A tentative recovery is underway in the European market for compact construction equipment - dynamic machines that are suitable for a wide range of tasks on construction sites.
According to Off-Highway Research, sales of compact wheeled loaders are expected to increase by around 8% in western Europe this year, while the estimate for skid steer loaders is a rise of 6%.
And contractors have plenty of choice in terms of the compact models available, from wheeled loaders to tracked loaders and skid steers, all of which are capable of performing similar, front-loading functions.
Manufacturers are working hard to ensure that their latest machines stand out from the crowd - a competitive momentum that is raising the bar in terms of agility, efficiency and flexibility.
Articulated compact wheeled loader models remain popular, offering increased flexibility on site as they are able to operate on uneven ground and in more confined spaces. Terex, for example, has launched a new-look, technically improved TL80 compact wheeled loader - a machine which reveals a design rethink for the entire Terex wheeled loader range.
The company claims to be the only manufacturer to build its compact loaders on three design platforms - the 4.8 tonne TL80 with articulated steering, the 5.2 tonne TL70S swing loader with articulated steering, and the TL80AS all-wheel-steering loader. Power for all three models comes from a 44kW engine
At the back end of the new TL80 machine, a tail section has been added to provide better weight distribution and stronger wall thicknesses on the counterweight. This is said to make handling smoother, while the loading gear and front end of the machine have also been optimised, and a new steering and braking system installed.
Manufacturers are also focusing on making the latest compact loaders as flexible as possible in terms of attachments, ensuring that they are suitable for an ever-increasing range of applications. Bobcat, for example, has enhanced its range of 1m planer and wheel saw attachments to include a new hydraulic valve.
The new design is said to allow a higher net hydraulic horsepower to be delivered to the attachments, increasing their performance and productivity. The enhancements also allow operating hours and maintenance intervals on the planers and wheel saws to be monitored using the deluxe instrument panel available on Bobcat's New Generation S630, S650 and S850 skid steer loaders and T650 and T870 compact tracked loaders.
Bobcat also revealed three new compact loaders earlier this year. The new additions to the 700 Series - the T770 tracked loader, the S770 skid steer and the A770 all-wheel steer (AWS) loader - are said to offer higher rated operating capacities and increased engine and hydraulic power, allowing users to take on more demanding applications.
Komatsu, too, considers improved hydraulics central to increasing the versatility of its compact loaders. The company said it would soon be introducing a new slow speed control (SSC) option on all its skid steer loaders with high flow hydraulics.
Designed to increase efficiency and control, the SSC function offers the flexibility to adapt excavation and cutting levels in tough conditions. Komatsu said cold planers were typical attachments that would require the upcoming SSC setting, adding that it proposed developing several versions to cover its whole range of skid steers and crawler loaders.
Meanwhile, Volvo's L20F and L25F wheeled loaders, launched last year, feature an articulated central joint and differential axel locks which the company said helped to maintain stability, traction and flexibility in tough conditions. The L20F It has a 4.3 tonne operating weight, while the larger model weighs 4.8 tonnes.
Adding to the flurry of new skid steer launches since the start of the year, New Holland unveiled its new 200 Series of skid steer loaders in the spring.
The new 200 Series exemplifies a growing trend among manufacturers to offer both radial lift and vertical lift models to enable buyers to select the best option for the task.
The range includes seven skid steer loaders, five of which are vertical lift loaders - the L218, L220, L223, L225 and L230 machines - while two - the L213 and L215 - are radial lift models.
Radial lift arms offer higher breakout forces, swing out in an arc before reaching their peak height and are most suited to excavation work, grading and digging. Vertical lift machines, meanwhile, are ideal for material handling and back loading since the loader arm raises straight, giving good outreach at the top of the lift path.
In addition, New Holland has also introduced three compact track loaders to its 200 Series.
There are two vertical lift models - the C232 and C238 - and one radial lift machine - the C227. The loaders feature rated operating capacities of up to 1.4 tonnes and a maximum breakout force of 38.2kN.
Multiple new machines
More new entrants to the market came from New Holland's sister company, Case, which in February also launched a new family of skid steers and compact track loaders known as the Alpha Series.
Case revealed six new radial lift wheeled skid steers - the SR130, SR150, SR175, SR200, SR220 and SR250 - and two compact tracked loaders - the TR270 and TR320. There are also four vertical-lift models - the SV185, SV250 and SV300 skid steers and the TV380 compact tracked loader. Rated operating capacities range from 590kg to 1.7 tonnes.
Gehl has also launched new skid steer, tracked and wheeled loader models that can work with a wide variety of attachments.
Three new articulated wheeled loaders were added - the 140, 340 and 540 models. Engine power ranges from 17kW to 35kW, while the smallest model is just 1.04m wide. Gehl's new V330 skid steer, meanwhile, is a vertical lift machine with a rated operating capacity of 1.5 tonnes. It boasts over 3.3m of lift height, making it well-suited to material handling and truck loading tasks. Power comes from a 63kW engine.
And Gehl's new RT series compact tracked loaders include the RT175 and the RT210 models. These latest machines feature a welded, dedicated track loader chassis, instead of a skid loader chassis with bolt-on track assemblies which Gehl claimed was found on most competitor machines.
The company said, "Years of market experience has proved that a dedicated track system outperforms any other design," adding that the range also featured Gehl's HydraTrac automatic track tensioning system as standard.
Marketing manager Lori Heidecker said the company intended to make both the new V330 skid steer loader and the new RT Series of compact tracked loaders available in Europe in the future.
Ihimer also has a new compact tracked loader - the CL45. This model is another example of the growing trend for optional high-flow hydraulic systems on compact equipment.
Using the high-performance hydraulic system improves stability and reduces bounce, making manoeuvring easier, according to Ihimer. It said travel and attachment operations on the CL45 have also been made smoother with the introduction of a hydraulic joystick lever, allowing the operator to get more done with less effort. To simplify auxiliary operations, the left joystick is equipped as standard with a proportional switch. The machine has a 0.4m3 bucket capacity and is powered by a 61.9kW Yanmar 4TNV98T engine, which complies with European stage IIIA emissions regulations.
Meanwhile, Italian equipment manufacturer Venieri has introduced a compact backhoe loader that is described as agile and suitable for working in tight spaces.
This model, the 1.33b, has an operating weight of 3.3 tonnes and features four-wheel steering for a balanced ground load. Power comes from a 40kW engine mounted on the side of the machine and balanced by a counter-weight on the other side, while the position of the engine allows easy access for maintenance.
With a raft of new compact loader launches across the industry this year, the pace looks set to continue - particularly in light of Europe's staggered shift to stricter exhaust emissions regulations.
Machines in the 37kW to 75kW power band will have to comply with the Tier IIIB emissions standards from 2013, and if the flurry of activity elsewhere in the construction equipment sector is anything to go by, contractors can expect to see a further array of new models on the market in the coming months.