. He said he is selling chain hoists on their small size, and low-maintenance sub-assemblies such as sealed gearboxes.

So partly, foreign companies rely on their expertise and engineering backgrounds to sell chain hoists. But they also benefit because many of their competitors will not bother to market their products in China because of strict government type-approval regulations.

The Chinese government requires that foreign manufacturers submit hoist designs for approval before they can be sold in the country. Electric hoists must meet the stringent GB standards, launched three years ago.

It is a difficult standard to attain, says Ichiro Goto of Kito, one of the manufacturers who has been through the process. “Local manufacturers couldn’t get it,” he says. He said that including factory improvements, Kito spent almost 20m Yen ($190,000) on obtaining GB compliance. He said that other companies whose hoists have passed this criteria include KCI Konecranes, Demag, Abus, and Cheng Day (sold as Black Bear).

Once they are in, foreign-based manufacturers compete with relatively few other companies in a vast market.

KCI Konecranes’ Pekka Lundmark says that chain hoists have developed “extremely well” this year – but would not release product-specific sales figures. (KCI Konecranes makes its chain hoists in the UK, France, and Germany). He said that the company has no plans to start chain hoist manufacture in China.