Europe's construction market has suffered a slowdown since the financial crisis of 2008, and the region's governments are now prioritising their investments they do make to target the most crucial projects with the highest development impact.
But utility construction contractors can allow themselves to be cautiously optimistic on the prospects for the sector in the long term, after positive signals in the European Commission's (EC) budget plans.
High energy demand and the need to modernise existing facilities have prompted the EC to propose establishing a €50 billion fund for digital and energy transmission and piping networks, as well as transport infrastructure, from 2014 to 2020.
This investment would include up to €9.1 billion for the construction of a new high-speed broadband infrastructure across the continent, for example, while €9 billion has been earmarked for improvements to the EU-wide energy grid.
Despite these positive noises, conditions for contractors remain challenging, with rising fuel and raw material costs, together with the ongoing volatile economic climate, putting pressure on margins.
Some of the most fuel efficient and versatile machines that have ever been brought to the market are now available as manufacturers strive to produce tangible economic benefits to contractors in terms of productivity and cost savings.
Backhoe loaders, for example, are a staple on any general utility construction site. And this year has seen a flurry of new launches focusing on cost efficiency.
JCB's new generation, for instance, is the CX range, and the larger 74.2kW 4CX and 63kW 3CX machines are said to offer average fuel savings of up to 16% at typical daily work rates.
This saving has been largely achieved through the introduction of JCB's EcoDig system, incorporating three hydraulic pumps to provide the same hydraulic output but at lower engine speeds. Operators can chose from two working modes, either Eco mode or low flow, to optimise productivity and improve machine control.
JCB Livelink is fitted as standard on all 3CX and 4CX models in the UK and Ireland. It provides a telematic link to JCB's machines to give customers real-time performance and location data, with curfew and geofence alerts to help in the fight against site theft.
Long life and cost efficiency
Volvo has also launched a redesigned backhoe range aimed at the utilities sector - the 7.1 tonne BL61B and 9.8 tonne BL71B models. Powered by 64kW and 74.9kW Stage IIIA engines respectively, the new machines were built with power, strength, long life and cost efficiency in mind.
Product manager for backhoe loaders at Volvo Construction Equipment Europe Kurt Deleu said the cabs could be modified to suit the needs of individual customers.
"This will enable customers to specify their machines to suit markets such as rental, owner operator or even large contractors," he said.
Both ends of the machines can be equipped with attachments and quick couplers - from general or multi-purpose loader buckets to pallet forks, hydraulic thumbs, standard and heavy duty excavator buckets and hydraulic breaker attachments. Bucket loader capacities range up to 1m3 and the backhoe excavator buckets have a maximum volume of 0.33m3.
Each backhoe loader can, as an option, also be fitted with Volvo's CareTrack telematics system, which improves security by providing data on servicing, potential problems and the location of the machines.
Case, too, introduced new backhoe loaders at the start of the year - the Construction King T Series made up of four models. These are the 8.8 tonne range topping 695 ST, the 8.1 tonne 590ST and the 8 tonne 580ST and 580T.
Power for the 695 and 590 is 82kW for a maximum travel speed of 39kph and 72kW for a maximum travel speed of 40kph for the two smaller machines.
According to Case, the new machines' load-sensing hydraulic system provides a 10% reduction in fuel consumption and lower engine noise levels, and the new machines also provide 20% greater loader productivity.
In addition, all four come with a 1.2m3 bucket - 20% larger than that on previous models. A mechanical quick coupler for the backhoe will come as standard, with a hydraulic coupler available as an option.
Oil flow only when needed
Case sister company New Holland also released new backhoe loaders - the B115B and B110BTC - which feature variable displacement pumps that deliver the oil flow only when it is needed, resulting in fuel savings up to 10%, according to the company.
Mini excavators are also utility construction essentials, and manufacturers have been focusing on reducing the cost of ownership here as well.
JCB has worked with leading utility contractors to develop an industry-specific version of its 8018 mini excavator.
The 1.6 tonne machine is powered by a 14.2kW Tier III compliant motor and has been fitted with a range of safety specific additions.
To prevent damage on site, the lower door window has been replaced by a steel panel and the rear counterweight has additional rubber protective strips. The working lights, mounted on the cab roof and on the boom, are also equipped with protective guards to prevent damage.
