Skid-steers: The contractor's Swiss Army knife

Dec. 28, 2000
Remember the Swiss Army knife you had as a teenager? Not just a knife, this versatile tool contained fold-out attachments that performed tasks as diverse as sawing a log or popping the cork on a bottle of vintage wine. Odds are, you still carry one of these tools, or have one stuck somewhere convenient around the home or office.
Remember the Swiss Army knife you had as a teenager? Not just a knife, this versatile tool contained fold-out attachments that performed tasks as diverse as sawing a log or popping the cork on a bottle of vintage wine. Odds are, you still carry one of these tools, or have one stuck somewhere convenient around the home or office. Granted, most of the knife's functions can be better performed with a specialized tool-you can spend $100 on a fancy corkscrew-but perhaps no other single tool matches the versatility of this compact unit.

For many contractors, the skid-steer loader is the Swiss Army knife of the road- and bridge-construction industry. No longer simply a "loader," these versatile units can accept a seemingly endless array of attachments that allow the units to tackle jobs ranging from moving piles of dirt through concrete-breaking to tasks as specialized as mixing cement or cold-planing pavement.

As was the case with the Swiss Army knife, there are few tasks a skid-steer can do that a "dedicated" machine can't do better. Certainly, you can attach a backhoe to most skid-steers, but there is a whole portion of the industry devoted to the manufacture of backhoes and excavators, and many of these specialized units will outperform even the best-equipped skid-steer.

But as was also the case with the Swiss Army knife, a skid-steer is without peer when it comes to versatility. A contractor can obtain a vibratory-roller attachment for a skid-steer that was originally purchased to load aggregate, but what roller can be converted to occasionally lift stone?

Beyond the unit's versatility, one other factor has helped to propel skid-steers into the spotlight: economics. While many analysts will point to increased construction as a sign of industry health, the reality is that federal funds for road- and bridge-construction projects are declining. This puts the onus on states and individual municipalities to make up the difference in financing for necessary or desired construction. This often leads to discussions of increasing taxes, which is always an unpopular choice-nearly forbidden in an election year. So projects are often cut-or not as well-funded-as they have been in the past.

As a result, a contractor who wants to maximize his profit will often look to get extra work out of existing equipment before sinking capital into an expensive specialized unit. Since skid-steers can perform so many tasks, they are "fiscally versatile," as well. Instead of buying that excavator, buy a backhoe attachment.

"The key is attachments," asserts Jerry Cowan, president of Preco Machinery Sales, Houston. "You can't just have a bucket anymore; you have to have all the attachments." Cowan, who has been selling skid-steers for over 30 years, says the allure of the skid-steer is "what you can do with the thing. It is a very well-rounded unit."

While Cowan has seen the popularity of the units rise in recent years, he says he doesn't view this as an indication that contractors and municipalities are "skimping" on big-ticket items. "While we do see a lot of people using skid-steers a lot for their work and then renting that [specialized] piece of equipment for a big job, I really don't see this as increasing in frequency," he says. "That has not been our experience."

Steve Barber, Case Corp.'s marketing manager for skid-steers, takes this point a step further. "Some [contractors] could be trying to get by with a skid-steer, but the unit-in its element-does as good a job as any other. You just need the right tool for the right job."

He adds that this directly applies to the proliferation of attachments now available for the units. Equipment choice-a skid-steer with an attachment or a specialized unit-is dictated by the job at hand. "I would not want to cold plane four miles of highway with a skid-steer," Barber says, offering an example. "But for a small parking lot or some other smaller job, a cold-planer [attachment] on a skid-steer is actually the better tool for the job."

Although manufacturers are loathe to disclose specific unit-sales or market-share figures, the Racine, Wis.-based Case Corp. is generally considered to command the second-largest market share of skid-steers in the U.S., behind industry-leader Melroe Co. (see Eye on Equipment, January, 1996). Case has been in the skid-steer market for over a quarter century, and Barber says the biggest single change in this niche is "the recognition by the general construction user that this is more than just a small loader; it is a viable piece of equipment."

Barber says that as skid-steers have become more powerful and had more attachments made available for them, they have gone from just a "clean up" piece of equipment to a primary work unit. "In the past you'd have seen an excavator or some other piece of equipment on a job, and the skid-steer would be there for the miscellaneous tasks," he says. "But today, especially in bridge or small-road construction, you'll see the skid-steer as the primary piece of equipment."

One of the ways in which skid-steer makers are enabling these units to perform well as a primary piece of equipment is to design them in ways that enhance productivity. While this is a boon to end users, manufacturers can, in turn, literally "sell" buyers on these merits. "We try to get our sales people to talk about the specific benefits of our units," says Kim Robinson, product manager for New Holland Inc., New Holland, Pa. "For example, our units have a low center of gravity, faster ground speed, a stability that comes with a longer wheelbase-basically, all these benefits lead to higher productivity."

