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Gettin’ good grades


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February 1, 2012 by David Godkin

Work horse on the road. Weakling colt in the showroom. That’s the consensus on motor graders since sales dipped sharply in 2008/09. But don’t blame it on the world-wide financial crisis that impacted graders and other equipment categories across North America. Even in a good year motor grader sales are roughly half what they are for excavators, bull dozers and trucks, something Mark Oehnke attributes to work load and durability. “The duty cycle isn’t hard on the grader’s hydraulics, the engine itself or even on the blade.” As a result, says Terex’s director of marketing for road building, a well maintained grader may still be working 12 to 15 years after purchase.

That long turnover rate is the reason Terex got out of the motor grader business four years ago. And it’s not alone in its skittishness around the machine. With a strong motor grader presence in Africa and Asia, Mitsubishi got into the North American market only briefly after receiving “a chance order from a large state government,” says Michael Ivey, manager of operations and communications. Today, Mitsubishi’s grader-related business activities are limited to spare parts provision, leaving it to companies such as Cat, John Deere, Case and Volvo to fill the void.

Motor graders don’t live forever, however. What to look for in a new machine and how to ensure it holds up over time and holds its value are key selling points for dealers anxious about retaining a toe-hold in a small niche market. Above all it means understanding the customer’s needs.

Take the measure of the machine…
Brad Hoey knows what he wants in a motor grader. The general superintendent for Island Asphalt in Victoria, B.C. first asks what type of jobs he’s likely to oversee in a year: road and highway construction? Small backyards and driveways? Snow removal? Then he matches these to the size of the grader and its mould board, in his case a Cat 1400 grader with a 14-foot mould board for larger highway jobs and a Champion motor grader with 12-foot mould board for small malls and driveways. Hoey’s caution: Never, under any circumstances, oversize the mould board.”
 
“If you put a 14-foot mould board on a small grader then you’re going to have problems pushing the material ’cause your tires will spin; and if your tires are spinning you’re not getting productivity and can do damage to the drive train.”
It’s not about power. It’s not even just about the blade’s width; the angle of the blade and its ability to perform deep cuts and move material over short and long distances are also important. So, too is the blade’s durability, Hoey tells us, notably during snow removal where operators typically encounter manhole covers, water valves and extruded curbs that can catch the blade. “If you hit something, there’s got to be a little play there,” says Hoey. “The blade can’t be too rigid.”
 
Something else to keep in mind when buying new is how well a motor grader retains its value over time. Finning’s paving industry marketing manager Jim Serink recommends prospective buyers check out auction houses such as Ritchie Brothers to see which machines are holding their value. Komatsu’s district manager for western Canada Tony Kosolofski is less sure. “If there’s no-one there at the auction, you can catch the machine for a song. Retail value is better based on what you could get for it privately. The auction is not always a good measure.” Opinions also vary on when to trade in your motor grader and buy new. Island Asphalt’s graders were purchased about 12 years ago and “are creeping up to the 9,000 hour mark,” Hoey tells us. “Once a machine gets over 10,000 to 15,000 hours, you ought to be trading it in.”
 
But Jim Serink questions the wisdom of waiting more than 7,500 hours before buying new. “It’s just like running a car. Why would you run on a 1952 DeSoto and just pour money into it to make sure it keeps running? Why wouldn’t you just buy a Chevrolet?” The answer, of course, is upfront cost Kosolofski cautions that the “value proposition” for any new or used motor grader “is more than the upfront or re-sale price. It’s also [about] owning and operating costs.” Kosolofski admits the price tag for Komatsu’s GD655-5 is likely higher than other brands “but you’ll have less down time during the overall life of the machine because it’s more reliable and you’ll burn less fuel. It has to be total value, not just purchase price and resale value.”

Great graders deliver the goods…

Productivity is the ultimate litmus test for any machine. Measuring the productivity of a motor grader is a little tricky, unlike dozers, excavators and dump trucks, you can’t judge them based on the amount of material they’re able to move over a given period; graders move a fixed amount of material and so must be assessed differently.

“Typically it’s how long it takes you to get to that final grade and usually that’s judged on the number of passes over a given amount of time,” says Paul Wade, brand marketing manager for Case New Holland in Racine, Wis.. Mike Schmidt who markets John Deere graders for Brandt Tractor in Edmonton agrees, adding “a higher blade pull will enable you to move more material, which in turn will cut down on the number of passes in an hour or a day.” Blade pull and blade down pressure-the ability to cut deep-is crucial says Volvo’s global product marketing specialist Predrag Romano, but not every contractor needs both. For example, high blade down pressure is required when cutting through layers of sod during site prep. Lighter jobs require different capabilities, explains Roman.
 
