It could be said, the greatest accomplishment for compact excavators in the last 10 years has been overcoming the labels of "cute" and "toy."
"Ten years ago the North American markets may have scoffed at these compact machines," says Greg Rostberg with Bobcat. "We've seen a huge amount of the market migrate from large equipment to the compact side."
Rostberg explains that compact excavators have many other advantages over larger construction equipment, such as being highly maneuverable and compact in size. They also have a larger range of motion, attachment-carrying versatility, excellent visibility of the surroundings and attachment, and better fuel economy. And compact excavators only require a small trailer and truck to transport.
"More and more customers are realizing these advantages," he says. "The market has become more open to the idea that such a small machine can perform the same tasks as their larger equipment - and sometimes perform even better."
Compact excavators may be small, but operators still expect productivity, versatility and dependability from them. As Mark Wall, product marketing manager with John Deere, says, "Customers won't sacrifice these things simply to get into a smaller, more compact piece of equipment."
So how did compact excavators rise above the name-calling and become one of the most productive machines on the jobsite?
Over the last decade, manufacturers have strived to get more bang for their buck out of compact excavators. To make its compact excavators more productive, John Deere has updated its entire line over the last two years.
"Several features from John Deere's larger excavators were incorporated into the D-Series compacts," says Wall. "For example, the three larger models of the series now feature auto shifting between high speed propel and low speed, high power propel."
Bobcat now offers the FastTrack drive system on its compact excavators. This all-hydrostatic drive system powers the left and right tracks independently. A FastTrack excavator's low speed - the speed in which operator's backfill, grade and doze in - is as fast as other excavator's high speed. "This means operators can backfill, grade and doze at twice the speed of other excavators," says Rostberg. "It allows operators to push through heavier piles of material and move faster around the jobsite, boosting their productivity."
The hydraulic systems have become more advanced on some compact excavator models, minimizing engine loading and improving fuel efficiency. Some Bobcat excavators are equipped with "load sensing" hydraulic systems that generate flow as the operator calls for it, which also helps optimize fuel economy.
Of course, if the operator is comfortable, he is likely to be more productive. "Owner/operators make a living with these machines," says George Chaney, general manager - national account product sales for JCB. "Enclosed cabs with suspension seats and ergonomic controls keep operators more productive when they're in the cab eight hours a day."
These days, more and more machines are being equipped with cab enclosures, say sources. This allows operators to have heat and air conditioning when needed.
Controls that used to be on the floor have been moving up to hand controls. Some suppliers, like Bobcat, have moved to fingertip controls to make attachment operation more comfortable and controllable.
Creature comforts built into machines have greatly increased in the last 10 years as well, says Rostberg. "Options such as radios, suspension seats and padded floors may have been rare options 10 years ago," he says. "These options may now be standard equipment on some machines."
Chaney offers a caveat for rental businesses. "What we see is the owner/operator wants the compact excavator with all the extras. They're getting their units all decked out, but rental businesses tend to be more conservative. They have concerns over the acquisition cost and ROI as well as keeping maintenance costs down. Rental companies don't necessarily need all the bells and whistles on their machines. They need to offer customers a machine that can get the job done in a timely manner."