Horsepower, cab amenities and Tier 4 engine solutions get all the glory – but what are some lesser-known features that improve operating performance?
Horsepower is an excellent measure of a machine’s power. Every equipment manufacturer touts the design, comfort and visibility of its cab – and barrels of ink and digital space have been spent on Tier 4 engine information.
But what are some of the other features, specs and advances that are available on today’s machines that don’t get the same publicity as others, and serve to improve earthmoving applications for operators?
A dozer blade working in tacky soils tends to gather material that sticks to it at the end of each push. Most operators will try to knock that material loose by manually shaking the blade controls a few times for the sake of having a clean blade (to get a fuller blade on the next push) and preventing it from falling off the blade while reversing or repositioning (limiting mess). New dozers on the market today feature a one-touch button on the joystick that automatically shakes that blade in a fast and consistent fashion to remove that sticky material, simplifying operation and better ensuring a clean push each time.
The combination of pneumatic tires and a rough/rutted operating surface can cause turbulence for the machine and operator – especially with a rigid wheel loader arm with a full load extended out in front of the machine. Increased travel speed amplifies the problem. This movement is rough on the operator and can also lead to spillage – an inefficient and messy use of the loader. This is why Ride Control is so important for wheel loader applications. Ride Control acts as a shock absorber, actually allowing subtle movements of the loader arms – dampening shock impulse and cushioning what is felt by the equipment and operator.
Many loaders also come with return-to-travel, return-to-dig and height control settings that can eliminate an operator’s multitasking. This can be particularly helpful in loading applications where the operator is consistently loading trucks/hoppers of the same height, eliminating opportunities for approaching too low (running into the truck or hopper), or dumping at too high of a height (excessive dust, spillage). Bottom line: The operator can focus on driving the machine versus trying to control multiple simultaneous movements.
Also, take note of the location of the cooling module. While not involved in actual earthmoving, its placement on a wheel loader can have significant impact on visibility, cleaning and maintenance.
Some backhoes have a tendency to drift past the trench or where the operator wants it to stop. When observing how an operator could be more efficient it was noted that they spent a lot of time repositioning the bucket after swinging to line it up – either for dumping, trench digging or placing whatever load it was lifting. The inability to stop at the desired spot raised a number of issues: excessive rebounding and repositioning is an ineffective use of time and adds wear to the associated boom components; in swing-and-dump applications, it causes spillage; and in lift-and-placing applications it creates instability in the load being swung, which can pose dangers to the surrounding worksite.
Through a combination of hydraulics and electronics, engineers were able to eliminate this issue and smoothly stop the boom at exactly the moment the operator wants it to stop (CASE calls this feature on its backhoes Pro Control). Over time, this advance positively affects operator fatigue and control, and helps the operator perform their job better.
Skid Steers/Compact Track Loaders
The evolution from mechanical to electro-hydraulic controls on skid steers and compact track loaders occurred pretty quickly in our industry. With it came a common piece of feedback: The controls didn’t have the natural feel/responsiveness that operators had come to appreciate from mechanically linked controls. That “feel” goes a long way in telling the operator how the machine is working, digging into the pile, etc. It gave the operator a sense of action/reaction. That was lost with early electro-hydraulic controls.
Recent introductions in both skid steer and compact track loader models have addressed this issue by engineering detents into the control handles of the machine that provide the operator responsiveness similar to the older models – providing the control they want while still offering the effectiveness of electro-hydraulic controls.
Excavators are primarily classified as a digging tool, but they also work extensively as cranes: For some contractors, especially in the utility market, the ability to lift and place material is critical. Much like backhoes, however, the load being lifted is at the mercy of the boom/arm. This can be particularly true if that load is attached to a chain or strap at a point that is not centered. As soon as the operator raises that boom/arm, the load will shift to center itself, creating unnecessary swinging. That swinging is less than ideal for placing and setting the load, and can be a potential hazard to surrounding workers.
Offered either as an option or as standard equipment, depending on manufacturer, “free swing” is a function that lets the upper carriage “swing free” to allow workers on the ground to reposition the boom/arm until such a point that the load is centered on the boom/arm and it can be attached and lifted steadily. Similarly, it can be engaged to let workers on the ground more accurately place the load by manipulating the boom/arm versus relying on the operator to position it with their controls. Bottom line, it allows for more steady lifting and placing of attached loads.
Not so much a “feature” as a consideration when specifying a grader: There is a general conception, as with much equipment, that “bigger is better”. That is not always the case, especially when taking into account the tractive force and the machine’s weight-to-power ratio – all affecting its ability to grade. This is why it’s important to test motor graders in conditions close to your real working conditions prior to purchase. A grader may have greater horsepower than other machines, but based on the machine’s weight, moldboard design and how it engages with the ground, it may be no more effective than a smaller machine with lower horsepower. If the smaller machine with a smaller engine pushes the same as the larger machine, owners will see greater fuel economy and less fuel cost.
These are just a few of the features on common equipment designs that don’t get as much attention as the headline-grabbing specs and amenities. And they bring up a great point: Sometimes, the feature or design element that will most positively affect your production isn’t horsepower or the style of engine – but something unique to your application that may not be on the front page of the brochure.