Zero heroes

20 March 2008

Caterpillar's mini excavator range was renewed at last year's Intermat exhibition. It comprises thre

Caterpillar's mini excavator range was renewed at last year's Intermat exhibition. It comprises three conventional machines from 1,7 to 2,8 tonnes and heavier compact radius models such as this 5 tonn

If Sales Figures Are Anything To Go by, mini excavators have never been so popular in Europe, with an incredible 62740 such machines sold across the region last year, according to Off-Highway Research. This was a +19% increase on 2005's sales figure of 52595 machines, and ahead of the +14% growth seen in the equipment market as a whole.

The total European equipment market was 187353 units last year, so another way of looking at things is that one in every three construction machines sold in Europe last year was a mini excavator. Ten years ago it was only one in five.

There are many factors that have contributed to these increased sales. There is a general prevalence of small-scale utilities construction and general road repair and maintenance – work in Europe that mini excavators are well suited to. In addition, the fast maturing European equipment rental sector has driven sales up, with renewal policies that are seeing machines worked harder and replaced quicker than they were in contractor-owned fleets.

There is also some evidence that compact excavators are taking over from backhoe loaders. During the last four years mini excavator sales have grown +56%, but the number of backhoe loaders sold in Europe has been almost unchanged at about 13000 units per year.

This changing preference is even more starkly illustrated if one looks back over the longer term. According to Off-Highway Research, backhoe loader sales stood at 15051 units in 1996, while 21306 mini excavators were sold out of a total construction equipment market of 98728 machines. So over the last 10 years, annual backhoe loader sales have fallen about -16% while the general equipment market has almost doubled, and mini excavator sales have nearly tripled.

Getting Shorter

Another strong trend in Europe over the last ten years has been the emergence of short- and zero-tail swing mini excavators. From being unheard of in the mid-1990s, zero tail swing machines are generally estimated to account for some 40% of today's compact excavator market.

The advantage of such machines is that they are designed so that the rear counterweight does not extend beyond the footprint of the tracks when slewing, or, if it does, the overhang is minimal. This means it is impossible for the back of the machine to hit people or objects when rotating.

The downside to such machines is that for any given digging performance they generally need to be wider and heavier than their conventional counterparts to ensure stability. Kevin Zimmer, business director of Bobcat's European excavators business told CE, “Certain sizes have a bigger reward or bigger benefit – particularly above 3 tonnes. You see certain applications favouring minimum or zero swing machines, such as working close to buildings. You also see things the other way - machines that tend to work in open spaces are often conventionally designed.

“As you go smaller – under 2,5 tonnes – the reward for zero tail swing becomes less because of the footprint and weight of the machine. We also believe there will always be a market for conventional machines above 2,5 tonnes – there are benefits in terms of performance and so on.”

Andrew Knight, vice president for global marketing of Volvo Construction Equipment's compact equipment business echoed these sentiments, “The general view is the smaller the machines, the less necessary a short radius design is. The 8 to 9 tonne machines are very popular as short radius excavators and the compromises are much less. By volume I would say it's about 60% standard and 40% short radius, but that's an average across the 1 to 11 tonnes sector,” he said.

“There are other things such as width and weight, which are very important for customers when it comes to transport. If something like transport weight is a key criteria, a conventional machine might be better. People understand that you can get the same performance from a short radius machine but of course it's going to be a bit heavier,” added Mr Knight.

According to David Phillips, managing director of Off-Highway Research, price is also an important consideration. “A 5 tonne machine's price is such that the additional cost of a zero tail swing version is not that much. However, in the largest sector – around 2 tonnes, which is about 30 to 40% of the total market – the additional cost would make a tremendous difference, and there's a question about whether it is needed,” he said.

According to the manufacturers however, in weight classes where there is a choice between conventional and short radius machines, the price differential is not as great as it once was. “I don't feel there's a big price differentiation now, especially as we've got better at building them. I see a continuing narrowing of the price gap for that reason,” said Mr Knight.

Mr Zimmer had similar sentiments. “You're seeing the price gap between traditional and zero tail swing models come closer together, partly because a lot of manufacturers have gone towards zero tail swing machines,” he said.

Looking at the new machines that have come onto the European market in the last year – many of which were launched at last month's Bauma exhibition in Munich, the preference for reduced and zero tail swing machines could not be clearer Bobcat, which introduced its first zero tail swing excavator, the 3,6 tonne 430 ZHS, as recently as late 2003 has since added to its range this year with the 4,7 tonne 435 ZHS. Bauma saw the launch of two complementary smaller machines, the 2,6 tonne 425 ZTS and 2,9 tonne 428 ZTS.

All four feature load sensing hydraulics, while an interesting addition is Bobcat's FastTrack option. This replaces the conventional track drive with a hydrostatic drive which increases the travel speed form the normal 4,2 km/h – around walking speed – to 8 km/h or more.

