Mini power: the latest trends and developments in the mini excavator sector

By Becca Wilkins01 June 2009

The Volvo EC27C mini excavator features an auto-idling system that lowers engine speed to idle if a

The Volvo EC27C mini excavator features an auto-idling system that lowers engine speed to idle if a control is not used for five seconds - therefore increasing efficiency.

Mini-excavator sales in Europe this year are expected to be half of what they were in 2007. Despite a challenging climate, manufacturers continue to introduce new machines to the market.

The European mini excavator market is witnessing a dramatic decline in demand with sales this year expected to reach 35700 units. This is a huge drop from the peak in 2007 when sales totalled more than 70000 machines.

However, manufacturers remain confident that stability will return to the sector in the not too distant future. In order to be prepared for this they continue to develop new products with a focus on operator safety, comfort and machine productivity while at the same time reducing costs.

Cost cutting

The economic crisis has forced mini excavator manufacturers to reassess costs in every element of their business operations. According to Volvo the cost of owning a machine is increasingly a focus for the customer, as is machine productivity and reliability.

Olivier Cuisnier, Volvo's global marketing director for compact equipment said lowering operating costs is central to developing new products. Fuel consumption is reduced by up to -10% in Volvo's new C-series mini excavators meaning customers are able to make significant cost savings. Mr Cuisnier added maintenance costs are -20% lower than the most significant competitor. "This is combined with increased service intervals to deliver genuine cost savings and increased uptime," he said.

Also helping to reduce operating costs according to Volvo, is its new hydraulically activated "Angle blade" on the EC35C, ECR48C and EC55C models. The new option gives operators more flexibility because it adjusts +/- 25 ° and enables the excavator operator to push material to either side of the machine when grading and backfilling.

"That means operators can complete projects faster with fewer passes," a statement said.

European business director for Bobcat excavators, Kevin Zimmer, told CE reducing costs is becoming more important because the market is becoming more competitive.

He said, "You can't ignore the economic conditions that we are living in today - you ignore them at your own peril. That's maybe put a little more emphasis on costings in the last six to eight months."

Adrian Hyde, global product manager for Terex mini and midi excavators said the total cost of machine ownership during its lifetime is also important for the rental customer. He added all Terex models feature the company's "Knickmatik" boom slew design, which enables the operator to excavate close up to a wall without the slew ram projecting beyond the width of the tracks.

He said the advantage of this is that it reduces the total cost of ownership as it reduces damage to the machine.

Working environment

Creating a comfortable, safe and ergonomic environment for the machine operator is vital as this can lead to increased productivity.

Mr Zimmer said in the last five or six years operator comfort has become much more of a focus for mini excavator manufacturers. He added Bobcat continues to look at operator comfort as part of its focus on machine performance.

"That entails entry/egress, operator space, noise and vibration levels and making sure the customer has a positive experience while in the machine, so that he is able to work longer, is more productive and is less fatigued at the end of the day," he explained.

According to Mr Cuisnier operators require and expect more comfort in construction equipment, similar to that found in their own cars, which is why Volvo added an air conditioning option in the C-series mini excavators.

He added, "The way of operating the machine has changed and more and more functions have been moved to the joystick, to remove pedals on the floor. As a result the ergonomics inside the machine have been improved." Also, the machine is easier to operate by combining functions such as boom offset and slewing movement, he said.

Safety features available on all Volvo compact excavators include a visual indicator for seat belt fastening and certified cabs for the protection of the operator - featuring roll over protective structures (ROPS), falling object protective structures (FOPS) and tipover protective structures (TOPS).

New products

Despite slow market conditions manufacturers are concentrating their efforts on developing new machines and technologies in readiness for when business picks up.

A range of mini excavators were unveiled at the Intermat exhibition held in Paris last month, including JCB's new 6,5 tonne 8065 RTS tracked excavator. The reduced tail swing model replaces the 8060, and features a Stage IIIA (Tier 3) 40,5 kW Isuzu engine. It has a maximum dig depth of 4,35 m and a 4,27 m dump height.

Speaking to CE, Christophe Lecarpentier, product manager for the compact and heavy line at JCB France said, "The dozer blade allows the materials to roll around when pushing the earth providing a better flow of material which helps improve productivity. The technique also prevents the blade from becoming blocked by the earth when moving forwards."

He added operator comfort is also very important and the door width provides easy access to the machine's cab. The operator's controls move with the suspension seat which, he said is quite unusual on a compact machine, "but customers were asking for this as they were used to it in bigger machines," he explained.

Mr Lecarpentier said even with reduced space in the new machine there is good accessibility to the components for service and maintenance.

