The Increasing Role of Tool Carriers

March 1, 2000

The Frederico Construction Company of Rochester, NY, has been doing roadwork of all kinds for more than 30 years. But nowadays there is a different look to a Frederico job site. At first, all you might notice is the familiar sight of a backhoe with a tamper and a standard bucket being used to lay pipe. But it probably won’t be too long before you see a machine with a fork on the front moving pipe or other supplies around the site. You might see a machine with a side dump bucket trenching in a tight spot. Or you might see a machine with a pipe boom laying pipe in a long trench. And if you’re there at the end of the day, you might even see a machine with a broom, cleaning up the roadway.

That might seem like a typical busy road construction site until you realize that it is just one machine-a backhoe-that is doing all those jobs. A quick coupler on the front enables Frederico to add on any of five different attachments that enable the one backhoe to do all those jobs. (And this winter, Lee Frederico says, he is adding a snowplow to enable his already-flexible backhoe to perform yet another function.)

“Just by having the right tools for each job, we are greatly increasing our production,” Frederico says. “Why, I’d estimate that our productivity when backfilling behind a sewer or water-line job has doubled with this machine. That’s why we plan to field-retrofit three of our other backhoes with couplers so that we can use them as tool carriers too.”

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The Tool-Carrier Concept

Lee Frederico has learned firsthand the value of the tool-carrier concept that has forever changed construction equipment from a classic single-function role.

“Contractors today are looking for more flexibility and faster adaptation of product attachments to fill their job-site needs,” points out Ray Szwec, attachments marketing manager for JCB in White Marsh, MD. “Equipment manufacturers are placing more resources toward designing attachments that properly fit and operate on the machines they build. It’s all about providing the customer with more value for the money he spends.”

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Today, wheel loaders, backhoes, and excavators are being routinely outfitted with quick couplers that enable many different attachments to be added. With this concept, the basic machine provides the platform and power for attachments that a contractor needs to cost-effectively perform many aspects of his job. That’s why dealers are telling John Kinney of Longwood, FL-based Pemberton that 40-60% of wheel loaders today are sold with couplers so they can function as tool carriers.

The tool-carrier concept is not a new one. According to Jerry Kealey of Petersburg, VA-based Geith Inc., “Tool carriers have been a big part of construction sales in Europe for the past 10 to 15 years.” And Mike Perez, program manager for Wheel Loader Integrated Tool Carriers at Caterpillar, says his company introduced its first integrated tool carrier 16 years ago.

“Then, as now, the decision was based on the market need for multitask vehicles,” Perez explains. “We saw that contractors did not need nor could they afford a fleet of single-function vehicles on many job sites. For that reason, Caterpillar markets integrated tool-carrier [ITC] versions of its wheel loaders and backhoes in sizes up to 200-horsepower machines (although most are 145-horsepower machines or smaller). These smaller machines are the utility types of machines; larger ones are typically dedicated to a single task on most job sites.”

Caterpillar cites a number of advantages for its tool carriers in their many different applications. Among them are:

  • an integral quick coupler for fast tool changes;
  • a wide range of tools available to meet many jobs;
  • increased lift height and reach over conventional loaders;
  • parallel lift from ground level to maximum height;
  • high tilt force throughout lift cycle, providing exceptional load control;
  • excellent center visibility to the coupler and the work tool.

“Structurally, there’s not much difference between our wheel loaders and our ITC versions,” Perez adds. “They have the same wheelbase, although the ITC version is a little longer and a little heavier. When an operator picks up a pallet load, he might lift it higher, so a heavier counterweight might be needed. And our coupler system is designed as part of the ITC to optimize the weight that can be picked up and handled. Other than that, the main difference between the two models is the linkage between the machine and the coupler.”

Instead of the Z-bar linkage designed primarily for bucket loading of trucks, most ITCs use an eight-bar parallel linkage that forms a parallelogram. This design increases visibility for the operator during a lift because the cylinders are separated, whereas the big Z-bar linkage would be centered right in the operator’s line of sight.

An even more important advantage of the parallel-linkage design for tool-carrier operations is that it keeps such attachments as forks level throughout the range of the lift-without adjustment by the operator. This is a major benefit for an application such as handling of pallets loaded with material that could be easily damaged if the pallet slips off the fork.

“There has been phenomenal acceptance of wheel-loader tool carriers here in North America too,” Perez observes. “Why, we’re selling more ITCs than wheel loaders now, and we’ve introduced ITC versions of backhoe loaders and telehandlers. The market demand for these flexible machines has grown to such an extent that virtually every one of our OEM [original equipment manufacturer] competitors now offers tool carriers of one kind or another.”

Among these competitors is John Deere. According to Doug Meyer, manager of Wheel Loader Product Planning for Deere in Dubuque, IA, the company offers three different sizes of wheel-loader tool carriers. As at Caterpillar, these machines are relatively small (110, 130, and 160 hp), structurally quite similar to Deere’s conventional wheel loaders, and priced “slightly” higher than Deere’s conventional wheel loaders. The principal difference is in the front-end linkage from the loader frame to the quick coupler, a design that mechanizes parallel lift to maintain a level forklift and provide good visibility to the operator.

