Crumbling Roads, RAP Maintain Milling Machine Momentum

By Frank Raczon, Senior Editor | September 24, 2014
Crumbling Roads, RAP Maintain Milling Machine Momentum

With an aging infrastructure and increased use of recycled asphalt pavement (RAP), milling machines continue to be solid market performers, despite the uncertainty born of a series of disappointing, short-term road-funding fixes.

Cost of Ownership
Category Avg. Price Hourly Rate*
to 25.9 inches $191,906 $133.58
26 - 49.9 inches $352,468 $246.48
50 - 71.9 inches $415,072 $297.38
26 - 49.9 inches $433,259 $284.62
50 - 71.9 inches $513,751 $348.06
72 - 87.9 inches $639,881 $498.37
88 inches and more $794,482 $697.83

*Hourly rate represents the monthly ownership costs divided by 176, plus operating cost. Unit prices used in this calculation: diesel fuel, $3.98/gal; mechanic's wage, $51.24/hour; and money costs at 1.75%.

Manufacturers haven’t had to endure the peaks and valleys inherent in other product categories, so they’ve been relatively free to increase versatility, transition to Tier 4, and address the coming silica dust storm.

“Let’s be honest, we have an infrastructure that’s getting worse every day,” says John Hood, Bomag’s director of sales for heavy equipment, “and you can’t just keep paving one layer over another, sooner or later you have to mill it.”

The milling machine market

“As a general rule, the milling machine business is up in 2014,” Hood says. “Milling machines were flat to maybe down a point in 2013 over 2012; in 2014 they’re up about three points.”

“In North America, I’d consider the cold planer market flat to slightly up,” says Bud Rife, marketing sales and support manager for Caterpillar Paving Products.

Some of this year’s growth in North America has been organic, according to Hood, with some contractors finally growing their businesses, but municipalities are more of a factor than they’ve ever been.

“We’re seeing more municipalities—small cities, counties, states—investing in milling machines,” Hood says. “It’s because of the use of RAP. The recycled millings have become a staple in the industry. I’m confident it’s the largest recycled product in the world; nothing is recycled more than asphalt. A lot more people are seeing the value in being able to utilize the millings they take up, whether it be via base, or via mixing it in at the plant, or wherever they may use it.”

Hood also points out that there’s more information than ever available on recycling, and marketing efforts are finding their targets. “It’s really opening everyone’s eyes, from the contractor all the way down to the smallest municipality,” he says.

Another factor for municipalities is contractor availability.

“Everyone’s under the same time constraints,” Hood explains. “You need to get this done on a municipality’s schedule, in a timely fashion, and sometimes contractors are stressed for time—there’s so much work, they just can’t keep up with it all.

“And when a city looks at it, they weigh all their options and say, ‘We can substantiate owning a milling machine because X amount of our roadways have degraded to the point we’re going to have to have them milled, it’s going to cost X amount of dollars to get them milled, and we believe we can pay off our own machine in three years.’ Then they’re on their own schedule. If they need to mill tomorrow, they’ll mill tomorrow. They don’t have to worry if a contractor is available or not.”

What everyone has to worry about, still, is the lack of long-term infrastructure funding. “Whenever you can’t see a consistent line of sight, it becomes hard to invest in your business,” Rife says. “Over the last 12 months, we’re starting to see contractor confidence improve, but they’re still very cautious. They say, ‘Well, until we have a true bill that’s going to be multiyear and we understand that the governments, whether they be state or local, are serious about rebuilding infrastructure, we’re going to be more reactive than proactive in our approach to buying equipment.’”

Planer versatility

Municipalities would typically mill a lower overall volume than contractors, but manufacturers have taken care to build machines that satisfy both requirements.

Roadtec’s new RX300e 300-horsepower Tier 4-Final machine features a Variable Cutting System that allows a change of cutting widths by only changing drums.

Bomag’s -35 Series also has flexible cutting systems, meaning that the user can change a machine from cutting 48 inches wide to accommodate a job that requires milling 36 inches wide. “Instead of buying another machine, he can use one of the flexible cutting systems where he can change widths on the same machine in just a couple of hours,” Hood says. “It gives him a lot of flexibility to go out and drive up utilization on that machine. If he can use that machine for a bunch of different jobs, it makes his acquisition price much more attractive.”

Versatility also extends to machine steering. Volvo  Construction Equipment has designed a new system on its MT2000 allowing ground control of the rear tracks by the ground crew, even when the machine is in the forward steering mode.

“Two ground-control panels, one on each side of the machine near the center of the tracks, provide the same precise machine steering flexibility to the ground crew that’s available at the operator’s station,” says Len Speers, product specialist, paving and milling, with Volvo. “The ground crew can turn the rotary control knob on either ground-control panel to fine-tune the rear tracks to the left or right. When in the front steering mode, the rear tracks always follow the front tracks, so it’s now possible to fine-tune the rear tracks to move the machine into a precise position, such as positioning the drum directly next to a curb before they resume following the front tracks.