Amman Yanmar meanwhile has developed the SV20, a new 2 tonne class mini excavator, which is a mix between the SV range of machines launched at the previous Intermat in 2006 and the compact Vio 20 unit. The undercarriage, boom and arm are similar to the Vio 20 and the upper structure and cabin are from the SV series machines. Featuring a 290 mm lateral overhang and 50 mm rear overhang the "semi-Vio" model is not a zero tailswing machine. It is lighter than the Vio 20 but with similar digging forces and uses the same Yanmar engine. A 2,19 tonne cab version and a 2,05 tonne canopy model are available.

New to the range at Doosan subsidiary, Bobcat is the 5,5 tonne class E55W wheeled excavator. This machine is made for Bobcat by its parent company in Korea, and is available from Doosan as the DX 55 W. However, it is new to the Bobcat range - in fact it is Bobcat's first ever wheeled excavator.

Also new to the Bobcat range is the new generation of three and a half tonne excavators including the conventional tailswing 3,2 tonne E32 and the zero tailswing 3,5 tonne E35. Also new from the company this year is the 6 tonne zero tailswing E60 crawler excavator, powered by a 38 kW Yanmar diesel engine.

Meanwhile, Hitachi launched the 1,5 tonne ZX14-3 excavator at Intermat to fill the gap in its 1 to 2 tonne class mini excavator range. Described as a "basic no-nonsense model that is extremely easy to operate" the ZX14-3 uses a three cyclinder 10,7 kW engine and a large 22 litre capacity fuel tank to increase operating time. Operating weights range from 1,46 to 1,57 tonnes.

According to Joep van den Maagdenberg, product sales representative for Hitachi's compact line, the new mini is simple in design but also features a standard of operator comfort not normally found in this size machine. He said the new model is ideal for the rental business, particularly for the Italian and UK markets.

Design

Some manufacturers are increasingly moving away from the conventional style machine to the zero tailswing concept, but Volvo said it still sees a need for both types of mini excavator.

Mr Cuisnier explained, "Some customers chose a conventional machine for high performance to optimise productivity, while zero tail is very important for the rental industry as it means reduced repair costs. Zero tail machines are growing more and more popular for city work where space is restricted."

Bobcat believes zero tailswing machines are becoming more popular than the conventional configurations but agrees there are benefits of both types of machine.

Meanwhile, Mr Hyde said, "Europe has seen a continued split between conventional tailswing and zero tailswing machines. The conventional tailswing models offer larger cabins, increased performance, stability and improved service access." He added Terex expects more manufacturers to provide both conventional and zero tailswing models.

Mr van den Maagdenberg said the market for conventional style excavators still exists for models weighing less than 3 tonnes - such as the ZX14-3. However, he said the company believes conventional excavators above this weight are slowly disappearing and being replaced with zero tailswing models. Designing new machines is still a priority for manufacturers even during the downturn. Mr Zimmer said rather than the economic crisis dramatically altering the company's strategy to redesign its entire product range, it has in fact in some ways accelerated this process. "This is to make sure that we have the right products to meet the market conditions now and over the next few years," he added.

Bobcat has been focusing on aggressive product development and plans to continue that level of aggressiveness, Mr Zimmer explained.

Meanwhile, Volvo's aim has been to renew its range of compact excavators, with the EC35C and the ECR48C launched last year, and the EC27C and the EC55C having just been introduced worldwide.

Engine evolution

According to Mr Cuisnier the implementation of the Stage IIIA engine emissions regulations has impacted heavily on machine design.

"This has also enabled us to add new features on our machines such as integrated antitheft, flow control and auto kick down function on all the C-series as well as on our short radius range ECR28, ECR38, ECR58PLUS and the ECR88PLUS," he explained.

Mr Zimmer said the next stage of engine emissions regulations (Stage IIIB) starting in 2012 will require creative thinking, "because the changes are quite significant and will require some rethinking of basic ideas." He added in future reducing engine emissions could involve electric, hybrid systems, or even a breakthrough in fossil fuel technology.

Terex, meanwhile, is reviewing its position on environmentally-friendly engines. Mr Hyde said, "We expect the market to move towards hybrid and electric machines, but only once the reliability and cost element of this new technology has improved. The main focus at present will be on Stage IIIB emissions."

Outlook

Although current market conditions are bleak mini excavator manufacturers are not holding back on investments into new products and technologies.

Off-Highway Research is predicting a -30 % fall in the European mini excavator market during 2009 and according to Mr Phillips it is difficult to say when the downturn will stabilise.

Volvo's Mr Cuisnier said, "We are operating in a cyclical business, and this fact is being taken into account in our long term strategy and budget setting."

He added only the manufacturers who are well prepared to manage the crisis, and who use this period as an opportunity to develop the business, will come out stronger from this downturn and be a major player in the market.

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