The Backhoe Tech Boom

Sept. 8, 2016

Katie Pullen, brand marketing manager for CASE Construction Equipment, says there’s an important reason why telematics is gaining traction with backhoe loaders: manufacturers have made it easier for owners to acquire and operators to use the systems.

Pullen points to her company’s backhoes. All CASE backhoes sold today come standard with the company’s telematics system, SiteWatch, already built in, ready to operate. CASE provides a free three-year advanced subscription to the service to contractors who purchase new backhoes.

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“This completely eliminates the barriers to entry and any hassle with deploying the system, as it’s completely turnkey,” says Pullen.

And once operators begin using telematics, the value of this technology becomes immediately clear, she says. Pullen is not surprised that so many contractors today are relying more on telematics to track their machine’s operating hours, location, and maintenance needs.

Telematics is just one example of how technology is making backhoes more efficient and useful tools on job sites across the country. These machines have always been key tools, of course. But armed with telematics, improved controls, automated functions, and fuel-consumption technology, these machines have now become even more efficient.

“Customers don’t understand how important technology can be to them until they have an issue,” says Brian Hennings, product marketing manager for backhoes and tractor trailers, John Deere Construction Equipment. “Maybe they have a machine on a job site and all of a sudden they can’t find it. If they have a telematics system with geofencing, they would have gotten an alert if that machine were moved outside a specific area.

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“Fuel consumption is important, too,” he adds. “Customers can track their fuel consumption with backhoes; they can determine when machines are just sitting there idling. With telematics, they can manage their fleets more efficiently; they can move some machines around if they are spending too much time idling.”

The rise of telematics is just one prime example of how new technology is impacting the backhoe world. Just ask Pullen, who says telematics systems and automated technology are useful to all contractors, not just those operating huge, multi-vehicle fleets.

“Telematics is not only of value to large fleet owners,” she states. “Owner/operators who only own that one piece of equipment will realize great benefits in terms of equipment maintenance management and security. Especially for owner/operators, where that one asset represents such a significant amount of their ability to do and bill work, telematics can help ensure that machine is providing its owner with optimal uptime and availability.”

Credit: John Deere
A John Deere 410L shows off its reach.

Protecting the Investment
One important piece of the telematics solution revolves around security. The theft or unauthorized use of construction equipment can cost contractors a significant amount of money. Pullen’s company has seen several cases in which equipment owners have used telematics to track down a stolen piece of equipment quickly, putting it back to work.

Owners can use telematics to establish geofences that send alerts if a machine is started at an odd hour of the evening, or if it moves outside of its designated area. This can help shorten the amount of time it takes owners and local law enforcement officials to track down these stolen machines.

“In some cases, the discovery of a stolen machine using telematics has led to the recovery of other stolen equipment,” says Pullen. “Ultimately, it helps reduce the chances that an equipment owner will be faced with significant downtime, replacement, costs, and insurance repercussions caused by a stolen or lost backhoe.”

The owners of large fleets can use telematics to save money each year. As Pullen says, owners who understand more about how their backhoe loaders are used, when they are available, and where they are located can help boost the productivity and efficiency of their fleet.

A machine’s ability to earn money is an important factor in determining that equipment’s total cost of ownership, she adds. And, a machine’s ability to earn money is based on the number of hours it works every day.

“Telematics helps equipment managers better understand utilization and deploy their backhoe fleets to where they’ll be the most effective, and the most profitable based on current workload and demand,” says Pullen.

Owners can also use telematics to compare how efficiently a given backhoe is operating compared to the rest of their fleets. If the rest of a fleet averages six hours a day at a working RPM, while a single machine idles six hours a day while operating at a working RPM for only two hours, owners can use this information to pinpoint either a problem machine or an unproductive operator or crew, Pullen says.

Telematics provides a host of maintenance benefits, too. Owners and operators can rely on telematics to make sure that preventative maintenance intervals are being met, preventing future, more costly, repairs. Telematics can also identify possible problems with backhoes before they require costlier fixes.

Maybe an engine is running at an abnormally high temperature or RPM. A backhoe’s telematics system can provide a list of symptoms that can help the equipment manager diagnose bigger issues before they turn into extended periods of downtime, Pullen says. Some backhoe owners grant access to a machine’stelematics system to their equipment dealers. This provides a second set of eyes that can monitor the health of a machine.

Machine Control Technology
Machine control technology is becoming a more common feature on equipment such as excavators and bulldozers. This technology, though, hasn’t yet made as much of an impact in the backhoe industry.

But Pullen says that some manufacturers are adding some automation features to their machines. And, she says this trend will only continue. Automation technology can make it easier for backhoe operators who are tackling trenching and excavation jobs in which they must hit specific depths. Machine control technology can improve operators’ efficiency and eliminate the time it takes to redo trenching and excavation mistakes.

The bonus? The machine control systems offered for backhoes today are fairly inexpensive two-dimensional (2D) systems that most owners and operators can easily afford.

Manufacturer JCB is no stranger to backhoe technology. Rafael Nunez, product manager for backhoe loaders with JCB, says that in early 2015 the company introduced JCB Automate, a suite of automation features that come standard with the company’s premium backhoes. This system is a good example of the kind of automation technology available today to backhoe owners.

