The Technology of Site Clearing

April 14, 2017

Bill Schafer, VM product manager with Loftness, a manufacturer of attachments for grinders, says the demand for his company’s products, and for material-reduction equipment in general, has been on the rise for several years now. And that demand is only getting stronger today.

The reason is simple: There is more excavation work being done around the country today, excavation work that requires the assistance of grinders and material-reduction equipment. “Dare I say it, but this is the result of an improved national economy,” says Schafer. “There is more activity in the industry right now. We know that just from our sales.”

This is especially evident in right-of-way projects. Schafer says the power companies that need to maintain right-of-way strips across the country are drafting more organized job rotations. They are letting more work out for bid.

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And, when private and public companies become confident enough to bid out extra work, it leads to an increase in demand for the machines that will help them more efficiently clear their jobs sites and deal with the debris and materials that such construction leaves behind.

“The two go hand-in-hand, excavation and grinders,” says Schafer. “Whenever a new project gets started and there is excavation work that needs to be done, contractors have to turn to grinders. The first thing that has to be done is to clear out the vegetation on a site. Today, there is simply more projects being done. And more companies are taking a more active approach to right-of-way maintenance. This has all increased the demand for grinders and the attachments that help them operate more efficiently.”

Schafer is far from alone. The manufacturers who work in the material-reduction and site-clearing space say that their business is on the rise. At the same time, these manufacturers are working to boost the technology powering their grinders, mulchers, mowers, and attachments.

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These tech improvements are good news for contractors. Today’s grinder technology is designed to give contractors the ability to do more site-clearing work in less time. This can provide a significant boost to the bottom lines of contractors.

And the best news of all? Tech improvements aren’t about to slow anytime soon, according to grinder and attachment makers.

An Evolution in Site-Clearing, Material-Reduction Tech
Jason Morey, national sales manager with Bandit Industries—a manufacturer of wood grinders—agrees that the interest in grinders is on the rise. He points to the strength of the US economy as the main reason for this.

“There are simply more jobs out there,” says Morey. “There are a lot of construction projects going on across the United States today. That’s a good sign. It only helps the grinder market in the grand scheme of things.”

With this increase in demand, manufacturers have become more motivated to boost the efficiency, power and operating ease of their site-clearing and reduction equipment.

Grinders and material-reduction equipment, then, have evolved over the years. This is hardly surprising; the excavation business is one that is dependent on technology and developing more efficient ways to complete jobs. This has always been true. But when the economy remains unsettled—as it is today—contractors and company managers are more willing to embrace anything that helps reduce the cost of necessary excavating and grading work.

The grinder side of the business is no exception to this rule. As an example, today’s grinders are becoming more efficient at the actual cutting parts of their job. Schafer says that one of the bigger trends today is the move toward sharpened blades as a replacement for the carbide bits that have so long been featured on grinders.

He adds that carbide bits have long been the standard in the grinding industry. But today, manufacturers in this space are heavily promoting sharpened blades as an alternative. And contractors are embracing this choice because of the many benefits that come with using these alternatives.

Sharpened blades tend to cut material faster, Schafer says. They also turn in finer work, leaving contractors with a cleaner finished product. “It gains you in both ways,” he says. “You will be more productive. You’ll get more done in less time because you are cutting with a sharp edge instead of trying to cut with a blunt tool. And you’ll have a nicer finished product when you are done with the work.”

This doesn’t mean that carbide bits don’t have their positives or their place in site-clearing jobs. Carbide bits remain an extremely durable tool, with Schafer calling them the most rugged material choice for grinder tips. They also require little maintenance, with users simply replacing them when they become worn out.

Blades, on the other hand, can require a bit more maintenance on the part of equipment operators. That’s because many users take the time to sharpen their blades as a way to keep them operating as efficiently as possible. This sharpening requires not only extra time, but operators who don’t forget to do this maintenance. Other users take a different approach, simply treating these blades as a disposable material, tossing them when they become too dull to work properly.

“Carbide has been popular because of the low maintenance aspect of it, the durability,” says Schafer. “It’s more rugged than the other options. But other users prefer the blades because they are more efficient and allow contractors to get more work done. It’s a choice that contractors have to make. Do they want the durability or the increased production?”

Another big trend in the grinder industry? More contractors are relying on what is known as a rev-limiting style of rotor. In this rotor style, limiting rings prevent grinders from biting too deep into materials. This makes it easier for operators because it lessens the chance that a grinder will jam when cutting into material.

Loftness is introducing its own version a machine that uses this type of rotor technology, the grinder the company is marketing as the BattleAx. “This is just the latest advancement,” says Schafer. “It’s another bit of fine-tuning. Technology changes as time goes by. We see people trying different things, looking for technology that can help them do their jobs more efficiently.”

