Suitably Small

May 1, 2009
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In a recent business management blog, a pundit makes the distinction between being efficient and being effective. Efficiency is defined as working without wasting time, effort, or expense, while effectiveness means fully achieving the intended result. In other words, efficiency is doing things right, while effectiveness is doing the right things.

Apply this concept to today’s new and improved compact excavators and loaders, and one is likely to find these models both efficient—and effective. These suitably small units (combined with attachments) are found to be the right machines for an increasing number of applications.

Important to today’s economic climate, the right compact machines and attachments may allow an operator to perform new tasks and increase business. To identify more and more suitable ways to use compact excavators and loaders, contractors may wish to pose three key questions:

  • What am I doing with larger equipment that I can do more efficiently and effectively with compact equipment?
  • What am I doing manually that I can do more efficiently and effectively with compact equipment?
  • What am I doing that can only be done efficiently and effectively with compact equipment?

Answers to the above may lead to greater productivity and profitability by getting maximum utilization from the smallest, most cost-effective workhorses in the fleet. Manufacturers stress that the largest driver to this utilization is attachment versatility and the ability to adapt to as many applications as possible. When market segment slows, change the attachment and go on to the next opportunity. Think of being nimble and quick. To quote one entrepreneur, “It’s not the big that devour the small, but the fast that overcome the slow.”

As to entrepreneurial spirit and the use of compact equipment, an inspirational story recently reported by Bobcat in its WorkSaver Magazine bears repeating, as it indicates that even in tough economic times a leap of faith in the right direction can lead to business success.

It concerns Ronald Dowda, the president and owner of his own underground utility construction company, Red Tech Inc., based in Covington, LA. He did not always own a company. After many years of working for others, he was able to capitalize on experience, knowledge, and relationships to create a successful young business.

After stints as a laborer and then as a crew foreman, Dowda’s next move was to work for the local electrical utility company as a construction team leader. “In this area, about 80% of the utilities are underground and only about 15 to 20 people with the utility company try to take care of them,” says Dowda. “I was doing $11 million worth of work for the utility company and working 2,000 hours of overtime every year.”

Then Dowda realized that there would be a good market if he chose to go into business on his own. With money he had saved, a positive credit rating and his knowledge of every aspect of the business, he was able to persuade the bank and the equipment dealer to finance his equipment.

Dowda purchased a compact excavator from Duhon Machinery, a Bobcat equipment dealer in New Orleans. Beginning with one crew, Dowda worked seven days a week doing contract work for the utility company and weekend work for local developers. After his first year, he was able to hire another crew and invest in another excavator. “Compact excavators are invaluable. You can’t just use a trencher. We have to have the excavators because they navigate around obstacles and other buried utilities better than the trencher,” says Dowda.

The excavators use buckets, augers, and a hydraulic clamp. When Dowda needs to dig a hole straight down, the auger is handy. This is especially true when the crew is working on established turf at a residence, since the auger will minimize the amount of turf to restore. “Many times the developers we work for haven’t cleared the right of way. If I have to spend a few hours clearing that, the clamp attachment turns it into easy and quick work,” says Dowda. He has also equipped his excavators with hydraulic extendable arms, allowing greater digging depth and reach.

Dowda completed 80,000 feet of trenching and has a backlog of projects scheduled in 2009. “We’re a turnkey operation, which you have to be when you are a small business,” he says. “We have to be the ‘one call, that’s all’ for our customers. It’s good for the customer, and it’s good for us.”

Big on Performance

Although excavators have been used to operate hydraulic attachments for many years, Steger says, the recent trend is to have several independent auxiliary lines to operate multiple functions at one time. “Specifically, we have high-low auxiliary hydraulics available on certain models that further expand the applications that the machine can be placed in. These options make the compact excavator the ‘Swiss Army Knife’ of the job site, being able to tackle any task you throw at it,” he says.

Steger says contractors basically choose between two basic compact excavator designs. One is that of a conventional unit with a longer tail end and a larger operator’s compartment—a combination that makes the unit easier to operate and service. The other is that of a machine with short tail swing, also known as a zero tail swing, reduced tail swing, or full rotation. “These machines allow work in more congested areas, but what you gain in versatility can come at the cost of reduced stability, less operator comfort, and more difficult serviceability,” he says.

As for machine size, Steger says that the smallest excavators typically have retractable tracks enabling them to drive through tight areas. Septic and utility contractors often favor these units for their ability to fit through gates and maneuver along pathways. Another common application is interior demolition. Contractors will attach a small hydraulic hammer to break up concrete slabs when remodeling and routing new plumbing lines.

“For many years, the tractor loader-backhoe [TLB] was the king of the job site. While these machines still have their place, many are being replaced with the combination of a compact excavator and a compact track loader. This allows the machines to be used at the same time in supporting operations, making them much more versatile than the TLB. The two pieces can often be acquired for the same price as the TLB—but with an extra operator—and will offer twice the production capacity. They are also much more maneuverable than a traditional backhoe and can dig right next to a wall,” says Steger who points to the many advantages of a full-rotation excavator. “You are no longer limited by the swing angle of the backhoe for material placement,”
he adds.

