Big ideas

24 April 2008

JCB's 4 tonne 8040 ZTS and 4,5 tonne 8045 ZTS (shown) both feature spacious, ergonomically designed

JCB's 4 tonne 8040 ZTS and 4,5 tonne 8045 ZTS (shown) both feature spacious, ergonomically designed cabs with air conditioning available as a factory fitted option.

The Latest Figures Available From Construction equipment market research specialist Off-Highway Research show that sales of mini excavators in Western Europe for 2005 reached 53000 units, a rise of +11% on 2004's figure of 47000. This represents a 44% share of the global mini excavator market of 120000 in 2005, with China accounting for 5300 machines, North America 30000, Japan 25000 and the rest of the world 6700.

According to Off-Highway Research managing director David Philips, it is only since 2000 that the mini excavator market has really shown signs of growth in Europe, with sales rising +30% from 2000's figure of 41000.

Explaining the mini excavator's popularity Mr Philips told CE, “The machines are a great favourite with the rental industry because they represent outstandingly good value for money, and can work effectively in urban areas where the machines that they are now replacing cannot.”

However, it is important to make a distinction between those machines that are popular with rental customers and those that are popular with owner-operators. Tiffany Kirkwood, Volvo business development manager for compact excavators in Europe, told CE, “In terms of weight class, it's easy to see that the smaller machines, that's to say 1 to 3 tonnes, are more popular with rental companies, and renters.

“They represent 50% of the total market. So by definition rental of the smaller type of machines is the most popular option.

“Owner operators tend to go for bigger machines with more technology, auto idle, for example, versus the rental segment where more simplistic, small, easily transportable machines are more popular,” said Ms Kirkwood.

However, Caterpillar's Sam Mottram, mini hydraulic excavator marketing consultant Europe, Africa and the Middle East, told CE that rental customers also have other concerns.

“Rental customers require high utilisation to be successful, so it's no good having a mini excavator that spends half its lifetime in the workshops being repaired. Durability, longevity and ease of maintenance are the key drivers for this market,” he said.

“However, manufacturers must also be aware that often machines are rented to customers who are not familiar with the operation or the daily maintenance of construction equipment, therefore machines should be simple to operate, quick to learn how to operate, with daily maintenance and service checks that are as simple as possible,” added Mr Mottram.

Market Preferences

While size, simplicity/complexity of operation, durability and productivity are key factors, there are some interesting regional variations in the popularity of mini excavators. Italy (25% of European unit sales), the UK (20%), France (18%) and Germany (16%), dominated sales in 2005 with the other countries in the region accounting for the remaining 21%, according to Off-Highway Research. There are also regional preferences for different weight classes.

For machines less than 2 tonnes Italy represents 55% of unit sales, the UK 47%, Germany 46% and France 29%. For machines in the 2 to 4 tonne class France is the largest market (55%), followed by Germany (36%), the UK (31%) and Italy (29%).

Backing up these figures Cat's Mr Mottram told CE that sales in France of its 2 to 3 tonne class machines is “very strong”, whereas the same can be said of the German market for 1 to 2 tonne size machines.

A view shared by Volvo's Ms Kirkwood, who told CE, “In the UK and France smaller machines are more popular because rental is more established there. In the northwest of Europe and Scandinavia larger machines are more popular with owner operators. In Southern Europe it's more a rental market, so again its smaller machines.”

For the 4 to 6 tonne weight class France is again the largest market with a 20% share, followed by Germany (18%), then Italy (16%) and finally the UK (14%).

According to Mr Philips, there may be a historical reason for these regional variations. “In those countries where backhoe loaders are popular - UK, France and Italy for example - the 1 to 3 tonne classes are the most important, but where backhoe loaders are not so common - Germany, for example - there is a trend towards 4 to 6 tonnes,” said Mr Philips.

Smaller Machines

With the 1 to 3 tonne class of machine proving the most popular it is no surprise that manufacturers are continually expanding their ranges or launching new models. Caterpillar, for example, expanded and updated its range of compact mini excavators earlier this year (see CE March 2006 for a full report).

The 301.6C (1,7 tonnes), 301.8C (1,8 tonnes), 302.5C (2,8 tonnes) and the 303C CR - compact radius (3,3 tonnes), 304C CR (4,7 tonnes) and 305C CR (5,1 tonnes) replace the 301.5, 301.8, 302.5, 303C CR, 304CR and 305CR respectively, while the 303.5C CR (3,7 tonnes) is a new machine.