“Whenever the control knob is turned, an icon displays to inform the operator, and the rear beacons flash. After the rear tracks are steered to the right or left, the rotary control will return to center between each fine-tuning step,” Speers says.

The coming silica dust storm

Silica dust suppression legislation is coming to the industry, like it or not. And cold planers will be affected early on.

“As has been talked about for the last 10 to 12 years,  there’s been a silica dust consortium that all of the manufacturers are part of, as well as industry personnel from NAPA, AEM, and several federal safety organizations,” Hood says.

“The concern is, as you’re grinding asphalt, there’s dust, and that dust is typically laden with silica and apparently it’s a carcinogen, or there’s concern it’s a carcinogen. So it has been a project to study it and see how we could remove it from the ground crews and the operators.

“I think in the next 6 to 8 months there will be final resolution that very large milling machines will be fitted with silica dust suppression systems to protect the operators,” Hood says.

Even though the regulations are targeting larger machines, Hood says Bomag has made preparations with the half-lane, commercial-class members of the -35 Series, as well as the large planers.

“Each machine is designed with the structural plenums, or the structural removal doors, to fit dust suppression system components,” he says. “We built the machines to where it becomes a plug-and-play option. Some contractors are not going to want it, because if you put big fans on there to suck material out, it can be somewhat limiting as far as the view, or visibility.

“I believe the big machines will be required to have systems for 2017. For the smaller machines, we’re going to make it optional. In designing this new equipment we’re trying to take everything into consideration, not only today’s issues, but also issues of the future, like dust regulations,” Hood says.

Silica dust suppression shouldn’t be a large leap for Wirtgen. The German manufacturer already offers an optional Vacuum Cutting System (VCS) that reduces particulate emissions at the cutter head, keeping abrasives out of moving parts. Wirtgen says the VCS keeps contaminants away from critical parts of the cold mill, fighting wear between moving surfaces.

The VCS works by creating negative pressure, which pulls fine particles from inside the drum assembly into the machine’s short conveyor channel. There, a suction hood located above the conveyor channel sucks the particles into two hoses that extract the particulate matter directly to the long conveyor of the loading system and into the truck.

“The recommendation has been given to OSHA via a silica/asphalt milling machine partnership, and there is an agreement among the manufacturers of what we’re going to implement over the next several years in alliance with NIOSH and this consortium, so that we can take safety and sustainability not only into the roads, but also back into the crews,” says Cat Paving’s Rife.

“We want to make sure we’re keeping the crews safe. There will be a phased-in approach for milling machines coming over the next three to five years.”

Expect dust suppression systems to add to machines’ purchase prices, which will make managing daily operating costs even more important.

Keeping operating costs down

One of the surest ways to keep milling machine operating costs down is for managers to stress tooth maintenance to their crews.

“Most of the errors, and a lot of the weaknesses I see in the field as far as owning and operating costs, are directly related to the operation and maintenance of the machine,” Hood says. “Where a lot of these costs get driven through the ceiling is on the milling drum, on the expendables side. A milling tooth is only effective if it’s spinning in the holder. Once that tooth gets material stuck around it, or isn’t cleaned properly, or isn’t changed quickly enough, it gets a flat spot on it and doesn’t spin anymore. When it doesn’t spin anymore, it begins to rapidly wear. It can then wear through the holder and into the drum.”

As the wear processes advance, costs multiply, and expensive downtime is almost assured.

 “Let’s say a replacement tooth is $8, a replacement holder is $50, and drum repairs can quickly exceed $15,000,” Hood says. “If you’re not constantly maintaining that tooling and changing teeth, and making sure your water spray systems are operating, that’s the most rapid damage you can do to a machine.

“If you paid $400,000 for a piece of equipment, treat it like you paid $400,000 for it. Don’t treat it like it’s a $4 McDonald’s sandwich that you can choke down and keep moving—you really have to maintain it well,” Hood says.

One potential cost-saving option for managers who wish to make the up-front investment is diamond bits.  According to Rife, Caterpillar/NovaPick is the leading supplier of the diamond bit product.

“An advantage to the diamond products is that they last substantially longer,” Rife says. “Current production product we have out there in the market lasts somewhere between 40 and 50 times as long as carbide cutting bits. The diamond bits deliver 5- to 15-percent fuel savings for the machine.

“Diamond bits also improve productivity because they always stay sharp—carbide bits get dull every day and depending on your usage, you sometimes have to change them twice a day, so ultimately, we’re seeing substantial owning and operating cost reduction by the utilization of these bits,” Rife says.