New Holland, along with Melroe and Case, is one of the three major suppliers of skid-steers in the U.S. Not resting on its past laurels, Robinson says the company is increasing its industry presence, both in terms of units sold and market share. He says a number of factors go into the increased productivity of today's skid-steers: "There is a growth in the adaptation and option rate-the number of attachments the units will accept. This leads to them replacing other equipment, such as tractor loaders and things like that. Another factor is the acceptance of the versatility of the skid-steer."

Technological advancements also are a factor in the large role skid-steers are beginning to assume, but Robinson says it is difficult to determine how these changes have come about. Regarding the increased use of increasingly sophisticated hydraulics in skid-steers, Robinson says, "The technology is driven by demand, and the demand is there because it makes it easier to do more with the units-more horsepower, more adaptability, more attachments in general."

While the "which came first" debate-the technology or the demand-may often result in a chicken vs. the egg paradox, there seems little doubt that the increased use of hydraulics, among other technological advances, is fueling skid-steer popularity. Greg Emmanuel, senior product engineer for JCB Inc., White Marsh, Md., says the use of hydraulics-especially high-flow hydraulics-is a significant catalyst to the elevation of the skid-steer's profile.

"People have begun to see skid-steers as an 'engine with a hydraulic pump,' " he says. "instead of just a 'loader.' Thes units can now run all sort of higher-powered attachments than in the past." He adds that the company offers low-effort, servo-assisted controls standard on both its models, an industry first for skid-steers.

The presence of JCB in the skid-steer market is a testament to the strength of this market. The company has only been building these units for three years; it didn't even introduce its two units in the U.S. until last September.

In a field that is already packed with manufacturers, three of which account for approximately 75% of the market (Melroe, Case and New Holland) why would a company enter the fray?

"We felt we could offer an improved design-a better mousetrap, if you like," says Emmanuel. And since the market is such a strong one-over 30,000 units annually-room can be made for a manufacturer that addresses a proven need.

One of the ways in which JCB has attempted to improve the current "mousetrap" is by zeroing in on one facet of skid-steer operation that doesn't get a lot of press but is very much on the minds of those building and operating skid-steers: safety.

JCB's Robot units offer a single-arm design, which allows an operator to enter the loader's cab without climbing over the lift arm, as is the case with all twin-arm units. Other safety features include an adjustable restraint that an operator must bring into position before the machine's hydraulic controls will operate. A press release by the company touts its Robot as "the world's safest skid-steer loader."

Do such claims really sell units? Is safety really such a concern? Peter Mabee, marketing manager for Canada-based Thomas Equipment Ltd., believes so. "The major change in the skid-steer market over the last few years has been improvements in operator safety and comfort," he says. "We feel we have one of the best safety systems in the industry. A series of lockouts, activated by sensors, turn off the machine if the operator is out of his seat or has the seat belt off. In addition, our units automatically put on the parking brake when the seat bar is raised."

Located just east of Maine's border in Centreville, New Brunswick, Thomas is a company that prides itself on its safety and operator-comfort features. One of the ways in which it has learned to appreciate the need for these features is through its dealings with European countries, which account for a sizable percentage of the company's sales.

"Europe has some of the most stringent regulations in this respect," explains Mabee. "One of the regulations is that the sound level in the cabs has to be 85 dB or less, and we meet that in our models. Unlike some manufacturers, we have elected to standardize with this worldwide; our S series is our low-sound series."

This series also targets another "hot button" topic in the marketplace: the concern over operator comfort. Closely allied with operator safety, the operator-comfort issue also shares some characteristics with productivity features.

"Operator comfort is a selling point-the buyer wants to keep his operator comfortable," declares Lynn Roesler, product coordinator for skid-steers for Melroe Co., Fargo, N.D. "Even if the buyer is not using the unit [himself], he wants the operator comfortable. This leads to higher productivity."

While this could be a comment from one of any manufacturers of skid-steers, Melroe is the dominant player in the skid-steer market (the company's share is estimated to be between 40% and 50%). The company has been making the units since 1958; their Bobcat line of skid-steers have had such a large impact on the industry that many contractors-incorrectly-refer to their loaders as "bobcats," regardless of the make. So when a company with this presence in the market says operator comfort is selling, it probably is.

"We offer features such as low noise, nice cabin enclosures for northern climes, easy control layout," Roesler details, mentioning just a portion of the Bobcat's operator-comfort features. He adds that some of these features are an outgrowth of technological advances: "On some loaders, the auxiliary hydraulics have electronic controls. This makes the units very easy to run, and is less taxing on the operator."

Directly related to operator comfort is that intangible, the "feel" of the unit. JCB's Emmanuel says his company strives for this holistic approach to skid-steer design. "There is a great emphasis on what I would term 'operator friendliness.' This includes a comfortable environment for the operator, and also having all the controls falling readily at hand. A 'good feel' is one thing we try to do at JCB. It feels like 'one' unit, very well rounded off."

In addition to natural layout of controls, another way manufacturers are attempting to integrate a good "feel" into their units is by building them as solidly as possible. Preco Machinery's Cowan, who has seen the skid-steer market explode since he began leasing the units over a decade ago, says, "In my opinion, the quality of the product has increased for these units. And I mean across the board, for all the makers."

