Contractors Serious About Exacation and Mobility Prefer Backhoe Loaders

CAT backhoe attachmentBy Construction Equipment Magazine

Key Insights for Backhoe Buyers:

  • When assessing whether to buy a backhoe, excavator, or loader, consider jobsite space and roadability requirements.

  • New models feature power boosts, extended digging depths, and improved operator controls and comforts to retain talent.

  • Economy models simplify design, while retaining core performance features, to lower acquisition costs.

  • Buyers often “option up” economy models to get exact the machine needed for the jobsite.

  • A wide range of backhoe attachments provide expanded utility on the jobsite.

The backhoe-loader remains the primary machine in many smaller fleets and in many municipal fleets, but the relatively recent development of new machine types, such as the compact track loader and compact hydraulic excavator, have caused some users to evaluate their choices.

For some equipment users, the choice to buy, say, a compact track loader and a compact excavator, instead of a backhoe-loader, is prompted by increasingly congested work sites, where the two smaller machines are more nimble than the backhoe. And, unlike a backhoe-loader, although an excellent excavator and an excellent loader, just one of those functions can be employed at a given time. Transport of the machines also can influence the choice, as some users find moving the two smaller units on a single trailer easier that hauling a larger backhoe-loader.

But wait. The backhoe-loader is not disappearing anytime soon. Frank Raczon, senior editor of Construction Equipment, perhaps best sums up the present market.

“Backhoe-loaders have lost ground to compacts, but OEMs will continue to cater to core users. Backhoes are still finding buyers.”

Others in the industry agree, saying that continued sales of backhoe-loaders is being sustained by increases in residential and commercial construction, underground utility installation, infrastructure work (secondary road reconstruction, for example), and, as a very real aspect of the overall market, the willingness of independent rental companies to keep a significant number of these machines on the lot.

Sales projections should always be held loosely, but a number of industry analyses are estimating single-digit annual growth for the backhoe-loader in the near term, perhaps a compound annual growth rate on the order of 5 to 6 percent. But the economy fluctuates and buyers’ needs change, which could drive that projection up or down.

“The backhoe market has been on a very slow recovery since the economic downturn—but showing some increase year over year,” says Jeff Jacobsmeyer, Kubota product manager for tractor/loader/backhoes, excavators, and wheel loaders. “Analysts are predicting that the next few years’ demand will continue to grow slightly; however, they will not likely return to pre-recession sales levels.”

“There will always be a significant market for backhoe-loaders—even as mini excavators and compact track loaders eat away at some of the sales volume,” says Ed Brenton, product marketing manager, Case Construction Equipment. “If you examine the type of customer who will always buy a backhoe over a more compact machine, and you examine the elements that drive their machine decisions, you will see those design evolutions in today’s backhoe-loaders.

“The ‘owner/operator’ type buyer still leans towards backhoes and all the amenities and capabilities that come with them,” says Brenton. “Contractors serious about excavation and mobility will continue to leverage backhoes. And, naturally, utility and municipal buyers will continue to favor backhoes, due to the roading capabilities and the dual loading/excavation functionality—in addition to attachment compatibility.” “

Case CE backhoeMeeting Varied Requirements

Case’s Brenton mentioned a number of reasons for certain buyers to choose the backhoe-loader, and also says that manufacturers take note of what these buyers want and, in turn, ‘evolve’ machine designs to serve those needs.

“For each model update, we focus on improving machine performance in comparison with its predecessor in areas such as machine balance and lift capability,” says Dustin Adams, backhoe product specialist, Caterpillar. “We also attempt to introduce advanced technology that operators will appreciate.  We understand there is a fine balance between value added features and features that are gimmicky and too complicated for operators to utilize.”

Given the wide range of requirements of backhoe-loader buyers and the wide range of applications these machines take on, however, manufacturers really can’t approach the market with a “one-size-fits-all” philosophy.

A quick survey of backhoe-loader models offered by major manufacturers finds horsepower ratings that range from 24 to 148 and standard digging depths that range from less than 10 feet to more than 17 feet. With an extending dipper stick, digging depths can exceed 21 feet for some models.

As equipment manufacturers refine the design of a particular product over time, the approach often is to enhance performance by adding horsepower and increasing hydraulic flow and pressure, to increase working parameters—to dig deeper, lift higher, and haul more—and to load up on operator amenities—maybe heated/cooled seats, Bluetooth, and interactive displays that can tailor machine response to accommodate the operator’s preferences or the work situation.

Certainly nothing wrong with this approach, and many equipment buyers expect these enhancements when they replace an old machine with a new model. The only caution to be observed, as Caterpillar’s Adams aptly stated, is to make sure the enhancements add value.

When manufacturers were asked to site examples of practical technology used in recently introduced products, several responded.