According to Mike Birks, mini hydraulic excavator product manager, the new machines meet Mr Mottram's list of customer requirements “head-on”.

“The rear of the machine is thick steel plate (5 mm) to cope with the knocks on site, which means rental companies won't have the machine out of action for a long time.

“Serviceability has also improved. A large door gives easy access to all components so it's easy to do routine maintenance, another boon to contractors and rental companies alike, where having a machine sitting in the yard means a loss of revenue.

“All the machines also feature increased power and a level of comfort that could only have been dreamed of when mini excavators first came on the market,” said Mr Birks.

Operator Comfort

Also new is Bobcat's 1,3 tonne 319 mini excavator (1,2 tonne with canopy, 1,4 tonne with cab). Like Volvo's newest and smallest machine, the EC13 the 319 has an adjustable undercarriage - 980 to 1363 mm - making it easily transportable on a “standard” trailer, an important consideration when renting. It is also worth noting that the 319's expandable undercarriage is standard whereas it is an option, and therefore an extra cost, on other manufacturers' machines.

Like all the new machines now available operator comfort was a “high priority” according to a Bobcat spokesman. “The 319 offers a spacious, comfortable operator's area with good visibility in both the cab and canopy versions. All controls are conveniently located for ease of operation. Operator comfort is enhanced thanks to noise insulation and optimal engine settings, resulting in a sound pressure level of only 90 dB (A),” said the spokesman.

According to Mr Mottram, there is a reason for this focus on operator comfort. “As operators are becoming a commodity they are also asked to drive many different machines. These operators, who have driven larger excavators, have the expectation that a mini hydraulic excavator is equipped, performs and feels as comfortable as a larger machine.”

Another company expanding its product line-up is Neuson. It will launch two new compact machines at Intermat, an 800 kg class machine and a 1,5 tonne class machine.

Although details were sketchy as CE went to press, the company said the 800 kg machine would be its smallest yet, just 700 mm wide, with a three cylinder Yanmar diesel engine providing the power.

“Excellent service access is guaranteed, thanks to the tilting seat bracket. Special attention has been paid to the high performance of the auxiliary hydraulics. Hydraulic breakers are easy to fit thanks to the auxiliary hydraulic connector on the boom and the high-powered hydraulics,” said a company spokesman.

Neuson's new 1,5 tonne machine is the follow-up to its existing 1403. Weighing less than 1,5 tonnes, and with an expandable undercarriage option (990 to 1300 mm) it is easily transported on a car- towable trailer.

“Both machines are fitted with a neck cylinder, which prevents any digging tools from damaging the lifting arm, making them ideal for inexperienced drivers,” added the spokesman.

Reduced Radius

While comfort, serviceability and easy maintenance are popular trends among owners, operators and renters alike, another is the increasing popularity in reduced and zero tail swing machines.

According to Ms Kirkwood, “Customers have been asking for short radius machines in Europe, and this has been driven by the work space available. Sites are often small, confined spaces so these machines are proving ever more popular.”

Based on shortened superstructures, most of Volvo's ECR range is compact enough so the counterweight turns entirely within its own track width. Operator fatigue is reduced thanks to a spacious cab, suspension seat and easy-grip, high response joysticks, which are mounted on the seat, reduced noise inside and outside, while the cab itself has been installed on rubber mountings to help reduce vibration.

There are also some interesting regional variations in machine size when it comes to choosing a reduced radius machine. Joep van den Maagdenberg, project co-ordinator for Hitachi's compact line business, told CE, “New ideas tend to be more readily accepted in Northern Europe, and then it spreads slowly into Western Europe, and that seems to have been the case with zero, compact and reduced tail swing models.”

Mr van den Maagdenberg also points out that zero tail swing is more accepted in the 3 to 5 tonne class at the moment. Smaller machines are more popular for rental, and “at present it's not that important whether its compact, reduced or zero tail swing for rental customers,” said Mr van den Maagdenberg.

“However, while I don't think we'll ever loose the &traditional', and very popular 1,5 tonne machines, more and more [rental] customers are asking for zero tail swing machines in the lower weight classes,” he added.

No surprise then that the main market for Hitachi's new 2,7 tonne Zaxis 27U-2 mini excavator is Europe. According to Mr van den Maagdenberg, “People choose a machine on its operation, performance, the total range of machines available, spare part availability and training issues.”

