Master of All Trades

April 1, 2006
A skid-steer loader without an attachment is a skid-steer loader not living up to its full potential. But connect it to the right attachment and it turns

A skid-steer loader without an attachment is a skid-steer loader not living up to its full potential. But connect it to the right attachment and it turns into a lean, mean, productivity machine. A lot of equipment — from skid steers to mini-excavators to wheel loaders — can become much more than digging machines given the right attachment. And the right attachment can turn a digging machine into a lifting, cutting, sweeping, breaking, plowing or grading machine in no time.

Most industry experts agree that the attachment market is growing or at the very least staying level with the growth of the overall construction equipment market. But because there is no specific report for attachments like there is for compact equipment, it's hard to put an exact number on it, according to Bobcat attachment product manager Rae Dell Braaten. He puts his estimates at 15- to 20-percent annual growth over the past five years. Lee Horton, president of Leading Edge Attachments, says that the market has been growing since 2003 because of the economy and housing markets' increased demand for attachments. And CEAttachments' Sarah Falkavage, sales and marketing specialist, estimates that there are approximately 1.5 attachments sold with every new skid steer. With between 60,000 and 70,000 units sold in North America in 2004, it is clear that attachments are an important segment of the construction industry.

Benefits of attachments

Universal quick attach systems have been the key to giving rental centers and their contractor customers the versatility and flexibility that they have come to expect from equipment. It's a benefit to the rental company owner to know that if he wants to add a different brand of machine to his fleet — or switch brands altogether — most likely his attachments will fit, which saves him from having to buy new attachments for those machines. Being able to own a mixed fleet gives a rental center and its customers the availability of a wider range of attachments, and gives opportunities he wouldn't have had otherwise, according to Wendell Moss, vice president of marketing and OEM national account sales for Paladin Light Construction.

Greg Lawrence, Dingo product marketing manager for Toro, says that attachments are finding their way into more markets as more and new attachments are being added. This versatility can only serve to benefit the users.

“It gives them more options, allows them the ability to grow based on different attachments offered by different manufacturers,” Lawrence says.

Attachments can change and dramatically enhance the way a rental company does business. By simply adding one attachment to its fleet, a company can add a whole new list of customers to its clientele. For instance, if a rental company owner wants to increase tree business, he can add a couple of attachments, say, a stump grinder and a tree spade to his fleet to begin marketing to that group of customers. Simply adding an attachment increases the utilization of the fleet, says Greg Rostberg, marketing manager for Bobcat. The more attachments that are available, the more options customers have when they walk into the rental center. Increased attachment options increase the utilization of equipment and the return on investment.

“You essentially have something for every market, for every day,” Braaten says.

Jim Masison, owner of Equip-Rent in Foxboro, Mass., has seen attachment use grow over the 30 years he's been in business. With 14 Bobcat pieces in his fleet, he sees firsthand how attachments benefit his business on a daily basis.

“We find attachments increase our return on investment because it gets the equipment out,” Masison says.

With enough attachments, one machine can serve a different purpose every day. Attachments also benefit the bottom line because each additional attachment allows the rental center to increase the rental rate charged to the customer. And because most attachments are so easily interchangeable between brands, manufacturers have to compete for business, which makes them strive to improve their products.

“As with any product, multiple suppliers will stabilize prices, improve quality and drive innovation via competition,” says Kevin Loomis, hydraulic applications manager for Atlas Copco Construction Tools.

Rental house must haves

Across the board, from manufacturers to rental companies, it seems that everyone RER spoke with agreed on those key “must have” items for a rental store — attachments viewed as essential for a profitable business. Buckets and pallet forks hold the top spots, while augers, trenchers, breakers and brooms are also high up on the list, industry experts say. Those staples will get rented no matter where you're located, says John Redwine of Pioneer Equipment Rental in Ponca City, Okla.

Increasing in popularity are land clearing and landscaping attachments, such as rakes, tree shredders and mulchers, according to Doug Laufenberg, product marketing manager for attachments and compact wheel loaders for John Deere.

“It has grown exponentially in the last two or three years,” he says of the land-clearing segment. “It's been amazing how much it's grown.”

Dry conditions that could spark forest fires in large areas of North America have fueled demand for land-clearing attachments.

“We've certainly started to see more in the way of land clearing and vegetation control as folks, particularly out West, have to keep undergrowth away from homes as a fire hazard,” says Moss.

Sometimes the success of one piece of equipment is a drawback for another. Laufenberg thinks backhoe attachments have fallen off slightly because of the compact excavator's recent growth, a sentiment that is echoed by others in the industry. Equip-Rent's Masison says that one of the first attachments the company owned was a backhoe attachment. Now it has none. Redwine agrees, saying that they have become almost obsolete. However, demand for backhoe attachments still keeps manufacturers producing them. Mary Beth Collins, senior sales support consultant for Caterpillar says the company just introduced a new backhoe attachment.

