The “big boys” in the world of construction equipment are the machines that tend to dominate any job site, such as bulldozers, wheel loaders and backhoes.
But, truth be told, the vehicles that perform the broadest range of tasks are often among the smallest.
Skid steer loaders are owned and leased by construction companies large and small across North America. These compact machines are very popular due to their versatility and maneuverability.
They can get into tight spaces and zip around their bigger, heavier brothers to assist in digging, moving materials and operating thousands of different attachments with a seemingly endless number of applications.
Since their invention in the 1950s, skid steers have seen their design and application constantly perfected by several manufacturers.
The result is a boom in the use of all compact equipment — skid steers and track loaders — according to Gregg Zupancic of John Deere.
“I think that the costs of bigger equipment and those associated with the various new engine emission standards have caused contractors to invest in the smaller pieces,” said Zupancic, John Deere's product marketing manager for skid steers and track loaders.
“I think, too, that they are discovering skid steers have a lot more versatility and capability, especially when they realize the number of different attachments they can use. Plus, they can drive this equipment from job site to job site easier through traffic on the back of a pickup, in some cases, rather than hiring a large flat-bed truck to move a dozer or big wheel loader.”
The Shape of Things to Come
Several skid steer makers were asked by CEG recently to give their thoughts on what the key trends, or the “next big thing,” will be in the diminutive machine's design and production in the next few years.
Each product expert had his or her own ideas, of course, but most of the answers concerned increased operator comfort, more attachments and applications, improved telematics, an increase in vertical lift options and keeping the machines compact while still improving their productivity.
Specialists at Volvo and Caterpillar, for example, each predicted something different would soon be most popular.
“The side-door-entry, which we have on our skid steer loaders, is a design that remains unique in the industry, but is something we envision the industry will move toward,” said Lars Arnold, global product manager of Volvo Construction Equipment. “Rather than having to step over an attachment to enter the front of the cab, an operator can much more safely step in the side, just as they would a car. We've widened the side-entry door and designed new handrails to further enhance the ease of entering the cab.”
Over at Caterpillar, Jeff Brown, the company's product application specialist, had one word to answer the question: “Automation.”
“For repetitive tasks like grading, digging, and loading, look for skid steer loaders to expand capability to set up the machine to do the work with less user interaction,” he predicted. “High production attachments will benefit from more machine integration and automation. Additionally, intelligent attachments will make for more productive operation and quickly turn a novice operator into a master.”
In contrast, Brent Coffey, product manager of loaders at Wisconsin-based Wacker Neuson, doesn't foresee a “next big thing,” but several incremental design advances.
“Before machines were digital, companies rolled out a variety of features into one big release,” he said. “Now, we can roll out features with regularity through software updates as needed and, as a result, we don't have to wait for big releases.
“You are already seeing a lot of safety advances with features such as back-up cameras and object detection,” he said. “You also see it with more sophisticated telematics that can allow companies and operators to better plan maintenance, and to allow or disallow certain features when machines enter or exit certain jobsite locations.”
Arnold summarized the insights of each skid steer product manager or engineer by saying that contractors can expect to see new features in the coming years that aim to make operation and maintenance easier and more intuitive.
“Besides more telematics options becoming available, I look forward to improvements such as higher-rated operating capacities, a fully-enclosed attachment bracket for better durability, a forward-tilting cab for easier serviceability and a redesigned loader arm for increased strength and improved visibility.”
New Engine Spurs Innovations
Several product specialists credited the introduction of Tier IV engines over the last several years as being a key factor in skid steers becoming more electronically complex.
The engines, however, do limit the operator's visibility, according to Jorge De Hoyas, senior product manager of skid steers and compact track loaders at Kubota. He has been working with this equipment for more than 20 years.
“When we install Tier IV engines in skid steers, which are already limited in size, along with all the after-treatment components, the rear of the machine gets bigger, taller, wider or longer, which in turn impacts the rear visibility,” he said. “As a result of that, I expect back-up cameras to be a standard feature very shortly.”
“Customers didn't really ask for Tier IV, but now that they have it, what they want is the technology without any added hassle, expense or maintenance,” said Buck Storlie, testing and reliability leader of ASV, the skid steer manufacturer in Grand Rapids, Minn.
