Getting the Dirt on Excavators

John Deere excavator

Experts Share Insights on Latest Trends, Technology

Excavators are the lifeblood of many utility contracting companies. Day after day, job after job, the excavator performs the thankless tasks of digging the trench and laying the pipe. While the basic operation of the excavator has remained consistent over the years, advancements in technology have improved technology, controls, performance, versatility, efficiency, and more.

To get a sense of where the technology is today, Utility Contractor polled a sampling of excavator manufactures on what’s new and what you need to know when buying your next excavator. We talked to Jonny Spendlove, Product Marketing Manager-Excavators, John Deere; Jon Jennings, Excavator Product Manager, Komatsu; and Lee Padgett, Product Manager, Takeuchi-US.

When a contractor is purchasing an excavator, what are the most important features to consider?

Spendlove: There are several key factors a contractor should consider when purchasing a new excavator. Among them are:

Auxiliary Hydraulics: Excavators are among the most versatile machines on the jobsite. From thumbs to hammers to plate compactors to tiltrotators, most contractors want to use their excavator for more than just digging trenches. Auxiliary hydraulics are what enable that versatility.  On Deere reduced tail swing (RTS) models, auxiliary hydraulics are standard equipment.  On our lineup of conventional tail swing models, auxiliary hydraulics are a very popular option. In addition to improving versatility, auxiliary hydraulics increase the resale value of the excavator.

Technology: Today, many of the hardware features on excavators are “table stakes.” The availability and quality of key software technology is starting to be a differentiator. We recently showcased our SmartGrade 210G excavator with integrated Topcon 3D Grade Control. SmartGrade hydraulically controls the boom and bucket as the operator controls the arm, allowing the operator to get to grade more quickly, with fewer final passes. It also prevents overdigging and the requirement for additional bedding material, which can add up over the life of a job. 

Deere also offers integrated Grade Guidance options from the factory which alert an operator to the position of the bucket tooth tip, while maintaining the operator’s control of the arm, boom, and bucket. Our customers tell us their productivity improves dramatically with these technologies.

Comfort: There’s a popular saying that “a comfortable operator is a productive operator.” When considering an excavator, take a look inside the cab. How does it feel? Is it spacious enough?  How’s the seat?  How are the positions of the controls? An operator is going to be in that cab for the better part of a workday, so we make sure ours provide a high level of comfort. In our standard tail swing machines, we offer an optional premium leather seat that is actively cooled or heated on demand – just like the one you’d have in your truck.  We also have full-size cabs on our RTS machines – we chose not to sacrifice operator comfort.

Lighting: Consider how much work you’ll be doing in low light conditions – early morning, late evening, 24-hour work, etc. LED lighting options are typically the best for this type of work and are well worth the price. 

Dealer Support: This cannot be overemphasized. No matter how solid your excavator is, no matter how many features or options it has, you will need support at some point. Deere takes enormous pride in the strength of its dealer channel and we count on our dealers to keep our customers up and running.

Komatsu excavator

Jennings Of course reliability and durability for the machine are top of the list. At Komatsu, we manufacture most of our own major components, so that the machine is a total, integrated package. That means if a component does fail, it can be taken care of internally by us, which simplifies the process and results in a quicker turnaround time.

Dig depth and lift capacity are other key considerations. Deeper dig depths allow for greater versatility of the machine. As for lift capacity, we are seeing bigger pipes being installed, in some cases due to municipalities upsizing pipe diameter to accommodate growing populations, and contractors are wanting machines with greater lift capacities.

A general trend we’re seeing across most industries is a difficulty in finding skilled operators. As a result, ease of use is a crucial factor in machine selection. Features like intelligent machine control help new operators get up to speed quicker while minimizing the risk of mistakes being made. It also reduces the need for additional personnel needed to train new operators, saving time and money.

Padgett There are many different considerations that go into picking the right machine. A good place to start would be to determine the type of application. Dig depth, bucket breakout, lifting capabilities, bucket capacity, and tractive effort are a few of the specs that you will want to determine to ensure that your machine will make you an effective and productive operator. From there you can decide on how you will move the machine to the job site and what type of trailer set up and license you will need. 

What trends are you seeing in the excavator market?

Spendlove We see a big trend toward productivity-enhancing technology. SmartGrade, Grade Control, Grade Guidance, additional cameras and lighting, etc. – anything that can give contractors an edge to get their work done more quickly and more efficiently. At the end of the day, though, our position is that the technology is key – you have to have it – but you can’t sacrifice the performance or the reliability of the machine to get there.  Customers still want a machine that will get the job done day-in and day-out. They want an excavator that is just as smooth and comfortable to operate as it is technology-equipped.

Jennings Short-tail machines are becoming more popular across all classes of excavators. They are gaining popularity as more utility infrastructure renovation is being done in metropolitan areas and in suburbs. Oftentimes on these projects, you are working in built-up areas and short-tail excavators have particular advantages in these tight spaces. Initially we saw them in the smaller machine classes, but we are seeing expansion into larger and larger machines

We are seeing more hydraulic quick couplers for changing attachments, which saves time when you go from digging a trench to picking up pipe, for example. The desire for machines that are versatile and can quickly change attachments is making quick couplers standard fare nowadays.

Padgett With ever-increasing emissions regulations and noise restrictions due to population growth, there is an increasing demand for electric machines. As these machines become more efficient with greater battery life they will continue to grow in popularity due to their smaller impact on the environment, lower maintenance and operation costs. Takeuchi currently offers the TB216H, which is a diesel/electric hybrid excavator that offers the operators both a diesel option and a 100 percent zero emission electric option in one machine. Takeuchi recently premiered an all-electric excavator in the 2-ton weight class. 