Volvo also has a four-model range of short tail swing excavators, and it is interesting to note that this is one of the companies that classifies machines as big as its 8,5 tonne ECR 88 model as ‘compact'. Bauma saw it introduce upgraded versions of two of these, the ECR 58 Plus and ECR 88 Plus, which weigh in at 5,8 and 8,5 tonnes respectively, and now feature heavier counterweights for improved lifting capacities.

Like the larger of Volvo's two new machines, Komatsu's PC88MR-6 underlines the popularity of larger compact machines with a zero tail swing design. The new 8,3 tonne machine features closed circuit load-sensing hydraulics, and a quite, spacious cab with a suspension seat and air conditioning.

New Players

The latest manufacturers to enter the zero tail swing sector are the two Koreans, Doosan Infracore and Hyundai. Both entered the market this year with machines in the popular 3,5 tonne class – Doosan's is the DX35Z, while Hyundai's is the R35Z-7. The latter comes with a 0,11 m3 bucket as standard and offers a maximum digging depth is 3,15 m, while it has a dump height of 3,46 m.

Finding the fullest ranges of compact excavators in general, including short tail swing models, tends to mean looking at Japan's leading manufacturers – Japan, after all was the region where the concept was established. It is these manufacturers that also seem to be moving towards zero tail swing machines in the lower (sub-2 tonne) weight classes.

The three new additions to Hitachi's compact line-up at Bauma were all short tail machines, the 1,1 tonne ZX10U-2, 1,7 tonne ZX17U-2 and 2,3 tonne ZX22U-2. Changes to the counterweights improve stability, while the cabs have been improved with more legroom, better visibility and air conditioning.

New Holland's new 1,6 tonne short radius E18 SR, developed in conjunction with its excavator partner Kobelco, features an undercarriage whose width can be adjusted hydraulically from 0,99 to 1,3 m. This allows it to get into tight spaces when the undercarriage is reduced, while widening the gauge gives the E18 SR more stability when working.

Other new machines at Bauma included Amman-Yanmar's 1,68 tonne ViO17, 4,64 tonne ViO45 and 5,21 tonne ViO55. According to Ammann-Yanmar, the larger machines feature a wealth of design improvements, such as better hose routing and cylinder protection, a bigger dozer blade and the option of a quick coupler.

Ihimer added two five tonne class mini excavators to fill gaps in its 12-model range at Bauma. The 50VX and 55VX are both zero tail swing models weighing in at 4,8 and 5,3 tonnes. Similarly, Hanix Europe launched the 5,5 tonne H55DR, which features a larger, more comfortable cab then its predecessor, and an improved control layout.

At the lighter end of the spectrum, Messersi has three new mini excavators on the market covering the 1,3 to 2,8 tonne classes. The 1,35 tonne M-13 is a short (rather than zero) radius machine, and is narrower than its predecessor with a 0,99 m undercarriage width.

The M-16U meanwhile is a genuine zero tail swing machine, with a hydraulically adjustable undercarriage. This is 0,99 m wide when retracted for access through tight spaces, but it can also be extended to 1,3 m wide for added stability. Further up the range is the 2,8 tonne M-28U, another zero tail swing model which comes in just under the 3 tonne mark – an important cut-off point for transportation in many EU countries.

Neuson has added the 2,6 tonne 28Z3 zero tail swing model to its range this year, giving it four such machines in its range from 2,6 to 7,5 tonnes. An interesting feature is the tilt-up cab, which has been carried down from last year's new 38Z3, an innovation that makes it easy to maintain the machine. The addition of air conditioning – another feature of the 38Z3 – will also be welcome by operators in hot climates.

JCB's compact excavator range comprises 14 models from 0,8 to 8 tonnes, and incorporates both conventional and zero tail swing models. One of the latest additions is the 8035ZTS, a 3,7 tonne zero tail swing model, which sits alongside two other new models, the 2,7 tonne 8025ZTS and 3,2 tonne 8030ZTS.

All three have revised boom and stick designs, while a low-mounted one-piece counterweight improves stability. Access to the cab has been improved with a larger door, and this can now be locked open. Crucially though, even when left in this position, it does not overhang the tracks' footprint.

Also new at Bauma was the 8020, a traditional machine in the 1,9 to 2,3 tonne class. JCB says this is the largest excavator that can be legally towed behind ‘crew cab' pick-up trucks under European regulations.

In a similar vein, one of the few traditional overhanging counterweight mini excavators launched at Bauma was Terex's 2,5 tonne TC 25 – a fact that underlines the diminished popularity of zero tail swing designs in the smaller weight classes. A new boom design and hydraulics improve performance, and as with all Terex minis, the boom cylinder is top-mounted for greater protection. It boasts a dump height of 2,8 m and 15,8 kN of breakout force.

Choices, Choices

The large number of equipment manufacturers marketing compact excavators in Europe, both traditional and short radius designs, means more choice and hopefully keener prices for rental companies and contractors alike.

Another factor is the increasing number of Chinese manufacturers that are achieving CE-mark certification to sell their products in Europe. It remains to be seen how good the quality of these machines are and how well they are supported with servicing and spare parts, but again it should mean more competition among suppliers, more variant models and better prices.

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