“Economy” Backhoes Find Market Niche

Aug. 26, 2015

There is a trend among manufacturers to demystify and simplify Tier 4 technology as much as possible,” says Katie Pullen, brand marketing manager, Case Construction Equipment. “There is also a desire—especially in the equipment rental world—for very simple equipment. The 580N EP was designed to address both of those issues and is part of a new generation of backhoes that is excellent for rental houses, for contractors looking to invest in their first backhoe, and for customers replacing older backhoes but not wanting to make the investment in a larger or more fully featured machine.”

Backhoe-loader models

The “new generation” of backhoe-loaders that Pullen cites are all relatively new to the marketplace—including the Cat 415F2, John Deere 310L EP, Terex TLB840R, JCB 3CX, and Case 580N EP. All have engines rated at not more than 74 gross horsepower, relatively simple emissions aftertreatment systems, standard digging depths in the 14-foot class, and design concessions of one sort or another that bring down the acquisition price, compared with their higher-horsepower counterparts.

“Design concessions” is used guardedly and does not imply compromise in quality, reliability or durability—characteristics that seem to be diligently preserved in these new models. The term simply points out that design variations, compared with higher-horsepower models, might include differences in the type of transmission or hydraulic pumps used, type of controls employed (mechanical, instead of pilot or electro-hydraulic, for example), and the features and cab amenities included as standard equipment, versus available as options.

Kevin Hershberger, senior market professional for Caterpillar backhoe-loaders, makes the point that the company’s new 415F2 is, in part, a response to what he calls the “model-line growth” that tends to occur over generations of new product launches.

“Eventually,” says Hershberger, “a portion of the customer base begins to ask for a more basic machine, ‘like the first backhoe I owned.’ I’ve had customers remind me, ‘I just need to dig a hole.’ This machine [the 415F2] addresses those customer needs and does so at a lower price than the other machines in our lineup. It’s a solid performing machine with current engineering designs, but brings into check the extra features, performance, and price that have come with natural product growth.”

Hershberger adds, however, that simplification of emissions controls, as Pullen suggested, is also a primary driver of new-generation-backhoe designs. Because the regulation for nitrogen-oxide (NOx) emissions is not nearly as stringent for engines with fewer than 75 gross horsepower (compared with that for engines rated between 75 and 750 horsepower), a 74-gross-horsepower engine typically can satisfy the NOx requirement with in-cylinder techniques, such as exhaust gas recirculation, and thus eliminate the need (and cost) for NOx aftertreatment hardware.

The reason sometimes advanced for this disparity in NOx standards is that perhaps the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) recognized that smaller engines would bear a disproportionate share of compliance costs and that the market for these widely used diesels might thereby be jeopardized. Rafael Nunez, backhoe-loader product manager at JCB, further suggests that regulators might have realized that the generally small size of lower-horsepower equipment would make extensive use of emissions-control components difficult—as well as add disproportionate costs to the manufacture of these machines.

“The lower-horsepower engine gives manufacturers added options for satisfying emissions requirements,” says Brian Hennings, product manager for backhoes and tractor loaders, John Deere Construction & Forestry. “When you’re taking out expensive aftertreatment components, you’re taking out cost, as well as complexity, and providing value for the buyer.”

What might you give up?

Fair to say, is that each manufacturer has taken its own approach to design concessions when developing what might be called the “economy backhoe.”

“To deliver that lower-cost machine, of course, requires that we simplify some of the systems and eliminate some of the features that are standard on larger machines, while keeping the features most critical to the customer,” says Caterpillar’s Hershberger. “We’ve kept the load-sensing hydraulic system and variable-displacement piston pump in the 415F2, for example, but given up features like adjustable-flow control for auxiliary hydraulic functions and the ECO mode feature  with its advanced pump control. The 415F2, however, is built on the same frame as the higher-power 416F2.”

John Deere’s first lower-horsepower model, the 310K EP, actually was introduced in 2012, and then in early 2015 was released in a refined configuration as the 310L EP, part of the company’s new L Series range. The 310L EP uses a Tier 4–Interim engine that requires no aftertreatment.

“Customers and dealers recognized the value proposition that the 310K EP provided,” says the company’s Hennings, “and the 310L EP extends that concept. It’s a lower-horsepower machine, so there’s somewhat of a trade-off between productivity and a lower cost of acquisition, but this seems to be a good fit for rental firms and customers not requiring all the features and functionality of higher-power machines. This approach also gives larger fleets an option for adjusting the overall mix of machines for lower owning and operating costs.”

Hennings explains that the 310L EP uses a four-speed power-shift transmission in place of the five-speed in the company’s larger backhoes, that its standard four-wheel-drive system has an open differential (limited-slip differential is optional), and that some cab features used in other models, such as a sealed switch monitor, are handled with more basic components in the EP. And, says Hennings, while the 310L EP and the 93-horsepower 310L both have gear-pump hydraulic systems, the EP uses a tandem pump (versus the 310L’s single pump) to ensure ample flow for both backhoe and loader functions with its 70 net-horsepower engine (73 net with an optional viscous fan). 