JCB's comprehensive utility specification also includes two fold-down supports for the dozer blade to prevent any damage to the asphalt as the dozer blade is pushed down.
In addition, all the necessary wiring is provided for customers to fit the EZiDIG service locator, from UK-based Cable Detection.
This is a sensor that attaches to the digger arm and scans the ground for signals emitted by buried services, providing an additional level of security for operatives on site and preventing potentially costly damage to cables and to the machine.
Meanwhile, Bobcat has also introduced two new compact tracked excavators - the 5.5 tonne E55 and the 2.6 tonne E26.
Aimed at the growing 4 to 5 tonne mini-excavator market, the new machine is based on a platform similar to that of the popular E50 zero tail swing excavator, but has a conventional upper structure.
The E26 is a zero tail-swing model, and the machine does not require an extra counterweight, even when using a long dipper stick. This has helped keep the excavator under 2.7 tonnes, an important cut-off point for road transportation regulations in many countries.
Fitting standard doorway
Three new mini excavators from Caterpillar have also been made available in Europe this year. The 300.9D, 301.4C and 302.7D CR models span the 0.9 tonne to 2.7 tonne range, and the smallest model can fit through a standard doorway.The largest new model, the 302.7D CR, is still Caterpillar's lightest compact radius model, making it easy to transport for a rental company or contractor. Powered by the same 17.9kW engine as the 301.4C, the machine boasts a load-sensing hydraulic system, providing a maximum bucket force of 22.5kN and lift capacity of 955kg.
Attachments help to enhance the versatility of mini excavators and backhoe loaders, and the more flexible the attachment is in terms of coupling, the better for a utilities contractor.
General Equipment Company, for example, has unveiled a new hydraulically-powered earth drilling attachment that is compatible with lower-auxiliary hydraulic system flow rates found on popular models of compact loader backhoes, mini-excavators and compact utility loaders.
The 471 DIG-R-TACH drill attachment features a universal mounting bracket that conforms to a wide variety of loader bucket configurations. Mounted quickly and easily by one person, it requires no special tools, drilling or welding as the supplied bracket grips tightly with a positive locking system.
Augers are available from 55mm to 610mm diameters and produce a 1.2m deep hole in standard configuration. To increase drilling depth, a full line of flighted and non-flighted earth auger extensions is available.
Technology for trenchless pipe installation is also growing in popularity in the utilities sector. Tracto-Technik manufactures Burstform equipment, which has launched new tight in pipe (TIP) technology to help contractors save time and effort installing new utility pipes.
The TIP process for the trenchless renewal of pipes works by adapting new pipes to fit the inner diameter of old piping that is already in the ground, using a calibration sleeve.
The technique was used on a project in Berlin, Germany, where an 850m water canal alongside the Müggelheimer Dam was renewed with new pipes using the trenchless method, with access to the existing piping provided by the manholes along the route.
Utility contractor Frisch & Faust Tiefbau guided the new piping through a special Burstform forming device, which is set up above the manhole, before being pulled into the manhole to enter the old pipe.
The power to pull in the pipe length was provided by a bursting rig from Tracto-Technik, which can also be assembled inside a 1m diameter manhole. Using the TIP method, the new pipeline was installed in just three weeks.
Tracto-Technik's new Grundomat N-type soil displacement hammer can also be used for the trenchless installation of water and gas pipes, as well as ducts for electricity and telecom cables.
The new generation features 10 models ranging from 45mm to 180mm in diameter, each sporting a crowned head.
The material displaced passes the openings and is converted to the rear of the head, and piping can either be installed immediately afterwards or later.
The main characteristic of all Grundomat soil displacement hammers is the twin-stroke system - on the first stroke, the piston strikes the multi-cutter cone, producing the bore hole and at the same time pulverising any obstacles in the way. The casing is then struck a second time and pulled in with the attached pipes.
Utility contractors have a vast range of options available to them in terms of construction equipment and techniques from manufacturers competing to offer efficiency savings. And with average growth for the non-residential construction sector in Europe put at 2.5% between 2010 and 2015, there is certainly reason for confidence to remain steady in this sector