“We just introduced this product line two years ago,” Meyer says, “but already the acceptance has been very strong, particularly for the 110- and 130-horsepower models. This year, sales of the line grew such that they represent a quarter of our overall wheel-loader sales. What’s more, we see signs that this growth will continue. Some Z-bar wheel-loader users intend to convert to tool carriers when they add to their fleets or when they retire vehicles currently in their fleets. Tool-carrier acceptance isn’t an issue of if, anymore; it’s a matter of how. Our job now is matching the right tool carrier and the right attachments to each customer’s needs.”

Backhoe Tool Carriers

Tool-carrier versions of backhoe loaders are relatively new. According to Jamie Kovicak, backhoe marketing representative for Caterpillar, the company introduced its first model in 1996. “Historically, backhoe versatility has been focused on the back end of the machines,” he notes, “although some backhoe owners would pin or weld couplers and attachments to the front. It wasn’t the best solution because of the performance losses associated with that type of hookup.

“We saw the potential here, and we were able to address it effectively because of our experience with ITCs on the wheel-loader product line. With the IT wheel loaders, we already had a proven hydraulic quick coupler and linkage and a variety of work tools available. Using this experience on the backhoe loader, we designed a dedicated loader linkage with an integrated hydraulic quick-coupler that improved loader performance. This machine accepted IT loader work tools, allowing us to utilize the already-existing work-tool market. The tool-carrier concept also allowed us to expand our product line: three models that come in a standard or integrated tool-carrier configuration.

“We had anticipated that these machines would be popular because of the versatile nature of a backhoe loader. Forks, brooms, material-handling arms, angle blades for dozing and grading, and a variety of buckets have all become popular for backhoe tool-carrier users. As a result, customers are purchasing tool-carrier machines as integrated products configured to get their jobs done more efficiently.”

Deere doesn’t offer a dedicated backhoe tool carrier as such, but it does offer a hydraulic quick coupler and a traditional Z-bar linkage that can be used effectively for buckets and lift booms. JCB, conversely, believes there is significant potential in backhoe tool carriers and has had a version in its line since the late 1980s. Today, according to Ray Szwec, JCB has tool-carrier options for both its all-wheel- and two-wheel-steer backhoe-loader models. The company’s tool carriers also feature parallel lift using 4-Ram geometry. “The tool-carrier option costs about 5 percent more,” Szwec points out, “but that extra expense is negligible compared to the extra value that a tool carrier provides.”

Pemberton’s Kinney agrees. “Putting a coupler on the front of a backhoe just makes good sense. With it, a backhoe loader will be as marketable as a wheel-loader tool carrier. Why would anyone spend 60,000 to 100,000 dollars for a backhoe and not put a 2,000-dollar coupler on it?”

Independent Attachment Suppliers

The logic was so persuasive that Pemberton is actively marketing its coupler as the best way for customers to convert new and existing backhoes into tool carriers. The Pemberton coupler is different from the typical OEM pin-on couplers, but Kinney believes his coupler has important advantages.

“All couplers are subject to wear over time,” he points out, “and in the typical horizontal pin lock coupler, that wear makes it increasingly difficult to insert the pins. Conversely, our coupler uses vertical tapered wedges that slide down into pockets on our attachments, thereby securing the attachment to the coupler. Then, as the coupler wears, the wedges simply slide deeper into the pockets, keeping the coupler tight for quick and secure changing and use of the attachments.

“Our couplers are increasingly popular with contractors, and upon request, some OEM dealers are selling them rather than their OEMs’ couplers. We can replicate the OEM hookups on the back side, and of course they are identical for all of our attachments on the front side. Alternatively, our couplers can be field-retrofitted onto machines already in a contractor’s fleet. There’s no cutting or welding required; it’s just a matter of unpinning a bucket and pinning on our coupler.

“We see this as a huge potential market for our couplers and attachments. After all, about 40,000 backhoes are sold each year, each with a life expectancy of eight years. That means that there are about 320,000 backhoes in the field that have not been converted. What’s more, we see a snowball effect occurring. As contractors see tool carriers in action, they are more likely to convert their other vehicles and achieve interchangeability throughout their fleet.”

That type of arithmetic also appeals to Joe Zeno, president of ACS Industries in Kent, OH, particularly since he regards his company as “the first in the United States to introduce and popularize the concept of attachment changeover technology-the tool-carrier concept-with quick-coupler systems for wheel loaders. Since the late 1960s, ACS has been manufacturing coupler systems and attachments for wheel loaders, backhoes, and excavators. Today, a quarter of our total business is coming from tool-carrier applications.”

Zeno is proud of his company’s coupler design, which he says is designed for both three- and four-arm tool-carrier loaders. He contends that such features as its single-point hookup, open frame design, and attachment interchangeability permit similarly sized loaders to share the same attachments. Therefore, he says, contractors are free to make loader purchasing decisions based on performance and dealer support and can still have attachment interchangeability.

