Utility contractors have long used dozers as a workhorse on jobsites big and small. From clearing land to finish grading, these rugged and versatile machines deliver brute force yet allow for pinpoint accuracy with a feathery touch.
While dozers’ roots can be traced back more than a century, innovation and technology have continued to raise the bar. To get a glimpse of the dozer market today and how they are continuing to evolve to meet the needs of contractors, we talked to Sam Meeker, Dozer Product Application Specialist for Caterpillar Inc. Meeker has more than 20 years of experience at Caterpillar, including 12 years in his current role. He works with dealers and customers to make sure they are getting the right tool for the job, as well as training dealers and customers to keep them up-to-date on the latest equipment and technology.
Tell us about Caterpillar’s background in the dozer market.
Cat’s involvement with dozers goes back to the beginning. In 1904 Benjamin Holt created the first track-type vehicle; 1925 was the birth of the Caterpillar Corp. (with the merger of Holt Manufacturing and C.L. Best Tractor Co.); 1931 was the introduction of the first diesel; and the first Caterpillar blades went on in the 1940s. Since that time, we have continued to develop and implement new features – everything from power shift transmission and torque converters up through turbo chargers and paper air filters. You name it, we have typically been the first to invent a lot of those things.
Today, we continue to work to improve the dozer, its productivity and its efficiency. Sometimes those gains are related to engines, sometimes it is powertrains, and sometimes it is technology and electronics.
What makes Caterpillar dozers stand out?
In the medium to large dozer market, one of the things that makes a Cat dozer stand out is the high-drive undercarriage – we call it an elevated sprocket – that we invented that back in 1978. The high-drive undercarriage was brought into the medium line in the 1980s in the D4, D5, D6 and D7. The high drive gives us some great features: good balance on the machine, the right amount of blade weight to be able to cut and carry; and the right amount of tail weight to be able to grade and finish.
More recently we have introduced grade control technology like Slope Assist, which for the most part is standard or optional on many of the small and medium dozers. Slope Assist is a simple feature that allows the customer to set the blade at a target, turn it on auto and the dozer holds the blade at the target slope, which is helpful for doing basic grade control.
As you move up to 3D grade control, we were one of the first to have a factory-installed, integrated grade control system. In 2011, we introduced the D8 with Cat GRADE with 3D, and we have continued to modify and improve that system over the years.
In general, Cat dozers have always been known for great durability and reliability. We have a handful of design criteria that ensure customers can get the job done, do it comfortably and efficiently, and with an eye toward ease of repair and serviceability. The result is a machine that is designed and built to last a long time and provide durability over the years.
What should a customer consider when shopping for a new dozer?
To me, it is all about the applications you want to do. You want to make sure to match the tool to the jobs you need to get done. And, of course, budget is a factor too. There are several different options of blades, rear work tools, rippers, grade control systems and available technology, so the contractor needs to understand the type of work that work that they are going to do and get a machine that is designed and specified correctly to get that type of work done.
One of the first choices a contractor is going to make is blade style. There are blades that work better in different applications – bulk material handling, stock piling, clearing, grading, etc. – so making the right blade choice is important.
The next consideration is the gauge and/or undercarriage configurations. Standard (narrow) gauge gives you a better grouser penetration and better traction in harder, drier materials. Wider, low-ground pressure tracks give you better flotation in the soft underfoot conditions. So, in addition to the application, you need to know the material and where you are working so you can keep that tractor on top of the ground. Generally, a customer should opt for the narrowest track shoe possible to get the flotation needed for the jobs they are working on. Wider gauges take a little more power to turn, they disturb the ground a little more, and they are more expensive, so you want to go with the narrowest track shoe you can get by with.
Finally, a customer should consider technology. Caterpillar has three different levels of technology: manual, 2-dimensional and 3-dimensional. Again, the choice comes down to the applications the contractor will be doing. Three-dimensional is particularly useful when a customer is dealing with digital designs and accuracy requirements that require a high degree of accuracy.
There are calculators and resources available through Caterpillar and Cat dealers that can help determine the right size machine to get the job done.
What are some of the trends you are seeing in the dozer market?
We are seeing a lot of interest and uptick in the electric drive. A few years ago, we introduced the D6 XE with an electric drive powertrain. It helps the dozer be more productive, it provides more drawbar pull, better and faster torque response, and it’s extremely quick and nimble. Customers who operate it can’t believe how powerful that tractor is. The move toward electric is partially driven by lower fuel consumption and improved efficiency, and partially by lower ownership and operation cost, due to the fact that electric drives use fewer rotating and wear parts, take less oil and are easier to maintain and repair. All of these qualities are something that customers are noticing and talking about.
Technology is also becoming more and more of a requirement. Customers generally need to have some sort of grade control technology to ensure they achieve proper elevation. We are also seeing more and more use of VPAT (Variable Pitch Angle Tilt) blades, especially in the D6 size class. VPAT blades are extremely popular – they are very durable, and provide great visibility and capability.
What can a contractor do to help maximizing the efficiency of the dozer?
Ultimately, the No. 1 factor for increasing efficiency and productivity comes down to the operator. Understanding the technology and set up are crucial. The operator needs to know the different settings and adjustments, such as auto-carry and traction control. He has to be able to set the powertrain and blade properly.
Again, it is important to understand the type of work that you are doing and the most efficient way to do that. There are different techniques, like front-to-back dozing and slot dozing, that help the operator be more productive. I would recommend using slot dozing techniques wherever you can.
One other thing to bear in mind is that while dozers are great in short push applications, they can also be effective in longer distances. If you have a push of 400 to 600 ft, for example, you don’t necessarily need to turn to an excavator and truck; you can use the dozer and slot dozing techniques to move the material efficientFinally, use the technology is key. If you have Slope Assist, it will help to make your passes smoother. It will also help you go faster because a smooth pass lets you go a little quicker. And if you have 3D technology, use that to its fullest.
How have data and technology impacted the dozer market?
Contractors are continuing to learn how to use telematics data to maximize fleet efficiency. They are looking at idle times and utilization rates. They are able to determine the right number of machines for the job and deploy their assets effectively. Available technology includes operator codes that enable a contractor to help determine who may be operating the machine more efficiently, for example, which can be useful in peer-to-peer training. The codes can also be used for security in requiring a code to start the machine. Finally, the codes can be set up to configure the machine to an individual operator’s preference.
The data can be particularly useful in office applications for managers to understand how well the fleet is being utilized and where they need to deploy resources. On the service and maintenance side of the equation, fleet managers can track service schedules and error codes that can prevent costly downtime. The data are now based on cellular technology that enable real-time communication and even remote troubleshooting and repair in some cases.
What tools and attachments are available for modern dozers?
On the front end there are a variety of blade styles including S blades, SU blades, U blades and VPAT blades. There are also other types of work tool specific blades like land clearing blades, rakes for brush, stock piling blades and scraper cushion blades.
On the back, typically there is a draw bar, but there are options for rippers. Winches are also very popular, especially for forestry and pipeline work. There are many aftermarket suppliers that make specialized tools.
How has the ongoing pandemic impacted the dozer market?
For Caterpillar, most of our plants are still running. We have had some challenges here and there with supply of some components, but for the most part business has been steady. In talking with our dealers, many of them say they are running full steam ahead. And customers in most of the sectors we serve are still working on consistent basis. One thing about dozer work is that when you are operating a dozer, you are pretty well social distanced already.