Kubota’s L47 and M62 tractor-loader-backhoes are the newest additions to the line and offer buyers the capability of performing front loading, rear excavating, and other implement tasks, such as using pallet forks or a box blade, via either a mechanical two-lever quick coupler or an optional hydraulic quick coupler,” says the company’s Jacobsmeyer. “These machines use an integrated frame to stand up to the demands of construction applications, yet have the ability to convert to a loader/landscaper tractor with an independent power take off to drive rear attachments, such as rotary tillers and mowers.”

Jacobsmeyer says that the backhoe’s quick coupler also allows fast bucket changes, and that a four-point rear quick-mount system allows for easy detachment of the backhoe when it’s not needed.

“Improved operator control, comfort, and machine application flexibility are a few additional areas that Caterpillar focuses on when developing new models,” says Adams.

Caterpillar’s new 440 and 450, for example, offer a loader-control system that allows operators to program parallel lift, loader kick-out, and return-to-dig. The design provides parallel lift without the use of mechanical FRAC [full rack angle control] bars that require adjustment.

“Also new are seat-mounted controls that stay with the operator, whether facing the loader or backhoe. Additionally, it enables a new feature—Dual Mode—which allows full control of rear implements when the operator is in either the forward- or rear- facing seat position. Dual Mode also can be activated to operate the machine when the operator sits at an offset angle. Caterpillar also now offers factory-installed quick couplers for single-tilt loader-arm configurations, allowing quick changes of loader tools, such as buckets, forks, brooms, and snow pushes.”

Advances in design, in fact, might well help to enhance the backhoe-loader’s position in its competition with other types of equipment.

“Where backhoes have made gains is in competition with mid-sized excavators,” says Case’s Brenton, “and one of the ways Case has accomplished that is through greater lifting power and breakout force. For example, with the introduction of  the ‘PowerBoost’ system on the new N-Series [on available models], a button on the left backhoe joystick provides four seconds of increased hydraulic power, without decreasing engine speed, for digging through tough conditions, including hard clay, rock and frost.”

Case backhoe-loaders, says Brenton, also still feature  the company’s “PowerLift” system, which provides added lifting power at lower engine speeds—comparable with some mid-sized excavators, he says—to provide smooth lifting and craning functions.

Perhaps another backhoe-loader quality that gives it a leg up on hydraulic excavators is its “road-ability.”

“For the municipal and utility buyer, being able to ‘road’ the machine is very important,” says Brenton. “How that machine drives, rides, and carries itself has an effect on everything from operator comfort to ultimate productivity. A new direct-drive feature on Case S-type and H-type transmissions engages the engine and transmission directly for improved gradeability and faster roading speeds. The PowerDrive transmission activates automatically in third and fourth gears, based on torque demand and conditions on the job site.”

kubota backhoeBack to Basics

Given the broad spectrum of backhoe-loader buyers and their diverse requirements in a machine, manufacturers must listen carefully and develop the products needed to best satisfy various segments of the market.

Many buyers, of course, want new machines with advanced technology that increases productivity and makes the machine easier and more comfortable to operate—an incentive for good operators to stay put in these days of a diminishing supply of experienced people.

But on the other hand, a segment of backhoe-loader buyers prefer simplicity in their machines. Those buyers might include rental houses, contractors buying their first backhoe, those wanting to replace older machines at minimal cost, and large-fleet owners who appreciate having the option to step back and assess what type of machine best suits their operations.

To satisfy this need for a simpler machine, most backhoe-loader manufacturers have developed full-size models in the past several years that have engines rated at not more than 74 gross horsepower, relatively simple emissions aftertreatment systems, standard digging depths in the 14-foot class, and design concessions that bring down the acquisition price, compared with their higher-horsepower counterparts.

By not exceeding the 74-horsepower threshold, emissions control is greatly simplified, often eliminating the need for a selective catalytic reduction system or a diesel particulate filter—perhaps both—to meet Tier 4 requirements. Eliminating complex and expensive exhaust aftertreatment hardware simplifies machine design, reduces maintenance requirements, and lowers the cost of the machine.

Manufacturers are quick to point out, however, that “design concessions” does not imply compromise in quality, reliability or durability—characteristics that seem to be diligently preserved in these “economy” models. The term simply means that design variations, compared with higher-horsepower models, help lower acquisition costs.

For example, the economy model might retain the load-sensing hydraulic system and variable-displacement pump used in higher-horsepower models, but might lack adjustable-flow control for auxiliary hydraulics. Or, perhaps a four-speed power-shift transmission in used in place of a five-speed, and the four-wheel-drive system might have open differentials, making limited-slips optional. Perhaps controls are mechanical, not pilot or electro-hydraulic, and cab features, such as sealed switch panels, might be handled with more basic components.

Might these design concessions affect productivity and certain conveniences in the cab? Maybe, but backhoe-loader manufacturers are responding to the need for a “basic” machine among a certain buyer segment. And, too, in many instances, these buyers can “option up” if they choose to get just the machine they want.

A diversity of needs will always be present in a large customer base, and manufactures are always working to address those needs in the most practical manner.

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