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Compact Equipment Trends

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October 1, 2015 by DAVID GODKIN

Read customer surveys, go to customer jobsites and speak to customers. They want their compact machine to meet its capability by dig depth or breakout in the smallest package possible, says Greg Worley, product manager, Caterpillar.

It sounds like the measure of a piece of compact equipment is the same as heavy equipment: production. But are there other ways of looking at the value of a mini-excavator or compact track loader than tonnes of material per hour cut or carried? And what about maintenance? Is it easier to maintain a compact track loader simply because it’s smaller than a standardsize excavator?

These were some of the questions we posed to four CE manufacturers – and along the way learned about trends in compact equipment design, manufacture and performance.

First up: Corey Rogers, marketing manager, Hyundai Construction Equipment Americas. “I think production is important, but I think it’s secondary to precision. A lot of contractors are doing landscaping, small grading and land improvements, putting in waste and electrical lines.” As important to the precision with which your machine moves along vertical walls is its power-tomachine- size ratio, according to Rogers.

That is not to be confused with sheer horsepower for better ground speed, adds Worley. He says that, compared to otherconstruction machines, Cat’s smaller excavators travel 3.5 m.p.h. at best. That means they actually use relatively low horsepower.

“It all really comes down to your hydraulic displacement, as opposed to HP. In today’s technology, even on our larger machines, you can do so much more with less HP.”

On its 3.5 to eight-tonne machines, Cat runs its High Definition Hydraulic system, a combination of open- and closed-centre systems, which Worley says is “all about efficiencies, fuel savings, precision and controllability.”

Not surprisingly, Hyundai also gets the most from its mini-excavator engines employing “maximum hydraulic system capacity,” including increased efficiencies through better pilot control.

“A lot of our machines are equipped with nitrogen accumulators that keep constant pressure on that pilot system and help provide better reactivity and controllability out of the joy sticks,” says Rogers.

Optional proportional controls, meantime, give the operator the ability to meter the amount of speed and pressure applied to a specific attachment.

While Worley agrees precision controls are vital, he insists the measure of a great mini-excavator remains its breakout power: will it dig a hole, especially if you’re using a smaller machine? Interestingly, he says the competition against Cat’s 301.4D or 301.7D compact excavator is not the other compact equipment vendors. The real competition is manual labour.

“Our customers say ‘My guys could plant a tree – twoguys and a couple of shovels, doing the job in 30 minutes. Or I could use a machine and do it in five.’ These are time and labour saving devices.”


In recent years, mini-excavators have enjoyed a competitive advantage over backhoes. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is the ability to slew the entire house, boom, dipper, bucket or breaker upon the undercarriage for spoil placement.

Worley would only say there are advantages and disadvantages to both machines and that “at the end of the day, it comes down to having the right machine for the right application.”

Rogers went further: “A backhoe is limited in working range. On a backhoe you take your outriggers back up and re-position the machine. A mini-excavator is much more versatile; it’s going to be quicker, more productive and you don’t have that

much of a footprint.”

CTLs became a dominant machine from 2000-2005. “Growth in CTLs was phenomenal,” says John Deere’s Product Marketing Manager Greg Zupanic. But then something happened. “CTL folks said ‘Whoa, wait a minute – these machines are much more expensive to operate and there’s a lot of maintenance involved because the rubber tracks cost more than the tires.”

This provoked a “softening” in the CTL market over the next five years, and skid steers became more competitive. More recently, the pendulum has swung back again as the CTL market has rebounded and the skid steer market declined. “The economy,” says Zupanic, “is getting a little bit better. There’s a lot of work available. Housing and commercial building starts are very strong across North America.”

To prove his point, Zupanic cites AEM statistics for the last twelve months which show that approximately 37,000 skid steer units were sold in Canada and the U.S. By comparison, 39,000 CTLs have been sold over the same period. That, says Zupanic, represents a market increase of 23 per cent for CTLs versus a two per cent increase for skid steers.