“The customer who is fine grading or finishing, he could care less about blade down pressure. What he needs is precision of hydraulics, i.e. how nicely, how finely he can grade with a three per cent slope on the road.”

Productivity also depends on operator performance. Improve performance and you’ll get better overall productivity. That was the thinking behind Cat’s introduction four years ago of joystick controls in place of traditional steering wheel controls. By reducing hand and wrist movement by 78 per cent, Cat reasoned it could reduce driver fatigue and improve productivity. It all looked good on paper, but not so much out in the field where Cat, by its own admission, suffered a dip in sales because of the innovation.

Turns out Cat’s biggest obstacle was not the competition, but operators themselves. Grader operators are considered to be the true kings of the road in highway construction-seated high on their thrones overlooking the lesser mortals in their dozers and back hoes. They’re also mightily resistant to change. According to Tyler Suttill, Brandt Tractor’s sales manager in Surrey, B.C., Cat changed from steering wheel to joystick controls at its peril.

“It’s hurt ’em a lot. Most motor grader operators have been doing it for 30-plus years and you take the steering wheel out of their hands it’s a big learning curve and one they’re just not willing to take.”
 
Most agree Cat’s mistake was not that it introduced joystick controls, but that it removed the option of the steering wheel, creating difficulties both on the job and driving the machine in heavy road and highway traffic. “I’m a little old fashioned that way,” says Hoey. “I came up through the trenches and I’m used to a steering wheel…It’s a tough sell to get older operators used to a joy stick.” Seizing on this, Volvo introduced joystick controls, but retained standard steering wheel controls. John Deere did the same.
 
Serink counters with the safety argument: By converting the steering and controls to joysticks the operator never has to remove one hand to navigate the machine. “With conventional graders you have to take your hand off the wheel momentarily to make an adjustment to the blade. That’s not good.”

Protect your man, protect your machine…
Getting the most out of your existing motor gra
der before buying new requires special attention to servicing and maintaining the unit over its lifetime. That’s especially true in British Columbia, where wet weather wreaks havoc on a grader’s hydraulics systems. To prevent condensation from entering your grader’s tank and mixing with the oil, Hoey recommends changing the oil and filters more frequently than the 10,000 hours mark suggested by some manufacturers.
 
“We service the engines about every 3,000 hours so the hydraulic systems you’re probably looking at every 5,000 hours.” Hoey’s company also employs a shop of up to five mechanics to keep its equipment fleet up and running. Schmidt says if those mechanics are doing their job they’ll have an aggressive oil change policy. Oil changes on a John Deere grader occur at least every 500 hours, with service levels increased on the John Deere’s 872G/GP series “so they’re working on the machines more than they’re servicing them.”

And make sure when you do purchase new that it comes with a good service plan. Fixed service costs are not only economical, according to Wade, they provide added comfort in the event something goes wrong with a machine.  “You know exactly what your costs going forward will be and you’re not going to be surprised by any major failures that come along.” Something else to ask your dealer about is a machine’s Meantime Breakdown Failure (MTBF) rate, i.e. the estimated number of hours a machine will operate before it breaks down. While there is no established industry-wide standard, Volvo’s Romano suggests an MTBF of 400 hours is a pretty good target. “But again, how do you measure that? “he asks. “Some will say, ‘If my headlight bulb burns out this is not a failure.’ Well for us it is.”

Getting the most out of your machine is key, but so too is ensuring maximum comfort and safety of your grader operator. Comfort and safety, in turn, are a function of visibility. “Visibility is a huge factor for grader operators,” says Kosolofski. “They’re looking to do the best job they can and they need to be aware of their surroundings and the conditions they’re operating under.” Komatsu’s GD655-5 features a hexangular cab so the grader’s front facing windows are on an angle, eliminating the pillars on the conventional four post cab.
 
Serink points out that by eliminating the steering wheel and moving the controls to the operator’s armrests, you eliminate the typical hydraulic obstructions. “This opens up a whole new world of visibility by giving you a direct view of what your blade is doing.”

Any doubt visibility is key to operator safety and productivity is put to rest by Hoey. Older graders don’t have the best visibility, but in his estimation neither do the new ones.

“So when we replace our grader, visibility will be high up on the list for how operator friendly it is. Visibility will be number one.”


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