Backhoes are Better Than Ever

Better, stronger, faster ... these words aren't referring to Steve Austin, the Six Million Dollar Man. In fact, they're referring to today's backhoe-loaders, machines which are evolving to be just that -- better, stronger, faster and more.

"Backhoes are getting easier to operate and becoming more productive, both for newer, less proficient operators and for the more experienced, who still benefit from new technologies that get the job done faster, with less effort and often more fuel efficiency," says Bob Tyler, product marketing manager, backhoes, John Deere Construction & Forestry Division.

Efficiency is the name of the game, according to Jim Blower, mid-range product manager at JCB Inc. "With the energy conservation trend, we're all trying to make things smaller but yet get the same production," he says. "It's all about how much dirt the machine will move per gallon of fuel."

With this in mind, fuel consumption in and of itself is less of a concern than the productivity gained as a result of the fuel consumed. "More and more people are looking at fuel consumption," he says, "But it's important to look at how much fuel a machine burns per tons of dirt moved, not simply how much fuel it burns in a day. You want to look at how efficient the machine is, not just how productive."

Edgar Chavez, director of marketing at New Holland & Kobelco Construction, agrees, adding, "The backhoe is not a continuous-cycle machine, so it's not important how fast you can dig a trench, it's how much material can be moved for the amount of fuel burned."

Chavez points out that New Holland's B Series backhoe-loaders were the first to offer a fully compliant Tier 3 engine, noting the company's dedication to its engine design. "Since we have our own in-house engine, it's a better match with the machine," he says. "It gives us the flexibility to maximize the hydraulic flow and improve cycle times. The machine is designed from the engine out."

It's a control issue

Manufacturers today are focusing heavily on making their backhoe loaders as easy to operate as possible because they know this allows operators to be most productive.

At JCB, this has always been a primary objective. "A comfortable operator is a productive operator," says Blower, noting that JCB has incorporated pilot controls in its backhoes for the past several years.

Now, pilot controls are becoming the norm on backhoe loaders. This is a benefit to many applications because they allow faster cycle times and create less operator fatigue. "As a result, the operator can work longer in a day, or take fewer breaks since he or she remains comfortable while working," says Tyler. "Lever efforts are lower, and lever travels are shorter, both of which help to keep the operator from tiring as quickly."

John Deere recently introduced a cab control package called Total Machine Control (TMC) that combines ease of operation and productivity enhancements. It's an industry-exclusive option for the 310SJ and 410J backhoes.

"The key to the TMC design innovations is the use of electro hydraulics to automate a number of functions operators otherwise must complete manually," Tyler says. "The touch of a fingertip now replaces foot pedals, levers that would control the stabilizers and front and rear auxiliary hydraulics."

For its part, New Holland also offers pilot controls as an option on all its backhoe loaders. Located on the tower where the operator rests his wrist, the controls are fully adjustable.

Tyler notes that the TMC system has addressed operator comfort by replacing pilot towers with armrest-mounted joystick controls that turn with the seat and give the operator more visibility and more comfort both from a roominess standpoint and because the absence of hydraulic oil keeps the heat down in the cab.

Deere has also made changes it its controls that address the issue of maneuvering in tight places. "TMC includes an exclusive mini-joystick on the right-hand controller that lets the operator move backhoe and loader simultaneously to scoot around obstacles faster and more precisely," Tyler says.

He adds, "Customers tell us that an easier-to-use machine helps get new operators up to speed faster. TMC makes learning backhoe operation easier. At the same time, it makes the actual backhoe operator faster as well."

Aside from controls, there are some additional features that boost productivity as well. New Holland, for example, offers its curved boom design on its B Series. "We've shortened the size of the cylinders in the boom, but made them thicker," explains Chavez. "This increases the flow and pressure, which increases the breakout force and lifting capacity of the boom."

New Holland also offers an automatic power shift transmission as an option on its backhoe loaders, as opposed to the power shuttle transmission that comes standard.

"The Power Shift is like driving a car. It's used a lot by municipalities or in applications where the operator is in the machine all day," Chavez explains. "The Power Shuttle is more common in rental. It's a preference thing. Fuel consumption is not affected by the type of transmission."

JCB features its LiveLink system on its backhoe loaders. Launched at ConExpo, this feature offers diagnostics and GPS via a telephone signal, allowing fleet owners to monitor their machines remotely. "This really enhances uptime and productivity," Blower says.

Service and maintenance

Operator comfort isn't the only factor contributing to increased productivity. Ease of service is also significant. Blower at JCB points to his company's Extra Dig feature which simplifies the adjustment of the telescoping part of the backhoe. "It takes less time to do it and at less cost," says Blower. "All it takes is an operator with a wrench. There's no trip to the shop."

To ease service, New Holland features a tilt-up hood that provides full access to the engine compartment from the ground level. This makes performing service and maintenance more convenient and safer for the operator.

Chavez notes that with the Tier 3 compliance changes came the ability to do some diagnostics from the cab. "Everything is right there in a simple way," he adds. "The instrument cluster is very car-like. New operators should be able to get in and start being productive right away."

Tyler notes that even simple things, like using common filters so fewer parts need to be kept on hand, can go a long way toward increasing efficiency. "Low daily operating costs are increasingly important... so in addition to increasing service intervals, making the service items accessible also plays a large part in how fast the service personnel can perform the required maintenance. Having to unbolt side shields, or reach into inaccessible areas all hinder the service operation. Deere's tilting hood and filter access are aimed at addressing these concerns."

Features that increase comfort and simplify service are no longer luxuries on backhoe loaders. All manufacturers recognize that machines which are comfortable and easy to use will be the most productive. As such, the design of today's backhoe loader reflects a commitment to these objectives as well as to that of optimum efficiency and are well worth the investment.

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