“It's a very big item for us,” she says.

Caterpillar has improved the once-cumbersome item so it installs easily and all operations can be performed from within the cab, increasing productivity.

Leading Edge Attachments' Horton says rental companies need a wide variety of attachments to suit customers' needs.

“Rental companies can help their customers with the use of attachments by having many different types available and being able to quickly couple those attachments with the use of a coupler,” he says. “Dedicated types of quick-change attachments are good for rental houses because of the ease of providing the right attachment for the job.”

It also pays for rental companies to invest in some of the expensive attachments that contractors can't justify buying themselves. Expensive hammers and compactors are popular rental items because contractors are more reluctant to spend on these items, Horton says. Industry experts also recommend buying high-quality attachments, because durability is key. Horton recommends buying the highest quality attachments and ones that are easily adaptable for hook-up to the machine.

“At times, price is an issue, however, operators are finding out that sometimes a more expensive attachment can save them a lot more money in the long run due to saved time and reduced downtime and wear on their machine,” Horton says.

A good fit

While universal attachment systems make life better for the rental company and the contractor, the system is not completely flawless. In an ideal world, any attachment would fit on any type of machine in a fleet. That's simply not the case. Skid steers are the only machine with universal quick attach, and even though that system is standardized, it is not perfect. Attachments are designed for optimum performance on the same brand of machine. So, if one brand of attachment is used on a different brand of machine, it will probably still work, but maybe not at the absolute highest productivity possible. Just because an attachment will work doesn't mean it's the best match for the carrier because it may change the geometry of the machine, attachment experts say.

“Obviously Toro is going to make our attachments perform best on our product, but that doesn't mean you can't run another attachment on Toro equipment,” says Lawrence.

Companies that manufacture attachments to fit various brands of equipment must balance performance and compatibility.

“We try to optimize the attachments to fit across as many brands as possible,” says Paladin Light Construction's Moss. “However, there are some attachments that due to hydraulic flows, electronic control systems, loader arm configurations, etc., that just have to be loader brand and model specific. Just because the loader can pick the attachment up does not mean that the attachment will provide maximum performance on every loader. Most non-motorized attachments and many low hydraulic flow attachments are not that sensitive. Critical attachments are high-flow hydraulic attachments and backhoe attachments.”

When purchasing attachments for equipment, rental companies should make sure they will work with the machines in their rental fleet and test drive attachments before buying to ensure they will suit their needs.

Good recommendations

Attachments are at their most productive only if the correct attachment for the job is connected to the correct machine. In the case of rental, it is the rental personnel's job to make sure this happens for customers. Having the correct attachment can make all the difference in the contractor's day. It will help him be more productive on the jobsite, and a happy and productive contractor is one who will do repeat business.

When a contractor comes into the store, experts agree rental counter personnel should find out about the contractor's job. The more a rental company knows about the job, the better it can suit its solutions to the contractor's needs. What exactly is the job? How long will it take? What size machine does the user have (or what size does the customer need to rent)? While these seem like obvious questions, they don't always get asked. Moss says that post-hurricane attachment and loader failures occurred when people were using anything they could get their hands on — not necessarily the right equipment for the job.

“We're finding out that small loaders are being used when they should be using a 2,000-pound capacity loader rather than a 500-pound capacity loader,” he says.

Knowing the job a contractor or homeowner is trying to accomplish will facilitate matching the attachment to the job. The right attachment will keep both the attachment itself and the machine it's used on in better condition. But asking a lot of questions can also help the rental company itself. For instance, a customer walks in wanting to dig a trench. A couple of options are available: a dedicated trencher or a trencher attachment. By asking a few simple questions, a rental company can find out that the customer also needs to rent a trench filler, as well as a leveler or cement bowl because he'll be mixing cement. This is the rental company's opportunity to find out as much as possible about the job, and solve the contractor's problems. Not only is this a benefit for the customer, but a bonus for the rental company as well.

“The more they have up front, the happier they're going to be and the more likely they'll be to come back and rent from that rental house,” Toro's Lawrence says.

There are, of course, situations when an attachment isn't the right choice for the job and a dedicated machine would be more appropriate. This is why it's important for a rental company to know exactly what its customers' jobs require. Bobcat's Braaten says that dedicated units have their place in the market. If a customer will be trenching every day for 30 days, he's going to want a dedicated machine. But for one day of use?

“A trencher attachment is absolutely perfect,” Braaten says.

Rental operators say avoid throwing an attachment at a customer just because it'll work. Listen and ask questions, Equip-Rent's Masison recommends. He says that some customers will come in asking for a 6,000-pound machine and then, after a few questions, he realizes the customer really needs a 10,000-pound machine to do the job.

