Technology Improves End-User Experience

June 1, 2011
RER interviews lawn-and-garden manufacturers on new technology, manufacturing trends, fuel efficiency, ergonomics and more.

The Participants:

Mike Hale, sales manager, Little Beaver;

Will Coates, president, Billy Goat Industries;

Doug Amerman, director of marketing and business development for Paladin Construction Group;

Bruce Carmichael, national sales manager, TurfEx;

Dennis Von Ruden, president, General Equipment;

J.R. Bowling, vice president Rayco Manufacturing;

Andrew Johnson, Little Wonder product manager for Schiller Grounds Care Inc.

What are the main areas of technological advancement in your product line, and in the industry in general?

Hale: Just this year, we launched a new product, the NTV-11H UN-Towable unit. It’s a hydraulic drill and similar to models in our current lineup, but offers a new option to rental centers and customers in terms of portability design. Basically, there are two options for transport. One, the unit’s power pack is detachable, allowing the unit to easily separate into two pieces. This allows it to be transported in the back of a pickup truck or SUV. In the case that vehicle space is limited, yet towing isn’t ideal, the unit is designed with an optional slide-in receiver hitch. Simply secure the unit in the hitch, crank up the machine until it stops, and insert the pin to lock it in place. The UN-Towable then is transported behind the vehicle, yet off the ground so it’s not actually being towed. Our customers were really looking for an alternative to a towable machine, and we delivered.

Coates: The technological advancements in our product line include the use of advanced composites throughout our vacuum and blower lineup that improve productivity and ergonomics through improved performance, reduced weight, and better fuel economy.

We are also encouraged by the early acceptance of advanced drive systems such as the hydrostatic transmission we’ve employed in our new self-propelled overseeder or the composite mechanical drive we use in our blowers. In fact, the latter has allowed Billy Goat to eliminate the “push” or fatigue factor from push blowers and the former has dramatically improved the customer experience when renting an overseeder, which drives re-rentals.

Using technology to improve end user experience, productivity and ergonomics (noise, vibration, fatigue, emissions) remain important considerations for both Billy Goat and the entire outdoor power equipment segment.

Amerman: Paladin Construction Group recently teamed with Miller UK Limited to offer customers the new Bradco mini-excavator coupler and Bradco mini-excavator buckets.

The Bradco mini-excavator coupler’s pin pick-up design ensures that no costly modifications are required to either the machine or attachments because it operates with standard OEM dimensions that make it compatible with existing buckets. The Bradco mini-excavator coupler operates with a variety of lawn and garden attachments.

The Bradco mini-excavator buckets are designed with specific dimensions that enable them to quickly and efficiently perform a variety of lawn and garden tasks ranging from digging and loading to trenching. The combination of fast attachment changeover coupled with precision digging, loading and trenching can greatly increase machine efficiency and on-site productivity with the added bonus of potential fuel and material cost savings.

Carmichael: First, TurfEx has made big steps in spreader calibration. All of our spreaders come with a calibration key, and our website,, contains an electronic calibration calculator for determining the proper gate settings and auger speeds to achieve the desired application rate. Thanks to these simple tools, end users can easily adjust their spreaders to apply the right amount of material.

Also, TurfEx has incorporated adjustable spinners on all spreaders. This allows the operator to fine-tune the spread pattern and prevent an uneven application.

Overall, lawn-and-garden equipment is getting to be more advanced and high-performance as more people are becoming educated on the available equipment. There’s also a big push to be environmentally friendly.

Von Ruden: There are three major focus areas that our company is utilizing for the design of new products along with making enhancements on current units. They are as lean manufacturing techniques; finite element analysis; and operator ergonomics.

Lean manufacturing is a common buzzword found into today’s manufacturing environment. What is really means for our company is that we analyze every step required to manufacture a specific product and work to literally reduce those steps to a minimum. The real goal for this exercise is to reduce our costs and improve quality at the same time. We compete in a world market. Every General product has been cloned in China. What keeps those products from competing against us in most market areas is distribution and overall quality. Still, customers will only pay so much for perceived quality. Knowing that we do not have a license to steal is a driving force to reduce/maintain our costs as low as possible. We cannot expect to keep raising prices without a constant attempt to properly control them.

