Put ‘Em Up!

July 1, 2004

I have a wheel loader I use for loading and unloading, and that’s about it. If that is the extent of your loader’s value to your operation, it is rare indeed. Some loaders only load and unload, some excavators only dig and dump, but most of them regularly do much more. With hundreds of attachments available for every size of machine, many contractors think of a loader or an excavator as the heart of a complete construction system. One of the most mentioned advantages of this perception is that you need only one good employee to run the whole system and do multiple tasks from the single machine. At a time when too many skilled operators seem to be working for your competitors or hiding somewhere, it is helpful to know that just one could manage several jobs for you. You also have less investment in machinery. “Because there are so many different attachments for the Bobcat, you can reduce your cost of operation by having fewer machines,” wrote contractor William Sanders of Fort Pierce, FL, to manufacturer Bobcat. The number of attachments available for all equipment has increased dramatically in the last 10 years; it is a reflection of the practical, get-the-job-done attitudes of users and manufacturers.

Not only do the attachments mean that one worker can complete a good range of tasks, but they also help keep the basic machine busy. Instead of parking an excavator or a loader for hours, or even days, the owner can assign it to multiple jobs at the same site and avoid the expense of acquiring or renting an extra machine. Most of today’s contractors are not strictly specialists. They undertake all the jobs they can to keep busy and profitable. One contractor used to be known as a backhoe specialist; three years ago, there were other good contracts he did not bid. Today, with a selection of attachments, he profits from jobs at the hospital or the school or the college, and he does more than just the digging and loading of yesterday. It has expanded his business, and the arrangement suits his customers well.

Moving the Power to the Attachments

If there is one consideration that is vital before you buy or rent an attachment, it is the hydraulic capability of the machine involved. Everybody understands that a skid-steer loader will not run a huge, multiton hydraulic breaker, but there is always the temptation to make any machine or vehicle do more than it actually should, more than it was designed to do. With attachments, that attitude is courting failure, with unnecessary dangers at the site and to your bank account.

“An important thing to ensure is that the existing directional control valves have a power-beyond facility when you acquire your machine,” advises Brendan Casey at Hydraulic Supermarket (www.hydraulicsupermarket.com). He has more than 16 years of success in the daily maintenance, repair, and overhaul of mobile and industrial hydraulic equipment. “That power-beyond facility enables the addition of more valves to control additional attachments, if required, once any spare has been used.” The facility to which Casey refers is also known as high-pressure carryover. It is on a mobile hydraulic directional control valve, and it enables the pressure gallery to be isolated from the tank gallery and carried over to an additional valve, usually another directional control valve. It is imperative that the valve being fitted is sized to handle the rated flow from the pump.

“The arrangement of the power-beyond facility will vary with valve type and manufacturer,” continues Casey. “The most common arrangement is a facility to install a threaded plug or sleeve that blocks the drilling between the pressure and tank galleries inside the valve. The power-beyond port is then used to supply pump flow to the additional directional control valve. If the existing directional control valve has an alternative tank port, this allows the tank line from the additional valve to be connected to the tank via the existing valve. Most mobile directional control valves can be made closed-center by plugging the drilling between the pressure and tank galleries and leaving the power-beyond port plugged. This means that, if the existing valve is closed-center, supplying pump flow to the additional valve only requires the connection of its pressure line to the existing valve’s power-beyond port.” Casey emphasizes that, if the existing valve is closed-center, the power-beyond plug or sleeve must be installed in the additional valve to make it closed-center also.

Matching Attachments to Machines

In recent years, some of the best-known independent manufacturers of attachments have been acquired by major machine manufacturers. For example, Caterpillar has Balderson and Komatsu has Hensley, and we can expect to find similar arrangements. This is not negative; it is not simply a case of a big company swallowing up a smaller one. It has been recognition of the quality of the attachments made by independent manufacturers. There are still several independent attachment makers, and they should be considered in your searches. Names that spring to mind (as usual, without our endorsement or expert preference claimed) are Rockland, Helac, CEAttachments, ESCO, ATI (Bradco and McMillen), Glenmac, Werk-Brau, JRB, Geith, Attachments International, Alitec, Grouser, Genesis, and Kenco. When contractors call these companies for a special attachment (such as a special size and configuration of bucket for a particular application), they usually get it. It’s one way in which attachment manufacturers expand their ranges. If several contractors request the same kind of variation for an existing attachment, there is a good chance there is an even broader market for it. Some manufacturers give their dealers lists of matching attachments (from independent companies); some discourage that practice. Your dealer will surely ensure that attachments you buy are correctly matched to the equipment you have or intend to purchase.

How do the independent manufacturers view their market? “One of JRB’s primary goals during the design and engineering of each coupler and attachment is to increase the versatility and productivity of the base machine without compromising its performance,” says JRB in its philosophy. “A thorough understanding of each base machine’s limits and systems is required for quality coupler design, proper attachments, and installation. We believe it is critical to work closely with our OEMs [original equipment manufacturers] to optimize the design of the tool or coupler, including pin spacing and the hydraulic systems that make it all work.” The company’s success would indicate the philosophy is sound.

