Steer In The Right Direction

Aug. 1, 2005
It is easy to see why the skid-steer loader is a popular rental item. Adding any of the multitudes of attachments available for skid steers transforms

It is easy to see why the skid-steer loader is a popular rental item. Adding any of the multitudes of attachments available for skid steers transforms the machine into whatever the operator needs when he needs it. The loader bucket will move large loads of dirt, a concrete breaker can be used for demolition and a trencher can be used to install a sprinkler system. While it's one basic machine, the attachments give it the possibility of being 50 machines in one. And because it's such a popular machine, the skid-steer loader is constantly changing and evolving into a better machine.

While traditionally the skid steer was used for agricultural applications, its uses have multiplied over the years and spread into other areas, such as landscaping.

“Skid-steer loaders are a very multipurpose machine,” says Kelly Moore, product manager for Mustang compact equipment. “There are so many new attachments for a variety of work that help get the job done better. It's almost endless.”

And it truly is endless. Not just for digging or lifting, applications range from demolition with hydraulic breakers and drop hammers; site preparation with laser-guided dozer blades and graders; land-clearing applications and landscaping to general maintenance with angle brooms and sweepers; and construction tasks using pallet forks, augers and trenchers.

The consensus among skid steer manufacturers is that customers are moving up into larger equipment, with higher horsepower and more capacity to gain more productivity. Whereas the 1,300- to 1,500-pound range was once the most popular among operators, the trend these days is the 1,700-pound — or higher — machine.

“Customers are migrating to a little larger machine,” Moore says. “With higher horsepower and hydraulic performance they will get more work done.”

Bill Sauber, product specialist for skid-steer loaders for Volvo Construction Equipment, agrees that operators have geared toward bigger and more productive equipment. “Almost all growth has been toward large sizes,” he says.

According to Sauber, 15 years ago the 1,300-pound model was 45 to 50 percent of the market. That figure is now down to 7 or 8 percent. He says in the past, 9- and 10-cubic-foot buckets were most popular, but that has shifted to 14- to 16-cubic-foot buckets. Another big change: Backhoe attachments on a skid steer used to be a major percentage of the attachments used on skid steers. “With the dramatic growth of the compact excavator, that has fallen dramatically,” says Sauber.

While it seems that bigger models are more popular these days, bigger isn't always better.

Tom Tamlyn, Bobcat loader product representative, agrees that the size of skid-steer loaders has been growing, but Bobcat has developed a full range of machines to work for any application. “Bigger doesn't necessarily always mean better in every case,” he says. “Sometimes the best investment isn't the largest or most powerful machine, but rather a smaller machine that is equally capable of doing a specific task. When you look at how the construction market has evolved over the last 10 to 15 years, the need for compact equipment has become a higher priority.

“A good example is the residential construction market which has blossomed with low interest rates and an ongoing growth in suburban housing developments. Developers are building homes closer to each other, on smaller lots with less room to maneuver equipment between [buildings]. When a contractor evaluates the available space, larger equipment is sometimes out of the question.”

Andy Lewis, marketing manager with Compact Power, agrees that small equipment has its place in the industry. “It's easier to do a large job with a smaller machine than it is to do a small job with a larger machine,” he says.

Michael Edwards, chief operating officer of Compact Power, says the company has seen a tremendous growth in rental with mini skid steers, and has also seen increased application of track machines.

The do-it-yourself market is huge and has “the savvy consumer who's not afraid to get on these machines and start it up,” according to Edwards. He says the skid steer market has remained strong with high growth, but smaller machines have hurt that growth.

Getting on track

Machines such as track loaders, tool carriers and compact wheel loaders may have increased business, but overall, they don't seem to be taking over the skid steer market. Moore says that the market was up considerably last year and is up this year as well. Where a compact wheel loader may have cut into the market for specific applications, customers still have a need for old faithful, their skid steer. “Skid steer loaders are compact, lighter and can be pulled on a trailer by a pickup truck,” Moore says.

Mike Ross, national product and training manager at Takeuchi, says that the rubber track loader market is growing as well. “Rubber track loaders are really hot,” he says. “A lot of customers are making the conversion to rubber track loaders from skid steers. They have a need for a machine that can work in any condition.”

While track loaders have increased in popularity over the years, they seem to be supplementing, rather than replacing, sales of skid-steer loaders. Although track loader sales have accelerated consistently over the past couple of years, they aren't a complete replacement for skid-steer loaders. According to Moore, it may be that a rental business may rent a track loader because the customer is working in soft conditions in an area where they want lower ground pressure, flotation and traction.

Sauber says that for the past several years skid steer sales have continued to grow. Tracked machines are becoming more popular and selling more, which may has slowed skid steer growth, but skid steer loader sales are still very strong, he says. “There are still applications where tracks aren't going to do you any good,” he says.

Bob Beesley, product manager, skid steer loaders, Komatsu Utility, agrees. “We are seeing the growing SSL market slow slightly as the track machine becomes more popular but given the difference in application, the track machine has opened the window for better utilization and expanded the market,” he says. “Each type of machine has its own advantages and disadvantages. The trick is to know what will be most efficient on a particular jobsite and which machine will be the most utilized in the near future.”


The popularity of over-the-wheel tracks as an add-on attachment accessory is growing as well, when customers require flotation and traction in soft or muddy conditions.

Tamlyn and Beesley say there has been little demand for this attachment because rental companies are shifting more toward the purchase of dedicated compact track loaders.