The finite element analysis capabilities of our computer design software allows our designers the ability to reduce the weight and size of a component without sacrificing strength and durability. In some respects, it is also an extension of our lean manufacturing process … only doing what is absolutely necessary to produce the required results. Our computer software allows us to simulate various loads and stresses on a component and give us important information as to service life and failure rate. This ability allows our company to use a system approach to product design. The goal is to provide lighter yet stronger products that exceed the expectations of our customer demands.

Ergonomics is another buzzword that you keep hearing about. We are living in a fast-changing society where people are living longer and are more concerned and involved with their personal health. Society is demanding design innovation and operating comfort with every purchase. You can see the principles at work in new automobile design with the emphasis being placed upon enhanced comfort and safety. The same principles are also being applied to portable hole digging equipment. Lighter and stronger materials are being researched. A good example is hole digger operator handle design and position. This is an important element in achieving the goal of reducing the amount of physical exertion required to dig a hole.

Bowling: One of Rayco’s new product advancements in the rental industry has been the introduction of swing-out operator control stations on compact stump cutters. Rayco’s Super Jr Stump Cutters (available with 25hp Kohler or 35hp Vanguard engines) are now available with swing-out control stations that give operators two positions for grinding and a third position for passing through gates. The two grinding positions allow for better visibility of the grinding action while keeping the operator at the control station. For passing through gates, the control arm swings in-line with the machine, allowing the operator to follow the unit through a gate.

Johnson: The power equipment industry is focused on helping operators get more done in less time, and wheeled blowers are a tool that achieves this. Little Wonder wheeled blowers are steel constructed, feature a unique fan design and curved aerodynamic inlet that provides for its exceptional airflow with a split-stream air deflector that eliminates blow-back and provides for controlled movement of large amounts of debris. These are standard features of all Little Wonder blowers. Our product development focus is on ease of use, which goes a long way to enhancing productivity.

We are about to introduce our all new 2011 Optimax Blower line that will incorporate many new ease-of-use features. One new exciting feature to our larger models is a lever that controls the direction of airflow from the operator’s handle position. Now operators have non-stop control of the split-stream air deflector without having to stop and adjust the stream manually.

What are some of the trends you see now and in the foreseeable future in your type of equipment?

Hale: Probably within the last 10 years, I’ve seen a major trend towards compact utility loaders. I think the trend towards these machines is due to a couple different factors, first being that people want versatile machines. Also, it seems these days everyone wants something lighter and a bit easier to operate.

Coates: There is a macro trend and a micro trend. The macro trend is the astute rental dealer who understands that his clients are much more geared to productivity — we’re talking about contractors in this case — so they are investing in equipment that gives their contractors a much better return. The contractors can be a lot more productive and earn more money on the job as long as they have the tools with the uptime that is so critical. Billy Goat’s perspective is that if we can make a machine more productive for the contractor, but at the same time make it intuitive for the homeowner and not a daunting piece of equipment, we’ve doubled the opportunity for rental — whether it is a homeowner looking to rent for a day or a weekend or whether it is a contractor looking to rent for a full week or month.

Because our market is so highly seasonal, there are two other things that we see on a micro level. Contractors have downsized. They are trying to get more productivity out of the equipment they have and yet at the same time they want to offer robust services. Instead of tying up their capital or a line of credit by buying equipment and having much of it sit for a good portion of the year, they are better off renting it. The second micro issue concerns homeowners who may have previously outsourced overseeding, aerating, power raking to third parties, and have now taken back these lawn care chores. As a result, they start doing the work or employ their teenagers, and need information on how to operate equipment and become more self-sufficient managing their own property.

Carmichael: More rental centers are starting to demand durable, commercial-duty equipment. They’ve realized that the short service life of cheaper products generally produces a poor return on investment. Many rental centers are attracted to our industry-leading, two-year warranty.

