With rising prices in raw materials and fuel costs, skid-steer loader manufacturers are practical about the current market, yet optimistic that the economy will turn around eventually.
Pierre-Laurent Verdon, industry manager, skid-steer loaders and multi-terrain loaders, Caterpillar North American Commercial Division, Peoria, Ill.
Jon Kuyers: segment manager, utility products, Vermeer Manufacturing, Pella, Iowa
Jim Hughes: brand marketing manager, Case Construction Equipment, Racine, Wis.
Edgar Chavez: marketing director, New Holland Construction North America, Carol Stream, Ill.
Kelly Moore: product manager, skid loaders/compact track loaders, Mustang Manufacturing, Owatonna, Minn.
RER: What is your company doing to make skid steers more eco-friendly?
Verdon: Caterpillar skid-steer and multi-terrain loaders have included eco-friendly features since day one. For instance, joystick controls and foot throttle have always been standard on our products. This option allows the operator to control engine speed to perform a specific task or a specific job instead of running the engine at constant or maximum speed all the time with a hand throttle. This in turn saves fuel because engine speed is only increased when needed. Similarly, our hydraulically driven fan on our skid-steer loader C Series is on-demand, which helps to match fuel consumption to the actual cooling requirements of the engine.
As far as the engines are concerned, we initiated several interesting eco-friendly initiatives this year. First and foremost, all Caterpillar engines installed on skid-steer and multi-terrain loaders became compliant with interim Tier-4 and Tier-3 emission regulations in the first quarter of 2008. This is an important step in our path towards providing our customers with more environmentally friendly products. Those engines (as well as our previous Tier-2 engines) will also accept bio-fuel with a different blend ratio depending on the engine model. Customers should contact their dealers to find out how much bio-diesel their machine can take. Last but not least, we have introduced this year a new solution for customers who own a skid-steer loader or a multi-terrain loader with a 3044 engine and need to replace the engine or some of the major engine components. Remanufactured engines are now available through Caterpillar dealers. Our customers now have the option to choose between a new engine and a remanufactured engine. Remanufacturing is an advanced form of recycling to help our customers operate more efficiently and cost-effectively. This solution is also available on other Caterpillar products such as excavators, small track-type tractors or compact wheel loaders.
Hughes: Case Construction Equipment has updated its 400 Series 3 skid-steer loaders in several ways to make them more environmentally friendly. The 4-cylinder turbocharged engines are all Tier-3 certified to meet EPA emission requirements. The 400 Series 3 loaders also come standard with a remote oil drain, not only making the oil easier to change, but reducing the chance for oil spillage during the process.
Chavez: Developing equipment that is sensitive to the environment is a strategic priority for New Holland Construction, and we look at all the ways our machines have an impact on the environment.
First of all, our new Tier-3 engines ensure extremely low emission levels. The high productivity of our skid-steer loaders, enhanced by our unique Super Boom design, further lowers emission levels, as less fuel is needed to complete tasks.
New Holland is also researching the long-term effects of biofuels on equipment. Our customers are able to run our equipment on blends up to 20-percent biodiesel, which lowers CO2 and particulate levels in the emissions of their New Holland equipment.
When we consider the environmental impact of our equipment we also look at noise pollution: our skid-steer loaders are equipped with sound suppression systems that reduce noise levels on the jobsite, while improving the comfort and productivity of machine operators.
Moore: There is always awareness of environmental issues. We are following all rules and regulations set forth by the EPA and also within municipalities. We follow what is appropriate within the city and state in terms of manufacturing. There is also awareness in terms of looking at the materials that are used to make our loaders. We are moving away from materials that are not environmentally friendly. We are also looking into oil use and how we can improve it in our machines. Is there something biodegradable in the machine that we can work on? All of these things are in the development stage and evaluation stage. We are constantly looking at other opportunities.
How is your company coping with the increasing costs of components and materials such as steel?
Hughes: Material goods costs are rising and Case is managing these costs through more efficient manufacturing. However, when material costs outweigh the steps we are taking to offset them, the cost needs to be passed on to the end user.