Not all attachments are for big machines. CEAttachments deals only in those for compact equipment. “A machine should be purchased with knowledge of what it can do in total,” advises Sarah Bemowski at CEAttachments. “This will definitely increase a contractor’s ROI [return on investment]. A relatively small investment in an attachment or two can mean the difference between the machine sitting idle and the same machine working and making money for the contractor. Among compact equipment, skid loaders are most commonly used with attachments, but excavator/backhoes and tractors have attachments available for them too.”

Attaching the attachment has become much simpler with the development of easy-to-operate hitching systems. Some older contractors will remember having to get help to mount a bucket or a hammer. Today, many of those attachments can be mounted by the operator in the cab. We’re not sure how many mounting arrangements have the name “quick hitch” in their descriptions, but it gives you the right idea. Brand names for products with variations on the words attach, hitch, mount, grab, thumb, lock, and speedy can be seen in brochures and advertisements. The names tell you that you don’t have to bring over three coworkers or a crane to mount attachments to your excavator or loader and you are still employing only one worker to handle multiple tasks from the same carrier. It seems to have been with excavators that operators had the most problems in the past, probably because the attachments were heavier and the pins needed in old-style methods of mounting were difficult to remove and reset.

It is essential that you have a coupler that will fit the machine perfectly. Some manufacturers will tell you which attachments fit their equipment; some may claim that only their own brand matches the carrier. This isn’t completely due to the fact that manufacturers would like to be your one source for everything, because some attachments that are supposed to be perfect fits É are not. When the attachment does not fit correctly, the quality of the work will be inferior, the time it takes to complete it will be longer, and you may even damage your basic machine. Talk to others who have used the attachments; you want to see how they have performed, what kind of life you can expect from them. Ask your local dealers about the availability of a universal coupler; its name describes it well. With such a coupler you can be confident that buying a new machine will not obsolete your old attachments. This is a problem that has surfaced in public works departments more than with private contractors. A public authority might purchase a new fleet of, say, wheel loaders that are a different brand (but more cost-effective, it seems at the time of requisition) than the previous fleet. If the existing store of attachments does not match the new loaders, the savings are questionable.

Adaptations and Applications

Not all attachments are complete tools. Some attachments are quite small devices, invented and produced to make the job easier. That kind of ingenuity is traditional in the rural areas of our country, where many farmers, ranchers, and blacksmiths have adapted standard machines to make them better in local conditions. Some of those inventions have become standard adaptations themselves. Have you ever heard of John Deere?

Among its many attachments, Rockland Manufacturing makes a variety of thumbs. Thumbs? “The Smart Thumb is for backhoes with extendable inner sticks,” notes Clara Kline for Rockland. “Its first unique feature is the hydraulic clamping action without the expense of a control valve, stick plumbing, or another hydraulic cylinder. Then there is the quick-mount feature that makes the Smart Thumb good for rental fleets and municipalities that need the ability to install a thumb as site conditions dictate. You install a 3- by 5-inch mounting pad on the outer stick, and then our thumb is installed or removed in less than two minutes.”

Buckets may be the most common attachments for all sizes of loaders and excavators. Helac Corporation’s contribution to this important sector is not so much a bucket as a swing attachment (called PowerTilt) that allows the operator to adjust the tilt of the bucket to the most efficient angle. What is an annoying use of time when excavating? Moving the backhoe or excavator to get it into the right position for the next work envelope? “You’ll find you have to reposition your machine far less frequently because PowerTilt’s extra dexterity lets you do more work from one position before moving,” asserts Thomas Krause with Helac. “A good comparison would be comparing the backhoe boom and dipper to your own arm. Imagine how awkward it would be to do even simple tasks if you couldn’t turn or twist your wrist.”

Another specialized attachment that you know must have been developed after contractors said how great it would be to have one is the Slab Crab from Kenco Corporation. “It’s a pavement-removal bucket, our most popular bucket, and it makes the removal of concrete slabs and bridge decks literally a one-man job,” observes Joni Morrison for Kenco. “We can manufacture it to process slabs from 4 to 20 inches thick, and it’s available for 20,000- to 150,000-pound excavators.” There’s also a Slab Crab for backhoes and skid-steer loaders, popular for sidewalk and driveway repair with a minimum of debris left for cleanup.

You could make a case that the global positioning and machine guidance systems from such companies as API, AGTEK, Ocala, Leica, Trimble, Rieker, and Topcon are also attachments. They are instruments that improve the performance of a machine and its operator. They will probably merit their own article so we will not dwell on them here, but don’t forget them when you are deciding what your new machine will be able to do.