Furthermore, tow-behind units and products that attach to three-point hitches are popular. Rental centers are attracted to these because of the versatility they provide. Tow-behind products can hook up to compact tractors, ATVs and utility vehicles. The standard three-point hitch system also caters well to customers with compact tractors.

Von Ruden: We see the demand for products that are both lighter in weight and easier to operate without sacrificing productivity rates and service life. The challenge is to provide these characteristics at acceptable costs. There is a constant struggle to balance technology versus acquisition cost. We have the ability to design and manufacture products that are so high tech in nature that the purchase cost would be prohibitive. This effort will not provide for any significant advancement in productivity rates until new processes or concepts are developed.

If general trends hold, we will continue to see a growing influence of Chinese and Indian sourced components, including engines, being utilized in the manufacture of light construction products. The value of the U.S. dollar will have a significant influence on where many components are sourced in an effort to provide products that are competitively price in a world market. We no longer can limit our field of thought to the North American marketplace. Approximately 1/3 of our current sales are export related. As mentioned, product design will be influenced by continuous lean manufacturing improvements to help reduce costs and maximize value to the customer.

Bowling: The value proposition is more important than ever in today’s economy. Customers are not as liberal as they once were about “splurging” to get a higher end unit with more bells and whistles unless those features add value. Rayco has sought to offer rental customers value by offering features such as tracks and swing-out controls on our Super Jr series of hydraulically controlled stump cutters.

Johnson: Increased power and improved control of the airflow are trends that meet our customer’s needs. There is more focus on all aspects of getting the job done including transportation, where it’s important to be able to secure and protect equipment when moving from job to job, so we have two tie-down brackets on our new blowers. There is also interest in self-propelled blowers, especially for clearing hilly areas and contractors who have to clear many areas in a single day. Our new self-propelled units feature powered forward and reverse and have variable speed to match the job conditions.

Is fuel efficiency a big concern in today’s market and if so what are you doing to address that concern?

Coates: Fuel efficiency is certainly a concern so Billy Goat specs engines that employ the latest in combustion technology. We work with the engine manufacturer’s application engineers to ensure that engines have sufficient reserve and operate at the lowest RPMs necessary for the application. As discussed above, where appropriate, we spec many parts out of composites instead of steel to improve performance and reduce fuel consumption as much as possible. Our engineering staff continues to evaluate alternate power sources such as battery and electric wherever it may make sense.

Amerman: Yes, fuel efficiency does affect how we manufacture our lawn and garden attachments. When an attachment works more efficiently with the host machine it requires less fuel consumption. Our R&D efforts have led us to improve things like drive systems that work with the host machine and component strength and location to improve the overall performance of the attachment. This puts less stress on the host machine which requires less fuel or allows the contractor to use a smaller host machine to do the same or even more work—again using less fuel.

The FFC rakes and Harley Power Box Rakes are a perfect example of this for the lawn and garden contractor and rental companies. We recently improved the characteristics of the drive line systems and the overall height of the rake in order to put more workable torque on the ground with smaller host machines. In some cases, a 25 hp machine with a 4-to-5 foot rake can complete an acre in just over an hour. That was nearly unheard of before.

Carmichael: TurfEx products have always been completely electric-powered, and we’re gaining more attention than ever because of that. TurfEx was the first to introduce electric power for some types of equipment, such as topdressers, and we continue to develop our product line.

Johnson: Operating costs generally are a big issue. Fuel efficiency and productivity are certainly part of that concern. Recent improvements in small engine technology has raised output and increased fuel economy at the same time. For example, the new Honda GX engines have increased compression ratios and changed engine timing to deliver 6 percent more power and use 10 percent less fuel than last year’s models. We adopted these engines and other top performing brands into our 2011 line as well. There’s also frustration with the short shelf life and increased operating temperature of 2-cycle fuel that is clogging carburetors and shortening the life of the backpack and handheld blowers, 4-cycle engines tend to have less of those issues.