As evidenced by John Deere’s use of a tandem pump to maintain hydraulic flow at a lower horsepower, manufacturers seem to have given careful thought to preserving as much performance as possible in new-generation backhoe models. When designing the TLB840R, says Joe Turnage, product specialist, Terex Construction Americas, the company replaced the Tier 4-Interim, 88-horsepower Perkins engine used in the TLB840 with a Tier 4-Final, 74-horsepower Deutz.

“We maintained engine torque at the lower horsepower by switching engine manufacturers,” says Turnage. “To compare, we had 281 lb.-ft. of torque in the previous engine, and now have 288 lb.-ft. with the Deutz. Hydraulic power remains the same with our ‘rental-spec’ TLB840R as with the ‘full-spec’ TLB840. In going with a lower-horsepower, more cost-efficient engine, we really didn’t sacrifice anything.”

Terex is aiming the TLB840R primarily at the rental market, says Turnage, but adds that its “attractive price tag” will appeal to such customers as small owner/operators, who can’t afford to invest in a more powerful machine. Cost savings for the TLB840R, says Turnage, result from such changes as the smaller engine, inboard instead of outboard brakes, use of a shuttle-type transmission, and making certain features options versus standard, such as return-to-dig. He points out, though, that the machine retains many qualities of its more-powerful counterparts, such as a curved boom and onboard engine diagnostics.

As Turnage notes, purchase prices of new-generation backhoes have been reduced, in part, by manufacturers offering as options certain features that might be included as standard equipment on other models in the company’s lines. That approach seems part of Case’s strategy.

“The 580N EP is really a base machine,” says Case’s Pullen, “a fairly bare-bones version of our N Series backhoes, but retaining the strength and basic functionality of other machines in the series. It serves as a clean slate that allows prospective owners to add functions and features as they see fit, versus feeling like they’re buying an off-the-shelf model that has bells and whistles that they may not use.

“Our goal was to provide the option of a base machine that cost-conscious buyers could use as a starting point—and then technically enhance as they want. It’s important to note, that with available options, 580N EP owners can ‘feature up’ their machine to be quite similar to a standard 580N.”

JCB has taken a similar approach with its 74-horsepower 3CX, built in the company’s Savannah, Ga., facility and using JCB’s own Ecomax diesel: “The 3CX is designed from the ground up with rental and entry-level customers in mind,” says the company’s Nunez, “and has a limited number of options, keeping it at a very attractive price point. This model is simple, yet durable and cost-effective. Its key selling points are value and return on investment.”

According to Nunez, the 3CX does, however, have a number of upscale features, including four-wheel drive, limited-slip rear and torque-proportioning front differentials, parallel loader linkage, telematics (JCB’s LiveLink system), and stabilizer-cylinder guards. Cost savings accrue, he says, by limiting electronic equipment and using a shuttle-type transmission, manual controls, and gear-type hydraulic pumps, although the tandem pumps, says Nunez, provide nearly equal backhoe-end productivity as that of the company’s 91-horsepower 3CX-14 Super.

JCB also offers another 74-horsepower model, the 3CX-14, aimed at contractors, says Nunez, and having a “host of options.” The 3CX-14 has a premium cab, he says, as well as an axial-piston pump with flow-sharing hydraulics. Although having a relative upscale design, says Nunez, this model still delivers cost savings: “Backhoe users who purchase 74-horsepower units benefit by not having to deal with aftertreatment, and no aftertreatment reduces operating costs.”

Summary thoughts

“There was a day when backhoes were designed at lower horsepower,” says Case’s Pullen, “and there are backhoe owners out there who have not bought a backhoe since then. For these potential buyers, a machine that today is being called out as a ‘lower-horsepower basic model’ might actually be more of a machine than they’re currently using.”

Caterpillar’s Hershberger sees the new-generation backhoes as providing more choice for buyers, resulting in greater efficiencies: “While more machine-model choices do increase decision-making complexity, the availability of these machines gives customers a chance to step back, re-evaluate their operations, and decide which machines are best for the business.”

JCB’s Nunez notes that the overall backhoe market will continue to have room for machines with a range of horsepower: “JCB plans to continue developing its offering in the lower-horsepower category as the market for these units matures, but there will always be a market for higher-horsepower units, especially for customers who do a lot of roading and loading.”

“The primary goal of these machines is simplification,” says Pullen, “and Tier 4 plays a big role in that—especially as you look at rental houses, where numerous people of varying skill levels will be using that machine. It’s much easier to tell them with full confidence, ‘there’s nothing you have to do to address the Tier 4 solution on this machine.’ The same simplicity applies to equipment buyers as well—gives them another option in the buying process.”

“We continue to monitor the marketplace to ascertain customer needs that change over time,” says John Deere’s Hennings. “The trade-off between productivity and lower costs, for instance, could be a moving target for some customers. There will always be a diversity of needs among the customer base, and we want to make sure we address those needs.”`