The design of the compact loader is evolving in order to meet the changing needs of the European market and the demand for higher levels of operator comfort and safety. Becca Wilkins reports.
Compact loader manufacturers are continuing to improve the operator's working environment by adding more comfort and safety features to their machines, despite their small dimensions. This aim is reflected in new and updated models now available in the European market.
New to Bobcat's mid-sized and large compact tracked loaders is the optional roller suspension system which according to the company enhances operator comfort.
Jose Cuadrado, business director for Bobcat loaders and utility vehicles in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, said the "ride quality" of the compact tracked loader has traditionally been its biggest weakness but with the new undercarriage this is significantly improved.
He added, "The challenge is to improve the comfort without compromising the compactness of the machine. We are working in this direction and focusing on four main points that we hope to address with a new generation of machines coming up in the next few months."
He said operator visibility, cabin space, noise and vibrations are the key areas of focus as well continuing to develop the use of the machine's electronic joystick.
"The ultimate goal is to make a machine where operator fatigue decreases and his productivity increases," Mr Cuadrado said.
Speaking for Gehl, Kelly Moore told CE, operator comfort is vital and has always been one of the top product drivers in Europe. He said this is why the majority of Gehl machines are fitted with a deluxe suspension seat.
"Another safety measure is our restraint bar system which has an arm rest, which is for the operator's comfort but it's also a safety device because until it is in position it also deactivates the machine's controls," he added.
Gehl's ‘T-bar' hand control system, which Mr Moore said is fairly unique in the market also eases labour for the operator.
"It's simply the easiest working system for the operator because he only uses his hands, whereas in other types of machine he would need to use his hands and feet at the same time. The system has been now been refined to include an alternative called the ‘T-bar joystick'."
This, Mr Moore explained still enables the operator to drive the machine with the T-bar movement while all hydraulic functions are carried out via a joystick.
Gehl's skid steers also feature a foot throttle which, according to Mr Moore helps improve machine productivity and reduces fuel consumption as well as noise levels.
Elsewhere, Garry Adey, sales director of Westquay Trading - which sells Takeuchi compact tracked loaders in the north of England and Ireland - said huge improvements have been made in these machines with regards to comfort and safety.
Takeuchi's compact tracked loaders include features such as a fully glazed, pressurised cab with air conditioning and heating systems as well as a radio with an i-pod connection. The adjustable spring suspension seat however is the most important comfort feature, he said.
The company's compact tracked loaders are easily controlled with two user-friendly joysticks - one for moving forwards, backwards, left and right and the other for moving the arm and controlling the hydraulics, Mr Adey said.
Meanwhile, he added a reversing camera fitted in a Takeuchi model could be the next step to improve operator safety.
The issues of comfort and safety remain top priorities in Western Europe, according to Mr Cuadrado.
"Eastern Europe as well as Russia, the Middle East and Africa still don't regard operator comfort as a major concern. We see purchase price and machine reliability as the two main drivers in these countries," he explained.
He said because Western European territories have used this type of equipment for the past 30 to 50 years, they are moving towards solutions that improve productivity, "and a big part of improving productivity is to reduce operator fatigue - so the operator can stay in the machine for a full day," he added.
Safety regulations, as well as strict noise and engine emissions restrictions in the west of the region also force the development of safety and comfort features.
Meanwhile, he said although the skid steer loader is now a mature product in Western Europe, it presents a big opportunity for growth in the eastern regions as well as in Russia.
"This is because the skid steer is the most cost effective solution for emerging markets. As the industry becomes more mature and sophisticated they look for productivity gains - they look at price in a different way. This is where the compact tracked loader comes into play, because although it is not as cost effective as a skid steer loader the productivity gains are there," Mr Cuadrado explained.
Manufacturers agree the current drive to improve machine productivity and versatility is helping to increase the popularity of the compact tracked loader.
Mr Cuadrado said, "The compact tracked loader, which is basically a traditional skid steer loader with a tracked undercarriage, instead of a wheeled undercarriage, is an emerging concept in the compact loader world. With a tracked system, the machine can be more productive when used for the right applications, such as working on high inclines and on soft ground."
Bobcat has introduced two new compact tracked loaders, the company's smallest model, the less than 2,4 tonne T110 and the T320, which is the largest in the range with increased engine power and hydraulic capabilities.
The company has also replaced the rubber tracks typically found on a conventional compact tracked loader with new steel tracks on its three largest models, which Mr Cuadrado said increase pushing force and traction. He added compact tracked loaders are proving to be popular in Italy, France, Germany, and in the Benelux countries, but to a lesser degree in the UK.
Mr Adey agrees the market for compact tracked loaders is growing but said it will be "a long haul" to convince contractors of the versatility of these machines.
"The main success that we've been having is pitching to contractors on the cost savings and what these machines can do now - they're not just an expensive shovel. They can do multiple jobs now and they can also reduce the amount of men needed on a project. There are various positive effects that these machines can have if they are equipped with the right attachments."
According to Mr Adey the tracked compact loaders are by far superior to anything that's been on the market ever before. "They are giving contractors the opportunity to think about carrying out jobs differently and more cost effectively," he said.
He added steel tracks are a possible future area for development. "This is something that we are looking at, not directly with Takeuchi but through secondary suppliers," Mr Adey stated.
Bobcat will begin the process of re-launching its entire range of skid steer and compact tracked loaders in 2010 despite the difficult economic climate of the past year.
As part of the plan Bobcat will also introduce one larger model to both the skid steer and compact tracked loader line-up.
"For the rest of the range we are looking to introduce the same number of models that we have today, but with improved features such as enhanced power, hydraulics and lifting capacity in the same package as well as improved operator comfort."
Meanwhile, at Intermat earlier this year, Gehl previewed two new skid steer loaders soon to be available in the European market - the sub-compact 1640 E and the larger V270. Mr Moore said the larger machine has a lift height of more than 3,3 m - making it the highest lifting machine in its category in the industry.
"It's proved popular in the US and we've already received a number of European orders as a result of Intermat," Mr Moore said.
Over the summer there appears to have been a glimmer of increased activity in the construction equipment market.
According to Mr Moore skid steer loader sales are down in all countries but the company has noted a marginally improved situation and is starting to see some "light at the end of the tunnel."
Elsewhere, Mr Cuadrado said Bobcat sees the compact loader industry becoming increasingly consolidated, especially as a result of the weak economic climate.
"Customer needs are different depending on the country so if we want to be in a strong position at the end of this recession we need to have the right product for each of these customer needs. So these are the two points where we are putting most emphasis - application diversification and country diversification."
He added Bobcat is gaining market share in every major European market and it plans to maintain this for the next 12 months. "This will hopefully take us out of the downturn in a better and stronger market position," he said.