“Tier IV engines, as they have progressed, have gotten away from the diesel particulate filters (DPFs) found on Tier 3s. For example, ASV now offers a Tier IV up to 120-horsepower with no DPFs and diesel-oxidation-catalyst-only (DOC) engines from 75 horsepower down. These are among the simpler technologies that customers want to reach Tier IV Final. I am sure they will continue to progress to meet standards with fewer additions to the engine that the customer doesn't really want.”
Telematics, Other High-Techs to Evolve
Telematics was also near the top of the list of things on De Hoyas' mind when he considered the question of what skid steer advancements would be popular in the future.
“At one time, telematics was limited to bigger, more expensive equipment, but like computers, they have become much more economical for skid steers,” he said. “Telematics will become more common, even among the older operators, who can log into their smart phones in their off-hours and track the usage and maintenance of their machines, as well as applications such as fuel and systems. I think that is only going to grow and become as common as cupholders in cars are today.”
Brown agreed and predicted that telematics will evolve to where it will offer more two-way data sharing.
“Today, it is mostly transmitting information from the machine to the office,” he said. “In the future, telematics will enable communication from the office to the machine — perhaps to update software or other performance-enhancing revisions.”
DeHoyas explained that, along with telematics, grade control, including laser-leveling, “will improve because the technology has gotten more user friendly — it is not as intimidating has it has been in the past.”
Among the other exciting technologies still being tested are remote-controlled and even driver-less skid steers.
Volvo's Arnold said remote control “is something that's generating a lot of buzz in the industry and is a technology Volvo is actively exploring.”
Other makers have designed skid steers to work via remote control box within line of sight, said Zupancic. His company, John Deere, is actively working on its own design, too.
He said the need is apparent, with applications such as cleaning up a hazardous waste site or performing dangerous tasks for the military. Development is also progressing on operating skid steers remotely without line of sight.
“A start-up in San Francisco has taken a skid steer from one of the major suppliers and outfitted it to work autonomously to dig holes and transfer materials on a job site,” Zupancic said. “If you can make a self-driving car stay within the lanes and go from point A to point B, you can design a skid steer to dig a hole after giving it the parameters of how deep to dig it and how big it should be. With the technology today, it is just a matter of fitting it into a machine form.”
Everyone Wants Operator Comfort
Eric Berkhimer, a product manager of construction equipment of Yanmar America, identified operator comfort as a key focus of skid steer engineers and designers at most, if not all, of the manufacturers.
“Operators are increasingly spending a longer amount of time in their equipment, leading to improvements in the units to increase their comfort,” he said. “This upgrade in ergonomics has taken many forms — from larger cabs to more comfortable [and diverse] seat options to different control options [hand and foot controls, pilot controls] to faster speeds.”
He cited the fact that more comfortable skid steers have been proven to lead to higher productivity as operators can run their machines with less fatigue for longer periods of time.
Another feature designed to protect the user, according to John Deere's De Hoyas, is a sealed, or positive-pressurized, cab that keeps the operator free from being covered in dust and dirt from outside the machine during use. He said this is a component that operators have talked about often enough that his company has taken notice.
Increasing the operator's visibility is also being addressed, De Hoyas explained, through additional lighting in the cab, frame-less doors and bigger windows.
He said that Kubota, along with its competitors, are also working to improve upon ride control by smoothing out the ride for the operator and reducing the fatigue factor. A better ride also reduces spillage from whatever an operator is carrying in the bucket, such as seed or sand or anything that would cost money if spilled.
Reaching Higher and More Efficiently
Designers of skid steers are also figuring out ways to improve the machine's loader arms and increase their reach and capabilities.
Brown admitted that today's skid steer loader arms might be the most design-heavy part of the machine.
“Once a simple arm pinned to the chassis, now it's a component asked to lift as much as possible, as high as possible, protect hydraulic hoses, couple up to hundreds of attachments — all the while being careful not to obstruct operator visibility too much,” he said. “Loader arms are so key to the performance of the skid steer loader that they are always being tweaked and refined to optimize the customer experience.”