While New Holland's Robinson is understandably biased toward his company's offering, he does admit that the quality of the average skid-steer is on the rise. "Overall, all lines of skid-steers have upped their quality because the quality comes from making the products a long time, learning what the customer wants and making it in such a way that it lasts a long time."

Making units that last a long time is very important for end users, according to Larry Henkensiefken, product manager for Mustang Manufacturing Co. Inc., Owatonna, Minn. "The biggest reason buyers [purchase a particular skid-steer] is not the dollar factor," he explains, "but the productivity and quality. They want the power to do their job; at the same time, they want longevity and reliability."

Henkensiefken rates a contractor's top three skid-steer requirements in the following order: productivity, reliability and resale. While it did rate third, resale has become a factor many purchasers consider before they even pull out their wallets to initially purchase the unit.
JCB's Emmanuel places an added emphasis on resale value. "The second-largest market for skid-steers is rental," he says. "Rental yards use [the unit] for a couple of years and then sell it, so resale value is important." And since resale value is dependent upon the condition of a unit after use, making a higher-quality unit in the first place is what raises that resale value. In much the same way operator comfort is tied to quality construction, so is resale value.

Most manufacturers feel the skid-steer market has yet to peak. "We've had a couple of record-setting years recently," comments Melroe's Roesler, "Although we expect this year will be somewhat flat compared to 1995. But we do feel there is room for growth in the U.S."

Henkensiefken concurs, but adds a bit of insight he has gleaned from watching the market over the last decade. "We find that, for each unit people buy, the next one they get will be a larger unit," he says. "The growth is in larger units, rather than the small or medium ones. Right now, the larger ones don't have the number of units offered or sold-compared to the medium-size units-but the percentage of growth is larger for the larger unit. It's about a 15% yearly growth for mid-size units; 30%-40% for larger units. I think this trend will continue-the larger unit is a more productive machine."

Another trend Henkensiefken mentions is the overseas market, which he says Mustang is pursuing as strongly as the U.S. market. Thomas Equipment is already well-acquainted with the foreign market: Mabee says 40% of its units go the U.S., 20% to Canada and the remainder to "global markets."

"We have dealings with over 50 countries," Mabee says, adding that hot markets are difficult to define-the markets often change so quickly. "Right now we are finding South America is very good for us," he says. "Chile is very good, along with some other South American countries. Europe is still good, but we have always done well there." Mabee qualifies this last statement by saying "Europe" refers to Western Europe; but adds that this is not the complete picture. "We have dealt with the former Eastern Bloc countries in the past, and we are beginning to introduce more units into Eastern Europe."

Other manufacturers say the Pacific Rim countries are hot spots, yet one of the more perceptive comments on foreign sales was offered by Case's Barber: "I think there is enormous potential for growth in the U.S., but we're expanding our international markets, as well. In Europe, they like the smaller machines because they generally have tighter confines to work in. I think it's fair to say that the Europeans appreciate the compactness of the units more than Americans."

The European proclivity for the unit's compact nature goes right to the heart of its popularity, turning on the same trait Cowan pinpointed: The unit's success is directly related to "what you can do with it."

And what you can do with the models seems to grow at an almost geometric rate. Attachments (see story in same issue:4/96) are increasing in number and sophistication, the units themselves are lasting longer, and the larger units hold the promise to do even more.

So what improvements can end users expect in the future? That is almost impossible to predict, simply because of the versatile nature of the unit. "Every day, someone comes up with a new use for the skid-steer," says Barber. "As long as they keep doing that, things are going to be fine."

Some improvements contractors are calling for are more sophisticated controls, such as those found in excavators. Right now, the cost of such additions make them prohibitive-remember, skid-steers are designed to be relatively low-cost units-but don't be surprised to see them offered in the very near future, at least as options.

Other controls features, such as computer-assisted units, will probably work there way into skid-steer cabs shortly. Computers have practically taken over combines and other large agricultural equipment; since many skid-steer makers also manufacture agricultural equipment, there will be plenty of cross-pollination in this area.

However, for every feature manufacturers pack more into their machines, end users invariably ask for more. "I don't hear a clamor [from end users] for any one thing," reflects Melroe's Roesler, "but everyone always seems to want more performance-the 10 lb in the 5-lb can." The larger skid-steers can, to a degree, meet that request, but if skid-steers become too muscular, they will lose the cachet-and versatility-that today's small, powerful units embody.

The skid-steer truly is the contractor's Swiss Army knife. They are compact, versatile, relatively inexpensive, increasingly sophisticated and solidly built. Buy it for one use today; buy an attachment and you have "two units" tomorrow.

About the only attachment a skid-steer won't accept is a unprofitable price tag: The machines are designed to increase productivity without dipping into the retirement fund. "The contractor today is looking to maximize investment and improve his bottom line," Barber states. "And the skid-steer can do that better than any other piece of equipment."

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