Moore: This is a very real situation that everyone is dealing with. We are working with the many suppliers all over the world as well as monitoring the situation very closely and potentially making changes. Mustang is seeking if there is an alternative way or substitution for materials. We are also looking at other vendors that may be more cost efficient and are considering extending our supplier list to multiple steel suppliers. We're able to shop prices, evaluate potential changes and keep continuous contact with our steel suppliers.
What is your company doing to respond to the fuel price hike and, are you in turn raising prices on your equipment?
Kuyers: One of the biggest challenges is the increased cost of freight of raw materials and finished products to and from Vermeer across the globe. There are individuals who are looking at alternatives and analyzing ways to minimize the increased freight costs due to the high cost of fuel.
Hughes: Fuel efficiency is one of our top criteria when it comes to developing new machines, even before the recent dramatic increase in fuel costs. Fuel efficiency can be measured in many ways, such as how long can the machine operate before refueling, gallons used per hour, amount of material moved per gallon of fuel, material moved per pound of fuel, etc. Operator style can also affect fuel efficiency.
Fuel costs are affecting transportation costs in delivering the machines to the jobsite or the dealer, but we have not raised prices specifically in response to the increased cost of diesel.
Chavez: Like every other manufacturer we face the challenge of rising costs of fuel and raw materials, especially steel. New Holland has the advantage of being part of the global automotive Fiat Group: by joining forces with the Group's other businesses; we have been able to achieve significant purchasing power. We have also been able to absorb most of the cost increase through synergies and efficiencies in our manufacturing network.
Moore: Yes, unfortunately we have had to increase prices this summer because the rise in fuel costs has affected the transportation and shipping of our machines in addition to other increases of costs. We have had to make adjustments and surcharges to keep up with the costs and have transferred the shipping costs to our customers. We constantly look at what is the most effective way to ship to our dealers and we are trying to minimize the freight cost. Fuel costs look to have peaked for right now, but you never know what will take place the rest of the year.
How is the technology of skid-steer loaders advancing and how is it likely to advance in the next few years?
Verdon: With our new C Series, we have introduced a lot of innovations to our skid-steer and multi-terrain loaders. One of the main changes we made is a true sealed and pressurized cab. This means there are no holes in the cab — protecting the operator from being exposed to dust and providing him or her with a quiet and comfortable environment. This also gives much better temperature control inside the cab. We also introduced an air-ride seat, which was already available on our larger products. This also enhances operator's comfort tremendously. The joystick controls are independently adjustable to provide the operator with maximum comfort. A comfortable operator is a productive operator. As explained before, joysticks and foot throttle come standard with the machine to provide easier control to the operator and optimized fuel efficiency on the jobsite. Finally, all our C Series cabs also come with a cup holder and are radio-ready.
C-Series skid-steer loaders are also available with a speed-sensitive ride control option. At high speeds, ride control automatically engages and allows the loader arms to float. The loader arms act like a shock absorber, allowing for higher operating speeds, better material retention, and increased operator comfort.
The optional Advanced Machine Information and Control System (AMICS) provides the operator the ability to select the level of implement responsiveness (speed for lift arms moving up and down) for more precise control in demanding and delicate tasks. AMICS also enables the operator to select from 10 work speed settings. This feature is useful in operations such as trenching or cold planing, which require precise control at relatively slow and constant speed.
Kuyers: We might see increased performance in smaller packages as that technology continues to be refined. I also think reductions in sound and the corresponding reduction in emissions will occur. Computerized systems like global positioning software will help the average operator become more efficient depending on the size of the product.
Hughes: Skid-steer loaders are improving in three key areas — productivity, operator comfort and serviceability. At Case, we use the following imperatives to drive improvements in these key areas — fuel efficiency, reliability, serviceability and noise and vibration control.
The 400 Series 3 skid-steer loaders come standard with Tier 3-certified turbocharged engines that deliver more horsepower and torque than the previous series, making operators efficient by providing the muscle and control to get the job done quickly.