Attachments From the Machine’s Maker

Manufacturers invest millions of dollars in the design, engineering, and production of construction equipment before they become items you see at the local dealership or advertised in such magazines as Grading & Excavation Contractor. In one of the previous paragraphs we mentioned that some bigger manufacturers have acquired independent manufacturers of attachments. It makes good sense. It is probably less expensive to purchase a company that has an established reputation for excellent products (and all the necessary design and production systems) than to attempt to reproduce that quality through in-house engineering from scratch. One thing of which we can be sure: those big manufacturers would not acquire a company that did not produce good attachments! This is not a battle. When quality and reliability are what contractors are looking for in all the equipment they purchase or rent, machine manufacturers and independent attachment makers are going to do their best to provide that equipment at affordable prices.

Attachments are not like options on a car, things to make it pretty or more fancy than your neighbor’s. Count the buckets that Caterpillar offers. Each style and size of bucket will do a particular job very well; there is a right bucket for every job. “New work tools expand versatility,” said Caterpillar when it introduced the 300C L hydraulic excavator. It wasn’t just an excavator. There are two different quick-coupler options (the Dedicated Quick Coupler and the Pin Grabber Plus) for fast changes of tools in the field, and there are factory-installed hammer and thumb hydraulic circuits. Among the tools you may select direct from this manufacturer with the excavator are thumbs, grapples, shears, hammers, and crushers. Five types of bucket are mentioned: general purpose, ditch cleaning, heavy-duty rock, heavy-duty, and power. Here’s something else to ask about. This Cat excavator has a variety of front-end configurations. They’re not attachments – or are they?

If the manufacturer of the basic or carrier machine supplies attachments that are made by other manufacturers, it will candidly tell you if the warranty for those attachments is from the independent manufacturer. That warranty is usually a year, as far as we can see from studying charts and numbers. Do we need to remind you that you should not use attachments that might invalidate the warranty on the carrier machine? Find out about that from your dealer. Volvo provides a list of recommended and supplied attachments for its compact excavators. Among the names are established companies, such as C&P (for hook-on and pin-on trenching buckets, ripper teeth, and a hydraulic thumb), Geith (for attachment brackets, tilting buckets, jaw buckets, and trenching buckets), BTI (for hydraulic breakers, crushers, and compactor plates), ATI McMillen (for augers, drives, and bits), and ATI Bradco (for a hydraulic trencher). There are also Volvo’s own pin-on and hook-on trenching buckets. You can see from the list of independent manufacturers of attachments for Volvo that the machine manufacturer is looking to extend and enhance the quality of its own equipment by using only the products of proven manufacturers for attachments.

For New Holland skid-steer loaders (New Holland is partnered with Case and Kobelco in the CNH Group) the hydraulic mount plate is optional, but its addition will allow the operator to exchange one attachment for another from the seat. The operator can engage or disengage the locking levers for the attachments without leaving the machine, while the Pick Up ‘n Go universal attachment system allows hookup of the New Holland attachments as well as the attachments of many other manufacturers. Like Volvo, New Holland offers a practical array of attachments for the skid-steer loaderÑin a quick perusal we counted more than 55 typesÑand some of them come from independent manufacturers you already know.

From Alitec, New Holland and its partners use rock wheels that have cutting widths of 2.5 and 4.5 inches to depths of 12, 18, and 24 inches, stump grinders for stumps up to 5 feet in diameter, and cold planers for asphalt and concrete. From Ammbusher, there are rotary mowers that offer, if required, a 3-foot cutting height and a cutting capacity of 3 inches in diameter. From ATI Bradco/McMillen there is the Tilt-Attach for New Holland skid-steer loaders, useful for finish grading, leveling, and work with waterways. There are also Bradco trenchers. From Laser Leveling, the CNH loaders use an automatic, laser-controlled box blade for grading. The mini-backhoe attachments are from FFC; they can work down to 5 feet, 6 inches. Five models of IPC hydraulic hammers and dozer blades from Grouser are other attachments that this major manufacturer will include with its own machines.

JCB Attachments is a separate business inside the JCB Group. Its mandate is to provide attachments of high quality for all JCB machines. Any attachment you get from JCB will have been tested and approved for both the machine and your application. Considerations to determine how appropriate an attachment is include hydraulic flows and pressures, capacities, weight, and width. An important aspect of this company’s policy is that JCB attachments will not invalidate the warranty on the machine, and they all have their own 12-month parts and labor warranty. All JCB dealers support the many attachments for maintenance, parts, and service, and they also support the basic machines.

The attachment sector that supplies our industry is as competitive as the industry itself. Driving the momentum is our wish for quality and affordability. Which of the two is more important? For tools and attachments, most professional contractors seem to place quality above any consideration of price. Will it fit? Will it work? Will it last? seem to be the questions we are asking. The best part is that the answers are often yes, yes, and yes. There are so many good products available from which we can choose.