Consequently Hitachi's design for the Zaxis 27U-2 is based stability, maintainability, durability and operator comfort. Stability is increased thanks to a heavy track frame, large counterweight and a light swing post mounted as close to the centre of the machine as possible. For maintenance requirements the cab, or canopy, can tilt up 50°, giving access to the main control valve and the swing device, while a panel on the right of the machine gives access to the battery, radiator, fuel tank and hydraulic oil tank. Saving space on a tight job site the engine cover slides open giving access to the oil filter, oil inlet, water separator and air cleaner can easily be accessed.

Durability has also increased. Like Cat, Hitachi has added extra protection, this time to the front and right corners of the machine, to save on maintenance costs and downtime in the rental yard. Operator comforts include an ergonomically designed cab, air conditioning and shock-absorbing rubber mounts for the cab.

Expanded Line-Up

Like Hitachi, Doosan Daewoo has recently launched a new zero tail swing machine. The DX35Z is the company's first foray into the zero tail swing market and underlines the growing popularity of the concept.

According to the company, the DX35Z has been designed using similar criteria to its heavier machinery, making the new machine strong, sturdy, reliable and productive. With a weight of 3,65 tonnes, a 20 kW engine and a digging depth of 4,8 m, the DX35Z will be available later this year.

A company spokesman told CE, “It will be followed very shortly by other zero tail swing models, which will result in an upgrading of [our] complete mini excavator range.”

While Doosan is just releasing its first zero tail swing model, many others are filling in gaps in their range or replacing existing models.

Also expanding its zero tail swing range is Terex. The company has just launched the HR 3.7, part of its seven model HR range - HR 2.0, HR 14, HR 16, HR 18, HR 20 and HR 42.

Speaking to CE at the company's recent product launch in La Manga, Spain, chief engineer Paul Douglas said, “With an upper carriage tail swing of just 900 mm the HR 3.7 is ideally suited for working in confined spaces. The new cab, with restyled interior, offers superb operator comfort and Terex's top mounted boom ram and auxiliary control circuits are standard features.”

Another company that is adding to its product offering is Neuson. It has just launched its 38Z3 zero tail swing mini excavator. The 27,1 kW 3,6 tonne machine, which is 1,74 m wide, has a maximum digging depth of 3,11 m with standard arm or 3,35 m with the “long arm” option.

According to the company, the 38Z3 benefits from two “outstanding” features; excellent service accessibility and tiltable comfort cabin.

“The cabin sets the standards in its class. Due to the lateral installation of the diesel engine the cabin design is extremely large. Optional air conditioner, large head and legroom, together with hydraulically piloted joy sticks and adjustable armrests all add up to the best operator comfort in its class,” said a company spokesman.

Service accessibility is also good; a large engine bonnet means all the important drive components are within easy reach, while the tiltable gives access to the components underneath within minutes.

Heavier Machines

While machines in the 1 to 3 tonne weight classes might be more popular with rental companies, larger compact excavators, over 4 tonnes, continue to be in demand too.

Reduced and zero tail swing excavators are also popular in this weight class. Bobcat's 4,5 tonne 435, for example, offers high operator comfort, and easy maintenance and serviceability. Bobcat now offers a range of three zero tail swing excavators with operating weights from 3,6 to 7,5 tonnes.

“The 435 avoids the compromises in cab height and operator comfort that often result from zero tail swing designs. Instead, it has a spacious cab, allowing easy entry and exit. For service and maintenance a convenient swing open rear tailgate and the flip-up right side access hood offer ready access to service and maintenance items,” said a company spokesman.

Volvo has just launched the 5,5 tonne EW55B, its first compact wheeled excavator. In the same size class as its EC55B and ECR58 (short swing radius) excavators, it is equipped with a dual-axle wheel drive chassis.

This allows operators to maintain faster on-job travel times, provides high mobility, and reduces transportation costs between job sites with a higher ground/on-road speed (29,9 km/hour). The compactness of the machines' design and tight turning circle also makes it easier to operate in urban environments and narrow streets.


European, American and Japanese manufacturers have enjoyed a virtual monopoly on sales in Europe for the last 20 years or so. This is now changing as more and more Chinese manufacturers look to export from their over-crowded domestic market.

Even allowing for the additional costs of shipping, and the purchasing of high quality international components, Chinese mini excavators are available in Europe at prices around -30% cheaper than their international competitors.

“End-users of mini excavators are very sensitive to price, and if they can be convinced that there is adequate customer support, a well priced Chinese mini excavator could prove to be a compelling alternative,” said Mr Philips.

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