“So for the first time in its history, track loaders have outpaced skid steers in North America in terms of sales and in terms of growth year-over-year.”

How does this translate into an actual comparison of CTL/skid steer production?

Zupanic contrasts the 100 HP 332 John Deere skid steer with its 100 HP 333D compact track loader. Skid steer: 181 tonnes p/h. CTL: 205 tonnes p/h. Why the difference? The heavier, tracked machine provides more stability and pushing power, which converts into more breakout force from the pile.

“Guys are realizing you can get a lot more work done, but you can also work more often throughout the year. That’s because they have great flotation – they only have four or five psi of ground pressure. A skid steer has 30-40 psi, depending on the weight of the machine.”


Is a CTL a better investment than a skid steer? Not necessarily, says Takeuchi’snational product manager David Stegner.

If you’re comparing productivity, “There’s no contest. The track loader is going to win every time,” especially in wet ground conditions.

But if you’re working on hard, dry surfaces a lot where flotation, traction and balance aren’t vital, then the skid steer is a good, relatively inexpensive option, he says.

In fact, CTLs are Takeuchi’s core product. Contractors learn to be more versatile with their equipment, downsizing from a large skid steer to a smaller track loader, for example, “to get equal or even better performance,” says Stegner. At the same time, you’ll find pilot controls on a skid steer, too. And while the Takeuchi TS 50R wheeled skid steer may not feature height adjustment, its ride controls for operator comfort over rough terrain are a big plus, says Stegner.

Some manufacturers opt for a dual lap bar which swings to the side. Takeuchi and others have embraced the rear pivoting lap bar, which includes integrated arm rests for support and keeps the hands close to the controls. The instrument panel and function switches on a Takeuchi skid steer, meantime, are overhead. The key benefit, according to Stegner: more room for the operator, using space “that would otherwise be wasted.”

One question, though: when you have instrumentation near the pilot controls as you do on a CTL, won’t you get better line-of-sight than on a skid steer with the instrumentation overhead?

“You’re right. On a lot of tasks you would be looking eye level or down, for example, grading tasks,” says Stegner. “But if you’re doing a lot of skid-steer loading you would be looking up over the dump truck. So it would be line-of-sight, too.”


If it’s smaller, that must reduce maintenance requirements, righ
t? Forget about it. Despite its size, a mini-excavator has all the same components as a standard-sized excavator, requiring virtually the same maintenance and care for continued performance and service life. A case in point,  says Rogers, is track tension. Adjust the rubber track too loosely and you’ll accelerate wear, bringing the excavator to a halt until a new track can be installed. “Make it too tight,” he says, “and the rubber will tear and increase wear on the traction motors, sprockets and front idlers.”

In addition to maintaining proper track tension (referencing OEM specs) Zupanic offers three tips:

1. Every day, clean out any track mud before it dries or freezes.

2. Operate your machine in the right conditions. If you want to run a CTL over rockand gravel, fine, but remember “gravel is not a friend of rubber and limit the amount of time that you’re rotating… Every time you turn, that gravel is going to get sucked or pushed into the undercarriage in between the rolling components and the rubber. It’s easy to turn quickly and often, but in those conditions you’re going to burn through some rubber.”

3. “Cowboy” operators who run a machine hard all day long or spin their tires at the pile going nowhere aren’t doing you or your machine any favours. Tell them to save it for the monster truck rally.

Finally, in a recent online forum, one owner complained that every piece of compact equipment he’s encountered has too many ledges and lips where dirt and mud can accumulate. “There are so many of these ledges that they put on the blade at the front, and underneath it’s ridiculous. You can’t possibly clean your machine.”

The solution: smooth surfaces all around. Design the machine to reduce material buildup such as clean-out holes under the upper rollers and sloped side frames.

That is Hyundai’s approach.

“Material falls out and is easy to scoop,” says Rogers. “Our machine designs also minimize the grooves and edges that can otherwise contribute to material build-up.”


David Godkin is a B.C.-based freelance writer and editor

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