Knowing the job a customer needs to do is key to knowing what attachment to recommend, Mike Brice, Oregon division sales manager for Portland's Star Rentals says. Counter personnel should also check to see how much experience a customer has had with the equipment, and offer training tips if needed. Delivery personnel should offer instructions upon delivery of the machine or attachment, as well as give safety-operating tips.

The hurricane aftermath

For all the destruction that the volatile 2005 hurricane season caused in the United States, it's surprising that anything positive could come out of the chaos and devastation. But uprooted trees and destroyed homes mean cleanup and reconstruction for the construction industry. Buckets and grapple sales increased post-hurricane because of the high demand for cleanup of storm debris. Bobcat's Braaten says the company saw a “dramatic bump” when the cleanup period was going on. Increases were seen in grapples, buckets, clamps and thumbs. Caterpillar also saw a spike in grapple-type tools.

“Every national disaster is a boost for some industry, and attachments were no different,” Braaten says.

Caterpillar's Collins agrees.

“We saw an unprecedented demand for work tools and machines,” says Collins.

As the cleanup phase ends and reconstruction begins, a shift in attachment demand will likely occur. Attachments will shift from demolition and cleanup to the construction side, industry experts say. Bobcat's Rostberg predicts that augers will increase in the years to come in hurricane recovery areas.

Toro's Lawrence says the company didn't see immediate effects from the hurricane because of the major cleanup that needed to occur. But as smaller cleanup jobs began, the company's compact utility loaders saw increased use in basements and beaches where access is limited, for jobs such as removing silt and sand from buildings. Lawrence also says that the company is seeing a lot of attachment use in Florida as rebuilding continues.

“Probably the biggest rental piece in these markets is the auger attachment,” Lawrence says.

Maintenance matters

Maintenance on equipment and attachments seems like it should be a no-brainer: Just follow the operator's manual. For the most part, it is just as easy as that. While maintenance will vary by attachment, some of the age-old tips shouldn't be ignored. Laufenberg suggests inspecting hoses to make sure they don't get pinched or caught. And, since attachments are typically in the dirt, make sure moving parts are greased or lubricated appropriately.

Moss recommends being especially vigilant with maintenance after natural disasters. Often, equipment is running around the clock to get disaster areas cleaned up as quickly as possible. If an attachment has an 8-hour lubrication sequence, and it's operating 24 hours a day, it needs to be lubricated three times a day, not just once. Failure to do so can cause premature wear and equipment failure. Lawrence recommends fixing items as they start to wear, rather than waiting until they worsen or wear out altogether. And, if an item sits unused at the rental center for weeks, give it a once over before renting it out or using it again.

“Like anything, pay attention to how you're using it and look it over frequently,” says Lawrence.

As Bobcat's Braaten says, if you follow the guidelines for maintenance, “You're going to get years and years and years of use out of attachments.” Attachments are built with the intent that they'll be used at a high-duty cycle. So an auger that is designed for daily use and abuse will still function as well as an auger that is used only once a week. That auger could easily last 15 years, Braaten says.

Coming attractions

As attachments continue to become more specialized, they are able to do more for the customer and customers are quickly becoming aware of how much their business can be helped with these pieces. Brice says most customers are becoming more educated and more mature, and are becoming aware of what's available and what attachments can do for them. The Internet has played a part in disseminating information and educating the customer, says Caterpillar's Collins.

“I think we also have much more work tool and attachment product information available via the Internet and that's helped to spike sales and rentals,” she says.

As with any product, manufacturers are striving to find ways to further help their customers. Companies will continually try to make work easier and more productive for their customers. Engineering attachments that can be used across different types of machines is one way they're trying to improve attachment versatility.

“One of the trends is tools that fit across multiple machine families,” says Collins.

And as technology continues to increase in equipment, Collins predicts that in five to 10 years the industry will see the use of “smart” work tools and attachments that will adjust to pressures and flows.

“Work tools could be programmed to read and adjust to the pressure and flows of the machine to make sure you get optimum performance from the work tool and minimize any potential damage to the machine,” she says.

Falkavage sees a trend of further specialization of attachments. For instance, an attachment is available that will clean out plugged culverts without tearing up the turf or surface above it. An attachment also exists that will fill sand bags by scooping a sand pile just as though the operator was using a bucket.

“People and businesses are using their skid-steer loaders for more than just digging and grading now, and they will continue to find more ways to use it,” Falkavage says.

Manufacturers and rental operators agree that having the right attachments is a critical component in planning a rental fleet. After all, the attachment is as important as the carrier.

“Without the attachment, the machine is pretty much a big paper weight,” Rostberg says.