Vertical-lift skid steers have surpassed the radial lift in popularity in recent years, according to De Hoyas, because the vertical lifts work more efficiently on compact loaders with operating capacities greater than 2,500 pounds.
“Fifteen years ago, radial units were dominant, but the vertical geometry has changed over the last five or six years,” he said. “We used to consider the radial machines as being better diggers than the verticals, but that is no longer the case as the manufacturers have gotten smarter as to how they design the vertical linkage in the rear.”
When it comes to the design of loader arms, ASV's Storlie said many customers expect improvements in the structure, or the frame, which makes skid steers rigid and structurally sound, and to which the arms are affixed.
“But, that is not really where a lot of the progression happens; rather it is in the valves, the hydraulics, the system itself,” he explained. “So, we have focused a lot of our energy on efficiency of the hydraulic system that runs our skid steers. The result is we have a very good, smooth control system.”
John Deere's Zupancic explained that as contractors are substituting skid steers for larger loaders, there is the need to be able to move higher in the lift path on a skid-steer platform.
“Right now, the common skid steer lifts somewhere between 11 and 12 feet high and I am not sure that will go much higher,” he admitted. “The problem is if you go higher you need more stability, which means your machine needs to get much heavier. When you do that you are no longer in the category of compact equipment and you can't get into tight places anyway. I suspect, then, you won't see as much change in boom design in the future as you have in the last five years or so.”
Attachments Continue to Add Versatility
Each skid steer expert said that the number of attachments (already quite high) that can be easily fitted onto the compact machines will increase, in turn making the machines more versatile and adding to their popularity among contractors.
With the trend toward greater hydraulic performance, new-generation machines will be more powerful, which will lead to a demand for attachments such as cold planers or forestry cutters, according to Lars Arnold of Volvo.
“Its seemingly limitless attachment options make a skid steer useful in any application and any segment —from landscaping and agriculture, to aggregates, forestry, recycling and pipelaying,” he explained.
Wacker Neuson's Brent Coffey agreed and said contractors should expect more advanced, precision-focused attachments to come to market from skid steer makers.
“Many different attachments can be sourced, particularly if a unit is equipped with a 14-pin connector and high-flow capability,” said Yanmar's Eric Berkhimer. “Having different attachments not only allows the operator to increase the versatility of the unit, but also keeps the machine productive for a higher percentage of the time.”
Zupancic added there are “probably thousands of different attachments”, on the market, which allows one skid steer model to work on many different types of job sites.
“A contractor might be doing landscape work where he is doing finished grade, then putting a broom on the front to clean up at the end of the day or maybe unloading merchandise on a palette,” he said. “In the winter, he can put snow blades and snow blowers on the front to do snow removal. If the work calls for land clearing, he can go into brush and woods with a skid steer and clear it for a job site.
“What other machine can do all that?”
Listening to the Skid Steer Customer
Each one of the advances in skid steer design are the result of the makers keeping in close contact with users of the equipment and listening to their wants and needs.
Power, comfort and serviceability are always high priorities for owners and operators that Coffey speaks to on behalf of Wacker Neuson — a fact echoed by other skid steer makers.
Jeff Brown of Caterpillar said he believed the best insights come from examining how the machines are operated in the field.
“We can usually identify areas of improvement for the product by closely watching all aspects of the user interaction with the machine and job site,” he said. “The goal is to solve problems the customer does not yet know he needs solved.”
“That has always been the way equipment makers prefer to do it, at least from my experience,” said De Hoyas.
“What we try to do at Kubota is see the customer actually using the machine, whether it's ours or somebody else's,” he said. “If you have heard the term 'I wish you guys did this' or 'I wish your machine had this', those comments are very prevalent during these visits. That is also the freshest time to hear from them, as well as the most opportunistic time to do so if we want to improve the machine.”
Regan Meyer, dealer development and marketing manager of ASV said. “At the end of the day, we need to take all of that feedback and put it into a machine that is going to be cost effective for that customer.
“It has evolved from being a machine that does basic work to one that can be continually updated with new features, advantages and comfort items to make the job better and safer for operators.”