Compacts Pack More Into Less

Compact excavators are one of the most versatile pieces of equipment on any jobsite, and they continue to evolve to serve the changing needs of equipment owners. While innovations of the past included such revolutionary advancements as zero tailswing, today's improvements center more on incremental changes that help make operators more comfortable and service techs more effective.

Comfort at any price

Equipment features that increase the comfort level of operators might seem like luxuries in the face of a struggling economy. Yet, many compact excavator manufacturers believe features that improve the operator's experience are more important than ever.

"Sure there are some buyers who are still looking for the most basic, lowest-cost machine available in order to accomplish their immediate task," says David Steger, product manager, Takeuchi. "But many are opting to rent, lease or purchase a machine with a higher level of features to allow more productive operation and greater versatility when operating attachments. They also have their eye on maintaining value over the long haul with a full-featured machine."

Mike Boyle, product sales consultant at Hitachi, agrees, noting that as more contractors discover the benefits of compacts, they are expecting them to have the same features and benefits they're used to having on large machines. "They're looking for things like smooth hydraulics, enclosed cab with heat and A/C, comfortable seat, auto idle, durable construction and shifting from high to low speed," he says.

According to Steger, some rental companies have also begun putting these full-featured machines into their fleets. "Everyone has felt the credit pinch in one way or another - and credit is certainly harder to come by for people in the construction trades. But what happens when a contractor can justify the machine, has the means to make the payments, but just can't qualify for prime rate financing?" he asks. "Renting certainly becomes a viable option and, in this case, the customer may choose a long-term rental of a fully optioned machine with the intent of purchasing the machine at a later time when their cash flow or credit situation allows."

Lower cost, higher value

Because equipment uptime is tantamount to success, equipment that is simple to service is top on the list of considerations.

That's why the engines on Wacker Neuson's compact excavators are mounted on the side of the machine. "The large engine cover opens to expose three sides of the engine and is high enough to be out of the way even for the tallest mechanic," says Marcus Auerbach, director of compact equipment. "This makes it very easy to check on filters and fluid levels on the job on a regular basis.

"We knew when designing our equipment that if these access points were hard to get to they would not be checked by the operator," he continues. "Service mechanics like the easy access of our machines because it allows them to work comfortably."

Serviceability is important to keep things moving efficiently in the shop, as well. "It's more than comparing if one machine takes 20 minutes to change the oil vs. another that may take 30 minutes," Steger says. "Serviceability is the relationship between the overall machine design and construction and how easily it can be maintained over the entire life of the machine - from routine service and hose replacements, to servicing coolers and repairing components."

Durability also comes into play. According to Auerbach, added strength is built into all Wacker Neuson excavators, as evidenced by the box-framed dozer blade, torsion-resistant X-frame undercarriage and boom. "The pivot points are very important," he adds. "They feature heavy steel pins and bushings, which are precisely machined and hardened.

"While it is hard to physically see on a new machine, the difference in the quality is noticeable when a machine with 500 or more hours still works with a breaker attachment tightly and precisely," he explains. "Also, we have designed the bushings to be easily replaceable without the need for cutting or welding should they ever wear out."

Cost of operation is a further consideration in today's economy. Fuel efficiency directly relates to that.

"Contractors are analyzing every dollar being spent and the fuel bill is certainly one area that easily stands out," Steger says. "Higher horsepower engines result in higher fuel consumption. So if you can do the same work with an optimized power train, why would you choose a model that is louder, less productive and uses more fuel?"

Zero vs. conventional tailswing

About a decade ago, the equipment world became enamored with the zero tailswing compact excavator. With this advancement, the machines were suddenly able to work closer to obstacles than ever before, taking jobsite efficiency to a new level.

Today, zero tailswing models are still the rage, but contractors have realized there continues to be a place for conventional tailswing models. "The trend was going from conventional tailswing to zero or minimal tailswing," recalls Tom Connor, excavator product specialist at Bobcat. "But not everyone wants that now, so we still provide diversity in our line. Today, we have zero, minimal and conventional tailswing models."

A zero tailswing compact excavator can get closer to walls and other obstacles and still rotate fully without damaging the machine or the structure, Connor points out. This allows the operator to dump dirt behind as well as next to the machine. The drawback is the machine has a wider undercarriage, making it more difficult to get inside tight entries.

"By offering both, customers can choose the best machine that fits their present and future needs," says Steger. "For many years, the trend to go with a zero or minimal tailswing was all the rage, and that certainly still proves to be very popular in many applications. But customers are expecting more out of their machines and increasing their versatility by adding more attachments and features.

"[Adding] multiple attachments or longer-reach arms to many of the compact swing machines means you must hang a large counterweight on the rear to regain some of the balance lost with the heavy attachments," he continues. "This results in better performance than before, but you are still severely limited by the basic platform when it comes to operator comfort and serviceability. Being able to offer a conventional machine with a long arm has allowed Takeuchi to offer a platform that is better suited for working with multiple attachments and still provides all of the benefits of a conventional excavator design."

Today's features, tomorrow's technology

Bobcat continues to offer arm variations on its excavator models, enabling you to choose standard or extendible versions. "The extendible arm allows an operator to extend the arm up to 30 in. beyond the length of a standard arm," says Connor. "This appeals to... anyone who doesn't want a bigger machine, but needs to get over things and get to a depth a distance away."

For its part, John Deere has some changes planned for the near future. "We are making running changes as we move forward on the popular D-Series," says Mark Wall, product marketing manager for excavators. "For example, we introduced an angle blade for the 35D and 50D; look for angle blades on additional models over the next few months. Also, we moved the auxiliary control from a proportionally controlled foot lever to a proportionally controlled switch on the right-hand pilot lever. In addition, we're updating the monitors for better visibility, and adding the thumb bracket as standard from the factory to make installation of this popular attachment easier."

Steger likewise sees future developments for Takeuchi, including features such as multiple auxiliary hydraulic circuits and higher hydraulic flows for more attachment versatility, plus auto idle for quieter, more efficient operation and improved function controls. "On-demand control of the attachments is just as important as controlling the other machine functions," he says, noting that Takeuchi has a mid-year introduction planned that will continue to expand the 200 Series machines that were first introduced in 2008.

The big picture

Compact excavators have become an indispensable tool on today's jobsites, and that promises to continue. While no drastic changes are expected in terms of performance, the goal of increasing value holds many benefits for equipment owners.

"We're not seeing huge increases in bucket force, for example," Connor comments. "What we're seeing now is an effort to continually build on quality, reliability and durability. Owners are striving for the optimal value."

And that value is based in part on what used to be considered luxuries, but are now becoming must-have features. "As the economic situation has played out, owners are putting more thought in the process of buying a machine," Connor states. "They're looking at the cost of ownership, and when they go to trade it out or sell it, a loaded-up machine will more than pay for those options."