Tracked machines are showing up in places appropriate for them, such as on steeper ground where operators want more stability or soft, muddy ground where the larger ground “footprint” minimizes loss of traction, and the higher flotation means less rutting. “Southern California may not have a heck of a lot of need for track machines,” Sauber says.

Gregg Zupancic, product marketing manager for John Deere, says over-the-tire rubber tracks have significantly less owning and operating cost than a dedicated CTL. An over-the-tire rubber track offers rental companies the flexibility to add and remove rubber tracks based on the customer's application and charge an additional attachment rental rate when the customer needs the additional floatation of rubber over-the-tire style track system.

Attach it

Quick-attach technology has allowed skid-steer loaders to become the versatile machine they are today. The universal quick-attach standard allows for interchangeability of attachments regardless of the manufacturer and gives operators more flexibility in their equipment choices. If one brand doesn't offer an attachment to fit his needs, he can easily purchase from another brand. This has also made the market more competitive, and allows the customer the flexibility of owning one brand of skid steer, but having several brands of attachments. Ross says it better allows owners to find attachments to fit their needs. “It's really helped drive down the cost of using each of these attachments,” he says. “It has been good for the contractor.”

Sauber says skid steer sales since quick-attach have more than tripled. If an operator has five different machines, attachments will go from one brand to the others relatively seamlessly. “For the rental industry that's huge,” Sauber says. If a rental owner is looking to change manufacturers, he can do so and know the attachments he already owns will work on the new equipment.

Owners and operators must be aware that this standardized mounting system does not guarantee that all attachments are compatible with all machines, according to Tamlyn. Variations in machine size, weight, hydraulic flows and pressures, and other variables must be considered when mounting attachments to loaders. Check with the individual loader manufacturer for machine and attachment compatibility.

Cost conscious

Moore says the steel price increases that were so dramatic last year — upwards of 250 percent in some cases — have not appeared this year, but prices are still high. “We've seen a leveling off, but prices remain quite high,” he says.

Ross also says steel prices have leveled off. “Prices are down about 20 percent from where they peaked,” he adds.

And steel prices aren't the only cost factor. “The increase in fuel prices has also driven up prices, since it now costs more to move and operate the equipment,” says Lisa McCarley, dealer support manager for Compact Power.

Customers want….

Customers are looking for performance, and increasingly, “creature comforts,” according to Dan Rafferty, product manager, compact utility division for JCB. Customers look for productivity and being able to move as quickly and efficiently as possible. Operators are also increasingly requesting cabs with air conditioning. “People want to be more comfortable,” Rafferty says. “They want to keep dust off of their polo shirt when they're landscaping.”

“Customers are more ergonomics conscious than they've been in the past,” Moore says. They want more comfort, quieter machines, and better visibility. Air conditioning and heating are also frequently requested, especially in larger skid steers. “Customers want to have roominess within the cab of skid-steer loaders,” he says. “By nature they're a compact piece of machinery, but customers want them to be comfortable.”

As customers look to increase productivity, they are spending more hours per day operating the equipment in their particular application. Because of this, operator station/cab amenities are becoming more popular. This not only includes an increased demand in air conditioning and heat, but better ergonomics, easier entry and exit.

“The percentage of customers buying cab units has really trended upward,” Ross says. “People are really expecting a more operator-friendly machine.”

And more comfort may even add up to a more productive work day.

“Owners have commented that they see a higher productivity level from their operators when the machine is fitted with a cab,” Tamlyn says.

“Contractors are typically working for eight to 10 hours a day, five or six days a week, fatigue can play a large role in how productive a person can be,” McCarley says. “Equipment should be designed to increase the operator's productivity, not add to their fatigue.”

Improvements in safety

Safety is always a concern with equipment, especially for rental companies. Many manufacturers have safety features in place so that the operator is unable to run the machine if the seat bar isn't down.

Increased visibility is important in terms of safety. The side entry cab on JCB skid steers helps with safety because there is no risk of the operator hitting his head on the boom or bucket when getting on and off the machine. It also helps increase visibility. “There's a saying in baseball when a fastball is thrown that you can't hit what you can't see,” Rafferty says. “With skid steers it's the opposite: If you can't see it, you will hit it.”

Since the mid-1970s, Bobcat has made a priority of providing multi-language training resources. The company's first efforts included developing pictorials for safety signs to aid operators with language barriers or reading difficulties. Over the years, Bobcat has expanded its efforts by providing operator manuals in many languages, as well as creating other operator training resources in Spanish.

Future of skid steers

As always, customer needs will drive the skid steer market. “It's going to be driven by what customers are asking for and what rental companies are asking for,” Moore says. In general, look for more ease of operation, more features and performance, and more power and hydraulic performance.

Companies consider customer feedback to ensure the right improvements happen. “We listen to our customers to make sure we make a good machine better and not take away features that customers rely on,” Ross says.

Sauber also predicts more electronics being used for more sophisticated troubleshooting. Added security might come about with processors or computer chips on engines, as well as GPS units to provide theft protection.

Zupancic says the goal is to offer customers equipment that provides the highest productivity, with the greatest amount of uptime and the lowest daily operating costs in the industry. As technology advances, operators will see longer recommended intervals between oil changes or joints that do not require greasing, and improved access to maintenance parts.

And with the importance of attachments, it's a guarantee that application-specific attachments will continue to be developed. As Lewis says, “If an attachment company can find two or three people that want one attachment, you better believe that they're going to offer it.”

If the customer wants it, and asks for it, skid steer manufacturers will try to improve, and will always be making better, more powerful, and increasingly versatile skid steers.