What are some of the trends you see in the rental industry in terms of lawn & garden equipment and how do those trends affect your business?

Hale: Lawn and garden seems to stay fairly strong through rental and sales, though the trend has been more homeowner than commercial. Many are taking care of their lawns and don’t want to pay someone to do it. They want to try to save money. Whether they’re looking to sell or not, people take a lot of pride in their home and lawn, so they are making the effort to purchase/rent the equipment that will help them keep up.

Coates: Diversified rental businesses are thriving; those with lawn and garden, general tool, construction and party appear to be outperforming specialty rental companies – especially over the last two years. Tactics like providing weekend hours, offering customer tips, and merchandising through professional displays are serving these dealers and their customers best.

Amerman: We’ve seen a few different trends:

For example rental purchase agreements: Because the volume of work is low today, contractors are hesitant to buy equipment of any kind, including attachments. Many are participating in rental purchase agreements where they let future jobs pay for the attachment instead of it coming directly from their capital all at once. For example, some common agreements now between rental companies and contractors allow contractors to apply 80 percent of the rental price directly on the principal of the purchase. While it costs more in the long run, the contractor can easily justify the eventual purchase because, in essence, the work is paying for the attachment.

Attachments are becoming more popular: When contractors look at their fleet today, they commonly look at the equipment they have in their yard and try to find ways for it to generate new revenue. The best way to increase machine utilization and gain a significant competitive advantage is to put an attachment that their competitors don’t have on the end of a machine.

Going smaller: A lot of the smaller rental companies are going to the smaller skid steers, mini-excavators and compact loaders because they are not intimidating to the average homeowner and often require less fuel consumption.

Carmichael: More rental centers are starting to demand durable, commercial-duty equipment. They’ve realized that the short service life of cheaper products generally produces a poor return on investment. Furthermore, tow-behind units and products that attach to three-point hitches are popular. Rental centers are attracted to these because of the versatility they provide. Tow-behind products can hook up to compact tractors, ATVs and utility vehicles. The standard three-point hitch system also caters well to customers with compact tractors.

Von Ruden: The industry will continue to see intense market pressure from both Chinese and Indian manufactured products. This will, in turn, continue to fuel the never ending debate over purchase cost versus quality. There are rare occasions today where the rental dealer can realize both. That will change in the future as foreign sources incorporate increased quality into their manufacturing process. The long term effects upon the established North American and European manufacturing complex are only speculative at this time.

Anderson: Watching costs and utilization are key and providing productive equipment that lasts in a rugged environment continues to be important, but the trend in these tough economic times is serviceability. We’ve incorporated dual element air cleaners and oil level sensors on all of our larger models so that the machines last longer and monitor themselves for critical oil level.

Any particular advice to rental companies in terms of how to be successful renting your kinds of equipment?

Hale: It’s so important for the rental center associates to know the product – how it works, tips for better operation, any accessories that go along with it, all of that. Having an in-depth knowledge of the equipment and being able to communicate the info to customers. At the very least, the associates should make the effort to ask customers if they’re familiar with the equipment and if they’ve rented before. Hopefully that would spark the customer to ask some questions too. We have to assume the customer is not an expert and need to make the effort to offer up the advice, info and tips because not everyone will have specific questions or be brave enough to ask them.

Coates: A strong local advertising program that highlights seasonal products right before the need seems to work well. In high traffic areas, signage that creates awareness can be really effective. Also, how the dealer maintains its fleet speaks volumes: avoid the temptation to age your assets beyond their useful lives. Offer hours that are convenient to your customers, not your staff. And promote the brands you carry with the tools they offer — such as in-store videos, counter top customer tips, and merchandising displays—to support your products and services. Finally, dealers can learn invaluable information by asking their customers about their rental experience either verbally or through customer surveys.