“The number of applications for compact excavators within different industry segments has grown as their potential is realized,” says Scott Sikkink, product marketing specialist for Terex ASV, a division of Terex Construction. “Terex engineers focus on a high power-to-weight ratio, which equals an increase in capabilities in a smaller-sized machine. When combined with smooth hydraulics, these machines will excel in tough construction applications where powerful, deep digging and heavy craning abilities are needed in confined areas. And, with the performance and protection of our top-mounted boom cylinders and spherical bearings, these machines do extremely well in demolition and landscaping applications where they must move large, heavy material without damage to hydraulic cylinders and the potential of downtime,” he says.

Regarding compact wheel loaders, Sikkink says they are ideal for digging, loading, and hauling job-site materials, including dirt, gravel, sand, and wood chips. “Compact wheel loaders are mainly used in applications where there is more room to maneuver, a need for high flotation, and a need to move materials quickly. These units are typically used on larger work sites than what a skid-steer can typically handle,” he says.

When purchasing or renting a compact wheel loader, Sikkink says that contractors should consider the following:

  • Articulated, full, fast and low-effort hydraulic steering for increased stability while operating even at low engine speeds.
  • A universal coupler system making the wheel loader compatible with all skid-steer attachments as well as making it fast and easy to switch from a loader to a material handler.
  • Hydrostatic, four-wheel drive with creep mode and dynamic braking to give operators speed control and efficient engine speed when working in tight areas. The hydrostatic drive also reduces tire slippage, which results in faster cycle times and less wear and tear on the tires.
  • Low front windshield and right- and left-hand side windows to offer operators the best possible view of the job site—especially important for jobs where people are moving about the site.
  • A large, roomy operator’s cab that provides easy access from both sides.

What’s Hot?
Caterpillar recently introduced the new Caterpillar 904H as a replacement for the popular 904B. With 52 net horsepower and an operating weight of 9,900 pounds, this new compact wheel loader provides a productive combination of power, versatility, and operator amenities, says the company.

The Cat 904H features a new engine, new axles, articulated steering, two-speed hydrostatic drive, powerful Z-bar loader linkage, universal coupler (compatible with skid-steer loader work tools, and a new operator’s station. A newly designed loader-control joystick incorporates an easy-to-use rocker switch for making directional shifts, plus a new controller for the auxiliary hydraulic system, which allows enhanced proportional metering for safe, efficient work tool operation. The low-effort, pilot-hydraulic joystick assures that the loader’s control system operates smoothly, and a wrist rest behind the joystick significantly reduces arm fatigue. Also, the machine’s reduced-effort steering results in less operator fatigue, says Caterpillar.

The latest series of Kobelco and New Holland compact excavators are equipped with proportional hydraulics that increase the hydraulic flow in direct proportion to the operator’s movement of the control levers. As a result, the machines offer even more powerful digging capabilities and smooth, even movement for fine-grading and leveling, says the company.

The smallest units, the Kobelco I7SR and the New Holland EI8B, offer tracks that hydraulically expand and contract. With the simple switch of a lever, the operator can adjust the tracks without leaving the cab. The narrow gauge allows travel in tight spaces with a short tail radius, while expanded tracks provide stability for front and side lifting in a zero-tail-swing configuration.

The most recent product addition is an angle blade option that further expands the versatility and productivity of the largest compact models—Kobelco’s 30SR, 35SR, and 50SR, and New Holland’s E30B, E35B, and E50B. The utilization of an angle blade can be crucial for minimizing cycle time along changing terrain and situations that require material movement to both sides of the excavator while backfilling and grading.

Ideally suited for a variety of landscaping, industrial material handling, and residential construction applications, the Case Construction Equipment 21E, 121E, 221E, and 321E feature Versa-Boom linkage for excellent reach and visibility, as well as precise parallel lift, increased bucket rollback for greater material retention, a comfortable cab, and easy access to service points.

Komatsu America Corp. has recently introduced another new member to its Dash-5 line of compact wheel loaders, the WA100M-5, which the company says is designed for superior versatility. Komatsu says that an attachment quick coupler, high tipping loads, and a class-leading payload capacity make the WA100M-5 powerful and productive in a variety of applications, including light construction, supply yards, confined job sites, landscaping, and utility work.

“The WA100M-5 is an extremely versatile machine capable of handling a variety of job requirements with its power, controllability, and enhanced visibility,” says David Caldwell, product specialist of compact wheel loaders for Komatsu.

“We have also engineered numerous safety and comfort features into this model to make it an extremely solid machine,” he says. The 82-horsepower WA100M-5 features automatic bucket leveling, an outstanding dump height and reach, a high-payload capacity when using pallet forks, and a hydraulic front-attachment quick-coupler that makes changing attachments easy. The unit comes standard with a limited slip differential, and is also available with 100% differential lock.

Choose Wisely First and foremost, think about equipment utilization. Know the typical project parameters, and then consider how this equipment can be suitable to new potential markets. Then ask yourself what is needed to complete most jobs from beginning to end—whether it’s a typical task or an exception. When choosing compact equipment, make sure the machines will meet your needs. Don’t sacrifice power, breakout force or anything else just to save a few bucks. If you do the right things in the right way—you’ll have more in your pocket at the end of the day.