The company’s Auto Check feature, for example, automatically performs the under-the-hood checks that operators should be doing on their backhoes each day. The feature checks backhoes’ wiper fluid, fuel level, oil level, air filters, and coolants automatically.

“As you know, most operators say they are going to do daily checks, but often it doesn’t get done,” says Nunez. “Auto Check makes sure the machine is in good working condition at the start of the working day.”

JCB’s Auto Idle feature automatically reduces the revs of backhoes that aren’t in use. If operators are not touching the machine’s controls for a certain period of time, the energy level of the backhoe automatically drops to idle.

“This provides fuel savings,” says Nunez. “But it’s also useful if you want to talk to someone on the site. You just have to wait two seconds for the engine noise to drop low enough so that you can communicate.”

JCB’s automation suite also comes with Auto Throttle; Auto Drive, which brings cruise-control features to backhoes; Auto Smooth Ride, which makes the ride smoother for backhoes even with that heavy loader bucket in front; Auto Boom Lock; Auto Stabilizers; and, as an optional feature, Auto Pre-Heat, an especially useful feature in the nation’s coldest climates.

In addition, JCB features its telematics solution, LiveLink, on all of its backhoes. JCB provides a free two-year subscription to the service with every backhoe it sells. By analyzing the data from LiveLink, owners can determine how long a machine has worked in a given day, where it is located at any time, how long it spent idling, and whether it is due for preventative maintenance.

An Accepting Industry
Nunez says that today there is little push-back from owners and operators when it comes to telematics. After all, the owners and operators can choose to use telematics if they want to, and ignore the technology if they aren’t interested in its benefits.

When it comes to the future of backhoe technology, though, he sees the advancement of pilot controls in machines only growing stronger. These controls, which look like video game joysticks and are similar to the controls in excavators, offer ergonomic benefits to backhoe operators. They require less effort to operate, and can result in backhoe drivers who are less physically tired after a long day. Operators who aren’t straining as much to control their backhoes are less likely to make any costly mistakes during the working day, Nunez says.

“The new generation of operators are used to video games,” says Nunez. “Pilot controls feel like joysticks. The new operators are comfortable with these controls and prefer them.”

He says that more owners are requesting pilot controls on their backhoes today. This doesn’t mean, though, that older technology will disappear. Traditional wobble sticks and manual controls are still important to backhoes. Just because a technology is 30 years old, doesn’t mean that it needs to be scrapped.

“Many operators who have been in the industry for 30 years still like the feel of wobble sticks,” says Nunez. “We have to cater to those operators, too.”

Control types aren’t the only piece of tech that Nunez predicts will make its way from other construction machines, such as dozers and excavators, to backhoe loaders.

He points to the grade-control technology that has now become common on dozers. This tech prevents operators from digging too deeply and missing grade.

“No one has added that kind of technology to backhoes yet, but I think it will come,” says Nunez.

The key is cost. Grade-control technology isn’t inexpensive. The cost, though, makes sense when you are already spending the big dollars it takes to buy a large dozer. But backhoes are smaller, less costly machines. Much of the control tech on other construction equipment still comes with too large of a price tag for them to make economic sense on a backhoe.

“On very large excavators, you have technology solutions that can tell you how deep you are digging,” says Nunez. “That will trickle down to backhoes. Auto idle was exclusively an excavator feature five years ago. Now we have it on our backhoes. Some other manufacturers do, too. All those technologies start on big, costly equipment. They then trickle down to other equipment as the technology gets more commonplace and less expensive.”

A More Comfortable Ride
Dustin Adams, product application specialist with Caterpillar, says backhoes generally don’t benefit from the same kind of technology that powers machines such as dozers. While automated grade-control tech is becoming a key feature for dozers, the most important technology today for backhoes are generally products that make it easier for operators to control and more efficiently run their machines.

“We don’t have a Cat offering for grade-control for backhoes. It’s not the application that these machines are put in,” he says. “These machines are often used in utility applications. They are used for digging trenches. A lot of times, contractors don’t trust auto technology to get within so many feet or inches of fiber optics or utility lines. When we talk about technology for our backhoes, we talk about the features of our machines that provide an improved ease of operation.”

Adams points to the ECO mode included with Caterpillar backhoes starting with the company’s 420 series. This mode allows operators to run their machines at a lower RPM. But because of Caterpillar’s variable displacement pump, the digging implements on the company’s backhoes will still operate at full power, even when the backhoes are in ECO mode.

“In a lot of cases, when you are in ECO mode and you are reducing your RPM, you lose power in the digging,” says Adams. “With ours, that variable displacement pump means that our machines continue to give full power to the boom and stick. We can run at a lower RPM, saving fuel, but still get the same performance out of the boom. We can still get the same digging performance that we need.”

Caterpillar also includes as a standard feature on its F2 series of backhoes its telematics system. The system consists of Product Link, the hardware that captures machine information, and VisionLink, the remote-monitoring system that allows contractors to analyze this captured data. The system comes with a free three-year subscription.