Always Innovating
Morey says that his company has introduced some new tech of its own, a new cutter mill option. The company has long sold a cutter mill with 60 teeth, an option that has long been the company’s standard model. But Bandit recently introduced a 30-tooth cutter mill to provide its customers with more options.

Bandit sped up this new cutter mill, too. That makes this option a good choice for customers who are working in greenways or who need a finer mulch product. Those customers who are working with big wood or don’t care about a smaller end product might instead choose the 60-tooth option, Morey says.

“The benefit of the 30-tooth version is that there is less wear on the parts. There is less maintenance,” he adds. “You also end up with a more consistent mulch product. Because it has that faster mill speed, in certain applications it gets material processed quicker.”

Jeff Bradley, recycling and forestry product manager with manufacturer Vermeer, says that grinders have greatly benefitted from evolving technology in recent years. He says that significant changes in the efficiency of these machines and their ease of operation have come at a regular pace during the last five to 10 years.

Bradley points to a specific tech launched by Vermeer, Damage Defense. This is a sensing technology that helps reduce the chances of the damage that results when certain metal contaminant material enters the mill of a grinder. This tech’s sensors identify these contaminants when they first hit the mill when the material is still inside the infeed of the machine.

If Damage Defense detects a contaminant, the grinder will automatically shut down. This gives the machine’s operator the chance to remove the material before it enters the hammer mill and causes costly damage.

Bradley says this technology can provide both cost, and time savings for contractors, an important benefit. “The Damage Defense system can help reduce the likelihood of significant damage and repair time,” he says.

Vermeer also offers a trans receiver remote for its grinders. This technology can both control grinding functions and, just as importantly, inform the grinder’s operator of any errors. The remote does this in a full-text format, an improvement over simply showing operators the error code. This way, operators can quickly determine what the error is. Operators won’t have to look up what error a specific code signifies.

“The remote capabilities have recently advanced to allow the operator to optimize machine performance to meet material site conditions,” says Bradley.

Credit: Loftness
The Loftness BattleAx Grinder

Tech upgrades for grinders don’t end here, either. Bradley says that another area in which manufacturers are making strides is in controlling the dust that these machines kick up when they’re in full grinding mode.

This dust can cause problems, both for workers on the job site and for neighbors. It’s little surprise, then, that grinder makers are working hard to reduce the amount of dust that operators send into the air when grinding materials and clearing job sites.

“This is an increasingly common option in areas where dust traveling off site is monitored, such as California,” says Bradley.

Adding a Power Boost
Carter Brown, marketing manager with John Brown & Sons—a manufacturer of attachments to be used with grinders—says that technology has made today’s grinders and site-clearing equipment more powerful. This, in turn, makes contractors more productive at less cost.

“The new technology built into many of today’s new mini-excavators along with horsepower and hydraulics have allowed contractors to do more with less,” says Brown. “A smaller machine today can do much more than it could years ago.”

The increased horsepower and hydraulics mean, too, that grinders and clearing equipment can now operate with a wider variety of attachments. This boosts the flexibility of contractors, allowing them to take on a larger number of jobs with a single piece of equipment. This also helps contractors’ bottom lines, as they won’t have to spend big dollars on as many machines to complete their site-clearing and material-reduction work.

“We’ve been designing around these advancements and building our mower heads to purposely fit these smaller machines,” says Brown.

New direct-drive technology has also made grinders more efficient tools, Brown says. This tech provides a full transfer of power directly to the attachments fixed to grinders. This way, the grinder will fully utilize the torque that these machines produce.

Another important trend? Brown says that fixed-style knives have all but replaced flail-style—or swinging hammer—grinders. Flail knives are designed to kick back when operators and their grinders hit something hard. There is a downside to this: With larger and heavier material, that “give” also comes with a loss of power and torque. And when grinders kick back, they begin cutting at angles at which they were never designed to cut. That limits the production capability of a grinder.

Today’s fixed-cutting grinders, though, allow excavators to cut into larger material at a faster rate than did those equipped with flail-style knives. “Attachment manufacturers such as myself are now able to make purpose-built attachments for these new excavators,” says Brown. “Before, we couldn’t design for that market due to the lack in hydraulics and power. The newer machines have changed all that.”

Dedicated Machines or Attachments?
Another issue that is becoming a bigger one in the grinding and materials-reduction industry? Attachments.

Are attachments playing a bigger role today in the business of clearing sites? Are more contractors turning to attachments as a way to make the site-clearing process a more efficient one? Are they turning away from machines dedicated solely to site-clearing and material-reduction jobs?

Bradley says that there are both benefits and negatives to attachments. He says that attachments are less efficient when it comes to clearing a site. But they also represent a potential cost savings for contractors who can use attachments instead of setting aside funds to purchase and operate dedicated heavy equipment to handle their site-clearing needs.