Case builds reliability into its skid-steer loaders with features like loader arms that rest low on the chain tanks, which not only prevent flexing when going into a pile, but they also disperse the energy of going into the pile throughout the whole chassis instead of just on the loader arms. They feature a welded unitized chassis, which means that there are no bolts or rivets to come loose. Heavy-duty, pre-stressed 80-pound, 100-pound or 120-pound drive chains (the largest in the industry) provide outstanding tensile strength. Steel fuel and hydraulic tanks are not only puncture resistant, but they dissipate heat.
A single point daily service location makes maintenance a breeze and more likely to get done, meaning your skid steer will be operating at peak efficiency. Should you need to inspect major components or perform scheduled maintenance; the 400 Series 3 units all feature an easy tilt ROPS structure for quick access to the engine, pumps and drive motors.
The new operator compartment on the 400 Series 3 loaders reduces noise and vibration. A standard suspension seat, redesigned lap bar and ergonomically designed controls provide outstanding operator comfort. A standard headliner not only provides a finished interior, it helps reduce noise. And speaking of noise, the redesigned curved glass front door reduces noise levels compared to flat glass and provides improved visibility to the bucket in digging and loader operations.
Chavez: Engine emission regulations are having a huge impact on the technology and design, and will continue to do so in the next few years. The pursuit of ever-higher productivity and operator comfort are driving the innovations in construction equipment. In skid-steer loaders, we will see improved operator comfort features like EH controls and productivity-enhancing loader arms design that will give the machine the capability to have greater digging forces while at the same time providing higher lifting capacities with good machine stability.
How do you view the U.S. market for the coming years and what markets internationally look the strongest for your company?
Verdon: The U.S. market is Caterpillar's home market and always received a lot of focus and attention. Although the economy has slowed down in the last 12 months, this market will remain critical for Caterpillar. At the same time, some markets in other parts of the world such as China or CIS have grown exponentially. This does not make the U.S. market any smaller but makes the world market much larger.
Kuyers: When the housing market rebounds domestically and if commercial construction remains steady, I am looking for upside in 2009. If the dollar continues to remain weak against foreign currencies I look for continued strength in the European and select Australasian markets.
Hughes: While it is proving to be a challenging year for the North American market, we see improvement on the horizon. Elsewhere, Latin America, Asia Pacific and Eastern Europe are doing well.
Chavez: The U.S. market is the largest market for skid steers in the world and will remain the biggest for years to come. New Holland Construction is a global brand with a very balanced presence in all major markets around the world. Markets such as Latin America, Middle East and Eastern Europe have increased dramatically over the last three years, and we are ready to grow with them.
Moore: Because of the negative publicity out there in the housing market that is causing the continued depressed market in this sector, we are looking to see the market come back in due time. It is election year and we have seen attempts to stabilize the rates, and eventually the market will come back. The style of improvements and when it happens has yet to be seen.
Does your company have any new developments in skid-steer attachments?
Verdon: We are always working on new solutions for our customers. Here are some of the attachments we have recently introduced: industrial grapple rakes (two different widths), a wider mulcher (MH315), a revised version of our snow blower line-up (with adjustable pressure relief to work in very dense snow; they are also now all joystick controlled), a new line-up of large 84-inch buckets and a 96-inch light material bucket.
Kuyers: Vermeer will be introducing a couple of new complimentary attachments to our skid-steer line for the landscape industry, a mechanical sod cutter and a newly developed root cutter.
Hughes: Skid-steer loaders are typically the most versatile piece of equipment on the jobsite because of attachments. Advances in attachments are moving along the same path that skid steers are — anything that can make an operator more productive on a jobsite.
Chavez: Skid steers are one of the most versatile machines in the construction equipment industry and attachments are a big part of it. We are always looking for new applications and work closely with attachments companies to develop attachments that will enhance the machine's productivity.
Moore: Our sister company, CE Attachments, is involved with a multitude of attachments. It seems that every week or two a new attachment comes into the market; maybe it performs basic job applications and maybe it is more complex. CE Attachments works with many manufacturers constantly seeking out improved and new model attachments. They have the expertise and they cover almost every job application out there.