ACS sells its couplers and attachments exclusively through OEMs and their dealers (with the exception of its General Services Administration contract to sell construction attachments to the military services). The company was the supplier to the Frederico Construction Company that is making such extensive use of attachments with its backhoe. Zeno, however, does not believe that Frederico’s innovative applications have exhausted the possibilities for attachments that are practical and useful in road building. To back this contention, he suggests the following product possibilities for road-building applications:

New Construction Attachment
Land Clearing/Site Preparation Clearing Rake/Crawler Ripper
Stump/Debris Removal Multipurpose Bucket/Grapple Bucket
Soil Stabilization Material-Distribution Bucket
Fabric Placement Roll Handler Attachment
General Material Handling General-Purpose Bucket
Reconstruction/Demolition Attachment
Concrete Removal/Material Handling General Purpose Bucket (TLB or loader)
Deck Abutment Removal Excavator Coupler and Bucket With Removal Device
(e.g., hammer, crusher, shear)
Material Transport General-purpose Bucket or Grapple Bucket
Material Classification-Charge Portable Crusher General-purpose Bucket or Skeleton Bucket
Supply/Rebar Handling Construction-Duty Forks (TLB or loader)
Deck Cleaning/Paint Preparation Broom Adapter/Broom (TLB or loader)

“What’s more, we’re continually improving attachments and designing new ones to meet user needs,” Zeno adds. “For example, we designed a fork for the Marine Corps that has three hydraulic functions: the tines can spread apart or come closer together, the fork carriage can shift 10 inches left and 10 inches right, and the entire carriage can be tilted left or right. It was just what the Marine Corps needed for handling palletized materials on uneven surfaces.”

Not all attachment manufacturers are this active in the tool-carrier market, though. Rockland Manufacturing Company in Bedford, PA, for example, is generally not in this market because the firm is a specialty, heavy-duty manufacturer, Sales Manager Tim Davis point out. Rockland, however, does sell log forks for tool carriers because of the need for parallel-lift operation. Similarly, Doug Pierce of ESCO Corporation in Portland, OR, says his company is not in the tool-carrier market, but it is selling hydraulic hammers for use on tool carriers at mining companies to “eject wedge-type sockets in large dragline buckets.”

It would seem likely that more and more attachment manufacturers will address the tool-carrier market, though. As Zeno says, “Today’s couplers make changing attachments so quick and easy. This makes it possible for contractors to own fewer machines and do more work than they had thought possible. We fully expect sales of couplers and attachments to continue to rise and for these products to maintain their market share.”

Sales Patterns

Zeno also sees a trend among tool-carrier OEMs to supply just a “plain vanilla” package of a coupler, a bucket, and a standard pallet fork with each tool carrier. He feels that approach leaves the door open for attachment manufacturers to support the OEM dealers and furnish the specific attachments needed to meet the specialized needs of customers.

Although OEM companies would probably disagree that any such trend exists, it does appear that attachments for tool carriers are largely sold after the initial sale. Beyond the initial bucket and pallet fork, user needs tend to get quite specific. As contractors use their new tool carriers, they tend to see requirements and opportunities that can be satisfied by specialized attachments such as snowplows, grapple rakes, and stingers.

Moreover, such attachments are proving to have a real dollars-and-cents value to a contractor. For example, Tony Ritter, general manager of A. Crano in Akron, OH, makes significant use of a stinger in his residential and commercial land-improvement work. “In the winter,” he explains, “the ground might thaw out a little bit for a day or two. If I have a truckload of pipe coming in, I have to find a place to store that pipe. What I do is offload that pipe onto a loader parked on pavement or a hard spot and wait for the ground to freeze again so I can move the pipe safely.

“I used to do that unloading with a standard fork, but the pipe would roll around a little and its ends often got chipped so much that the inspector might reject them. Now, by adding a stinger, I can put a tire on the end of it and position the pipe right inside. It might sound like a strange solution, but it has solved my chipped-pipe problem.”

A. Crano has five tool carriers now, and Ritter swaps attachments among them. What’s more, as he retires his aging conventional loaders and excavators, he intends to replace them with tool-carrier versions. While this makes very good financial sense for him, it will create a need for new attachments, which can be costly. Such situations have stimulated the growth of rental operations.

There are significant advantages in renting attachments when a contractor has a flexible fleet and an uncertain workload. A rental store can rent for a fraction of the purchase price an attachment needed for a special job or a seasonal spike in work. Saving money while sales volume is low is another good reason to rent. Lee Frederico rented a side dump bucket and a broom from the local Case dealer before he had the workload to justify buying them. Because of applications such as these, Geith’s Kealey believes that eventually 80% of his company’s attachment sales will come from rental stores.

“As more and more contractors are looking to rent rather than own equipment, versatility plays an even bigger role in the rental industry,” Szwec says. “Filling the user’s need requires having the right product. In most cases, this is accomplished by having the right attachments. So it is easy to see how tool carriers with quick-hitch capabilities help us supply exactly what the customer wants and needs.”

And as Pemberton’s John Kinney observes, “What the customers want and need is becoming more and more clear.”