For some contractors, attachments might be a viable alternative to dedicated site-clearing machines. Others, though, can greatly boost their productivity by purchasing a dedicated machine, Bradley says.

“They may reduce the cost of site-clearing by being able to use multiple attachments on the front of a loader or skid steer. They can also reduce costs in transportation and in the initial investment of dedicated equipment,” says Bradley. “If you’re using a specific attachment on a daily basis, though, it may be beneficial from a productivity standpoint to purchase a dedicated machine.”

As an example, Bradley points to forestry mulchers. If the head of a mulcher has been designed for a specific tractor, contractors can assume that the equipment has a more rugged design, one that will require less maintenance and fewer repairs. The dedicated forestry mulcher will also come with required safety features added specifically to protect operators using the machine in forestry applications, he says.

A head that is easily removable, though, does give contractors more flexibility, Bradley says. They can use the tractor with other attachments for other applications.

“For small projects, it may be more cost-efficient to have the option to interchange between attachments,” says Bradley. “However, for larger projects, having the productivity of a dedicated machine can often times prove to be more efficient in the long run.”

Brown says that he expects contractors to continue to embrace attachments when clearing sites and disposing of materials. The cost savings—from being able to use a single machine for many jobs—are simply too impressive to ignore, he says.

“Attachments play a very large role in site-clearing now,” says Brown. “One man and one machine can clear a large lot with a mower head attachment, stump grinder attachment, back to the bucket or root rake. Excavators can do a lot more than digging today.”

That says, Brown agrees that there is still an important role for dedicated heavy equipment in the material-reduction and site-clearing ends of the excavation industry. These dedicated machines are more effective for certain larger-scale jobs, Brown says.

“There will always be room for purpose-built heavy equipment,” says Brown. “On large jobs in which time is money, purpose-built machines such as grinders will out-produce attachments. Attachments are that go-between when it isn’t cost-effective to bring in the big heavy machinery and an attachment will do the job at hand.”

As with all pieces of construction equipment, maintenance is the key to keeping grinders and other material-reduction equipment up and running properly.

The good news? Maintenance is relatively simple when it comes to this equipment.

Schafer recommends that contractors and users perform regular inspections of their grinders. During these checks, they should investigate the bolts of their grinders to make sure they are not coming loose. They should also check for signs of damaged teeth. If there are damaged pieces, users need to immediately replace them, Schafer says.

“Don’t run the machine with damaged or missing teeth,” says Schafer. “If you do, you’ll throw off the balance of the grinder. That can wear down the components that need to replaced.”

Training is important, too. Some contractors pass their grinders from one employee to another on a frequent basis. The regular operator might be conscientious about following safety and operating procedures. But then the next operator is laxer.

This can lead to damaged equipment or worker injuries. That’s why it’s so important for contractors to properly train any employee who might operate a grinder, Schafer says.

“It looks like operating a grinder is a fairly rough-and-tumble operation,” says Schafer. “But quite frankly, it isn’t. There is a lot of operator finesse and care needed to be safe and effective out there. It shouldn’t be treated as if just anyone can do it. If you drive by on the road and see someone operating a grinder, you might think it looks like something just about anyone can do. But there is skill and technique involved. And, most importantly, you have to be trained to know how to operate a grinder safely.”

Morey recommends, too, that users check to make sure that their grinders are not missing any teeth and that the bolts in the cutter body are tight. “The cutter bodies that hold the teeth are the primary heart of the machine,” he says. “They have to make sure that hardware is in good condition. If not, you’ll get vibration, extra fuel consumption. You’ll wear out the components a lot quicker.”

Doing the Research
Contractors might take grinders and other material-reduction equipment for granted. While they might spend long days researching the purchase of their next bulldozer or compactor, they’ll skimp on the research when it’s time to buy a new grinder.

This, grinder makers say, is a big mistake. The right grinder can boost the efficiency of a job site. And when a job site is more efficient—and contractors can turn in jobs in less time—it makes it easier for contractors to enjoy a profitable year.

Morey advises contractors to put the proper amount of care into choosing their grinders. Finding the right machine takes the same kind of research that contractors should put in before buying any important construction tool.

Bandit takes grinders out to sites and demos them for customers who want all the information before making a buying decision. Customers can then see how efficiently they grind materials and how easy they are to operate, Morey says.

Most contractors do a good job of researching grinders before purchasing them, he adds. But some skip this work. They might choose a grinder simply because a dealer is located close to their office. Or they might choose a grinder because they’ve worked with a certain manufacturer for so long, that they’re not interested in researching whether better options exist.

“Making sure they actually look at the machines is key,” says Morey. “The machines they use are the heart of their business. Really studying and looking at the machines before making a decision is key.”