“VisionLink is an important tool for contractors,” he says. “It allows you to track your equipment’s location, monitor the usage of your backhoe, monitor its fuel consumption, and manage its fuel consumption. You can use it to identify which operators are using the machines. It will tell you what fault codes are beinggenerated when certain operators are using your backhoes.”

He adds that this extra layer of information—the fault codes or fuel consumption numbers—is the difference between a standard asset tracker system and a more advanced telematics system such as the one that Caterpillar offers. “Our machines equipped with telematics are providing the type of detailed information that contractors need to really dig into the data,” he says.

It’s too early to know if the majority of backhoe owners will renew their free telematics subscriptions when they expire, Adams explains. But owners have renewed in strong numbers when it comes to other machines, such as dozers, and he expects the same kind of renewal numbers with backhoes.

“The fact is owners want to track their fleets,” says Adams. “They want to be more in tune with how their machines are performing.”

Reaching the Veterans
It can be a challenge convincing experienced backhoe operators that they need new technology to improve their performance. After all, veteran operators have been working their backhoes for a long time. They might be resistant when someone tells them that they suddenly have a better way for them to work.

But Adams says that technology doesn’t make good operators any less important. Instead, it makes talented operators even better at their jobs. New tech can also transform novice, inexperienced operators into solid ones in less time.

“You might have an operator who has grown up with a certain type of backhoe. They have learned how to compensate for the lack of control with that machine,” he says. “The experienced operators are really good at compensating for the flaws of their machines. That is a testament to the skill levels of the operators in those machines. But someone who is really good at operating other backhoes might be surprised when they get into one of ours at how smooth the controls are. They see a notable difference. When you take someone who isn’t used to such smooth controls and put them in our backhoes, you really give them a chance to utilize their skills.”

For Hennings with John Deere Construction Equipment, telematics remains the single most important technological advancement for backhoes. A telematics workstation is standard with all backhoes that John Deere sells in the United States and Canada today.

“To me, telematics is all about maximizing uptime and productivity,” says Hennings. “Machine monitoring is a key aspect. That reporting of data about how a machine is operating is so important. You want to know how much fuel a machine is consuming. You want to know how many hours a machine has beenoperating. With telematics, all this information can be pulled remotely and downloaded at any time.”

John Deere backhoes come with a free three-year subscription to JDLink Ultimate, the company’s telematics system. But are operators and owners actually tapping into the power of telematics? Are they using this technology to schedule maintenance to keep their backhoes running? Are they using it to determine which operators are using their backhoes most efficiently?

According to Hennings, the industry has grown far more accepting of all new technology in the last five years, including telematics. “We have been building awareness about the new technology available on our construction equipment. We’ve been promoting what this technology can do for them and for their business. Once they start experiencing the value and benefit of using telematics, they start to understand how important it is. If they get a trouble code and they can get help from their dealer remotely, they definitely start to see the value and true benefit.”

John Deere dealers do much of the work to make sure that customers understand how JDLink Ultimate works, Hennings adds. Dealers will walk buyers through the backhoes, explaining their different features. If customers have questions later about how the telematics system works, they can call their dealers for a quick explanation.

He says John Deere introduced its telematics package for backhoes in 2012. Since that introduction, owners and operators have grown to appreciate the technology.

“Sometimes they might not renew the subscription right away. But then they see what they lose when the telematics is gone,” says Hennings. “Many times, the customers will come back and want to renew their subscription because they now appreciate what telematics allows them to do.”

Machine Control Coming Soon?
Komatsu America Corp. does not manufacture backhoes. But the company is a leader when it comes to machine control technology for machines such as excavators and bulldozers. Komatsu launched its first intelligent bulldozers in 2013 and its first intelligent excavator in 2014.

The company, then, has an understanding of just how important intelligent machine control technology has been to the construction industry. This technology has turned inexperienced operators into skilled ones, and has made veteran operators even more efficient as they grade and excavate.

Because machine control technology saves contractors money—they don’t have to worry as much about wasting time and labor correcting grading mistakes, for instance—Jason Anetsberger, Komatsu senior product manager, says that this technology will continue to grow throughout the construction industry.

This might mean that machine control technology will one day become a standard feature in backhoes, too. “More technology is being integrated into the machines,” says Anetsberger. “Machine control GPS technology started as an after-market solution. It was supplied separately from the machines. More recently, manufacturers have been integrating the technology right into their base machines. Using Komatsu as an indicator, this trend of providing machine control technology with the machines when they are manufactured is a trend that is well established today.”

Sebastian Witkowski, product marketing manager with Komatsu, says the benefits of machine control technology are just too powerful to ignore. Komatsu’s research has shown that contractors enjoy an average efficiency boost of 60% when using company excavators equipped with machine control technology.

“That 60% figure is hard for contractors to ignore,” says Witkowski. “The beauty is that this technology benefits both inexperienced and experienced operators alike. It can create a good operator out of an inexperienced operator and an even better operator out of an experienced operator.”

What does this mean for the future of backhoes? One day, the backhoe industry might see some of the same tech that is powering excavators and dozers. That day isn’t here yet, but it doesn’t look to be quite as far away as it once did.