What advice can you give a contractor to help maximize efficiency when operating an excavator?

Spendlove Make sure you’re working with your dealer to get the right configuration and the right bucket for your excavator and your application. If you opt for a long arm, a thumb, a coupler, and a large bucket, and you’re excavating dense material, chances are you’ll be sluggish and inefficient. So that’s the first thing. 

Second, consider the work mode you’re in. Deere excavators have three adjustable productivity modes: if you’re more oriented toward conserving fuel, our Economy mode will enable that; if you are all in on productivity, our High Productivity mode will deliver more power and faster hydraulic response.

Jennings if you’re investing in a piece of equipment, you want to make sure you are maintaining the machines to assure they are working their best. Komatsu offers alerts that remind contractors when scheduled maintenance is coming up. You might get a notice that service is required in 100 hours, for example, so you avoid a last-minute scramble.

Right-sizing your machine for the task at hand is also important. A lot of times people want to have a bigger, faster machine, but the machine needs to be selected based on the application, as well as future jobs. If you oversize a machine, you are paying more in upfront, operating and maintenance costs, or worse, it could be sitting idle.

Padgett Operator comfort is paramount when operating any piece of equipment. Small things like proper seat adjustment and control position can cause much less fatigue on the operator allowing them to work longer and be more productive. In addition to operator comfort, having the right machine for the job can make a big difference in productivity.  Additionally, proper dig depth, bucket break out force, and auxiliary hydraulic flow will enable the operator to work much more efficiently.

How is data changing the way contractors use excavators? What areas are seeing the most development today (telematics, operator control, fleet management)?

Spendlove Telematics are increasingly becoming a standard expectation on construction equipment. Customers want to know who is operating their machines, how their machines are being operated, and where they’re being operated. Customers want to easily track fuel consumption, idle time, and productivity metrics. Regarding geo-locating, I had an experience in another country, where a customer’s excavator was stolen. The machine was tracked via JDLink, and the police showed up in the yard of the thief within hours of the theft. They found a number of other machines – without telematics – that had previously been reported stolen but had never been recovered.  Talk about messing with the wrong machine.

Jennings For the utility market, one of the popular offerings we have is 3D machine control on both dozers and excavators. That is becoming more popular across all industries. It allows contractors to dig right to grade much more easily, so they’re saving manpower and increasing their safety. It also allows you to save on backfill materials, which puts dollars right into your pocket.

What are the most popular attachments that you see used in conjunction with excavators?

Spendlove We see a lot of demand for couplers on mid-sized excavators. Customers want to drop buckets or swap buckets as needed. There are a variety of styles of couplers, from a wedge style coupler to pin grabber couplers. We are starting to see the pin grabber become pretty popular. Outside of buckets and couplers, we see interest in attachments like tiltrotators and tilt buckets in the site development and building segments. Finally, we are seeing more demand for demolition-oriented attachments like breakers– particularly in urban areas. We recently released a line of Deere-branded hammers with a variety of tools such as chisels, asphalt cutters, and compacting plates. We’re particularly excited about the new addition to our excavator attachment offering.


Precision Grade: Gets Jobs Done Faster and More Accurately

Link Belt Precision Grade

Link-Belt Precision Grade, powered by Trimble Earthworks, enables operators of all skill levels to increase their productivity with less under or over excavating. Operators see bucket position relative to the desired grade as they work, helping them achieve greater productivity through more precise and accurate machine operations. Minimal grade staking and checking enhances jobsite safety and efficiency.

Here is a quick list of benefits offered by this technology:

  • Less rework.
  • Lower costs.
  • Optimize operator time.
  • Less fuel consumption.
  • Safety.

Link-Belt 2D Machine Guidance (MG) allows for consistent bucket grade and depth positioning on projects. For more control, Link-Belt 2D Machine Control (MC) enables semiautonomous operation, with the operator only controlling the arm.

Operators at all experience levels achieve improved grading productivity and accuracy with Precision Grade. While a less experienced operator can’t generally handle the machine in the same smooth way as an experienced operator, Precision Grade helps newer operators complete their jobs faster, with greater accuracy and a higher-level of confidence, saving significant time and money.

The 2D Machine Guidance (MG) system eliminates under or over excavating on projects such as:

  • Trenching for underground utilities
  • Digging footers and basements
  • Site prep
  • Building roads
  • Mass excavation

Simply input the target depth and slope required from the job and the system will provide visual and audible indication to help the operator maintain the desired grade. The 2D MG system utilizes external inertial measurement unit (IMU) sensors to provide highly accurate guidance at a lower cost compared to in-cylinder sensors. 2D MG leverages the existing machine monitor and eliminates clutter inside the cab.

The Link-Belt 2D Machine Control (MC) system enables operators to create smooth, flat or sloped surfaces, with less fatigue at the end of the day. The user controls the arm and the 2D MC controls the boom and bucket to stay on grade. This added precision and control prevents overcut and increases production. It is ideal for applications that require the last pass to perfectly match the desired target grade, whether it is a flat or sloping surface. The operator remains in full control and can override the semiautomatic function anytime.

The 2D MC system adds a rugged, 10-in. Android touchscreen display with an intuitive user interface and a machine control joystick in the cab to engage the semiautomatic boom and bucket control.

  • Create smooth, flat or sloped surfaces more easily, with less fatigue and stress
  • Operator can override the semiautomatic function at all times
  • Up to 30% more productive than 2D Machine Guidance system

The software was created in collaboration with construction operators around the world, so the interface is optimized for ease-of-use and productivity. Colorful graphics, natural interactions and gestures, along with self-discovery features make the software intuitive and easy to learn. Operators can personalize the interface to match their workflow. A variety of configurable views makes it easier to see the right perspective for maximum productivity.

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