Amerman: As a manufacturer with a very broad attachment and coupler offering for the lawn and garden industry, we’ve seen success when rental companies use videos about a manufacturer product line that show the variety of products they can offer. This works for three reasons:

  • The sales representative now has a source for education for themselves and when the customers come into the store. Sometimes, it’s much easier to see instead of be told.
  • Contractors that watch these videos may see something that they will need for a future job. In addition, when contractors get new work, they often need to rent other specialty attachments. If they’ve seen what a rental company can offer on a video, that rental company will be top of mind once they need that specific attachment.
  • Videos spark ideas on how a contractor can better separate them from the competition. Seeing a video might trigger a way the contractor can use specialty attachments for jobs outside of what they typically do.

Von Ruden: I am continuously amazed over the number of people that rent our products, but have never actually operated them. My advice is to gain the operational perspectives that will make you a source of added value to your customers. Understand properly maintenance procedures. Little things such as regularly inspecting high wear parts for replacement will provide end users with machine that deliver high productivity rates and higher satisfaction levels. Not to mention longer service life and higher ROI values.

Last, but not least, don’t be afraid to make a reasonable investment in those high demand replacement parts. Cutting costs by reducing or not stocking the necessary replacement parts has been proven to be detrimental to product service/ROI and end user satisfaction.

Johnson: There is a saying in sales, “displays sell product”. Displays rent products too. Product displays are an especially powerful tool in power equipment rental because there are many aspects of the equipment the display can cover for the customer at a glance – unit size, environment of use, engine type, and equipment specifications – the customer can access most of that information by seeing the unit presented in a nice display. That starts with creating attractive displays that allow access to the machine with an up-to-date graphics package and color scheme that call attention to the unit’s key features and benefits. Rental stores can often attain product displays and promotional material at a reduced cost or even free from the manufacturer by contacting their distributor or manufacturer’s sales rep.

As for the rest of the industry, we’ve seen that, similar to us, most companies are keeping a lot of the same design and technology. Whether that’s because they’ve put together a solid product and they want to stick with it, or the economic conditions haven’t allowed for a lot of new, updated technology, that I can’t say for sure.

What EPA, CARB regulations or other environmental concerns are affecting your R&D, the manufacturing and marketing of your equipment?

Hale: We’ve had to modify things such as throttle linkages to meet the new regulations. But it has just been little changes here and there, and not major ones that would drastically affect the design of our equipment.

Coates: Previously, some of our engine manufacturers were not CARB-approved for sale in California – that inhibited our sales in that state. Today, all but one model in our range are available in at least one configuration for sale in California.

Carmichael: Because our products are electric-powered, emissions regulations haven’t affected us. However, TurfEx understands there are other ways to go green, and we’ve incorporated more features to make our equipment environmentally friendly. For example, our spreaders are engineered to prevent material waste. Plus, they offer precise application, so material doesn’t fling to areas where it shouldn’t.

Von Ruden: After the initial EPA and CARB regulations were released several years ago, the most noticeable impact was the discontinuation of old technology 2- and 4-stroke engines. Then came the advent of small displacement, all-position 4-stroke engines designed to replace the old 2 Stroke technology. We are currently using that technology. We are also beginning to see the availability of new 2-stroke engines that meet current EPA 2010 standards. As to be expected, the majority of this technology is originating in China. The purchase cost difference along with their inherent simplicity is forcing our company to once again evaluate their potential usage on applicable products.

Bowling: Emissions concerns are driving up cost in our industry for diesel-powered equipment. Once Tier 4 emissions levels are the norm, prices will be significantly higher. It’s therefore a good idea to purchase diesel-powered machinery sooner than later to avoid the steep price increases that will no doubt hit in 2012.

Anderson: R&D is an area of a business plan, that, if you do not plan and network carefully, can be costly and time consuming anytime you change any component of an existing product. Engine changes to an existing product can be substantial because it often requires changes to the unit itself, as the engine weight and engine design may have differed from the previous model, where unit adjustments may need to be made to mount the new engine, maintain unit balance, and operator control conveniences. We understand their importance and support incorporating cleaner burning, more fuel-efficient engines throughout our product lines whenever available. We recently added new engines to our debris vacuum, powered edgers and truck loaders as well as new engines coming to our new 2011 blower line.