Mini excavators: new tech and alternative power

By Andy Brown and Catrin Jones15 August 2022

Group photo of the Cat 302.7 CR, 303 CR, 303.5 CR mini excavators

Global demand for mini excavators has exploded over the last five years, according to research by Off-Highway Research. To meet this demand, companies are expanding their product ranges at a rapid pace – adapting their technology and developing advanced machine capabilities.

The mini excavator’s level of flexibility means that it has become a mainstay in rental fleets in developed markets, whilst emerging markets are becoming increasingly aware of their potential against rising labour costs.

China remains the biggest market, but sales in Europe have doubled since the 2000s whilst in the North American market mini excavators are replacing traditional machines, such as backhoe loaders. Chris Sleight, managing director of Off-Highway Research, believes one driver is rising labour costs.

“This has proved to be something of a virtuous circle, with the economies of scale in production and fierce competition in China driving down prices for buyers and accelerating adoption,” he says.

Mini excavator operator comfort
Electric equipment is said to provide a more comfortable workspace

With labour costs continually rising and the skills shortage rampant, making machines as easy to use is important, as is providing a comfortable operator environment.

Caterpillar’s next generation of mini excavators are said to feature a number of industry-firsts that elevate the operator’s experience. Sam Matthews, Caterpillar product application specialist for mini excavators, said, “From the 301.5 to the 310, design commonality gives operators a high quality, comfortable and consistent working environment.”

Some of the features include a stick steer system that allows the operator to switch with the touch of a button from conventional travel lever/pedal steering controls to left-hand joystick control as well as the ability for the operator to adjust settings to implement speed and response.

Elsewhere, Hyundai Construction Equipment Europe’s R25Z-9AK cabin is said to be designed to offer a productive and stress-free working environment. Its ergonomic design brings easier operation and can even lower operator fatigue. The control levers are easily accessible, and an instrument display is provided to keep the operator informed of relevant machine information.

New models are often being launched in this sector, such as Bobcat’s new R2-Series generation of 5-6 tonne mini excavators for the Middle East and Africa market – the new E50z and E55z models. The E50z ZHS model is described as an easy-to-use, robust machine optimised for specific rental industry needs.

Bobcat says that E88 also provides the operator with the full experience expected of an R2-Series excavator, with additional features and options such as an optional fourth AUX4 auxiliary tilt coupler line, a fifth AUX5 hydraulic coupler line as standard and a longer undercarriage.

The weight has been increased and optimised in the E50z to maximise stability, which has allowed Bobcat to provide a long arm as standard equipment. The E55z is the largest and most powerful Bobcat machine with the ZHS design.

Bobcat E88 R2-series excavator

Robert Husar, product line director for Bobcat mini excavators in EMEA, said, “These models offer a best-in-class mix of high performance, superb stability, and smooth controllability of the working functions.”

Alternative power for construction equipment 

Electric equipment is a growing trend, especially for compact models that are easier to power this way than larger machines.

There are a host of OEMs that offer electric mini excavators – back in 2019 Volvo Construction Equipment announced that it would launch a range of electric compact excavators (EC15 to EC27) and stop new diesel engine-based development of these models.

In an interview given previously to International Construction magazine, Elodie Guyot, electric compact excavator project manager, Volvo CE, commented on the performance of the machine that, “Some customers perceive it as being even better performing,” she said.

“There was clear feedback from all the customers who tested the machine that they were amazed by the performance. They were not expecting this machine to be as well-performing as the diesel version.”

Another OEM has recently launched a new electric model. Hitachi Construction Machinery’s (Europe) 5-tonne zero emission mini excavator is the company’s first for the European market.

Described as providing reduced noise levels, enhanced efficiency, fewer maintenance requirements and less downtime than conventional models, the ZX55U-6EB is operated using battery power or via a wired connection to a three-phase power source.

To improve safety during wired operation, a camera to the rear of the excavator monitors the secure connection of the cable.

Hyundai Construction Equipment Europe’s R25Z-9AK

The excavator is able to manoeuvre in confined spaces due to the short tail swing design of its diesel ZX55U-6 sister model.

Takaharu Ikeda, President of Hitachi Construction Machinery Europe, said, “We are working hard to meet the growing demand for zero-emission equipment.”

Hitachi added that the launch of the excavator underlines its commitment to “delivering sustainable solutions” and that it intends to “expand its battery-powered products line-up in Europe in the future.”

Mini excavator zero swing

Working in congested or confined areas can be challenging. To enable safe and confident work in confined spaces that are close to walls, on roadways or in urban areas, tail swing is an important consideration.

Bobcat’s E50z and E55z feature the Zero House Swing (ZHS). With this, Bobcat says, the rotation of the upper structure of the E50z and E55z remains fully within the footprint of the tracks. This includes the boom swing offset cylinder, front corners, handles, lights, and the door in both open and closed positions.

JCB’s new 35Z-1 zero tailswing model is said to be a replacement for the previous generation 8035ZTS – the conventional rear-end 36C-1 is a new model in the JCB range.

Volvo CE are one of the leading players regarding electric equipment

The UK-based company says that the zero tailswing model is ideal for working in confined areas, providing greater protection as the counterweight rotates within the width of the machine.

China is a major market for mini excavators, and one of the country’s leading OEMs, XCMG, has released the XE80 mini excavator, which uses a large-displacement electronic control main pump, ensuring lower fuel consumption throughout usage.

The company says that the engine adopts EGR, DOC, and DPF technology, which works cohesively with their improved hydraulic load sensing system. XCMG says it has focused on providing fuel efficiency in addition to smooth control, regardless of its load.

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