Aging Pavements, Highway Bill Keep Milling Machines Grinding

Sept. 27, 2012

If there’s a product category that kept its head above water and was largely immune to the big downturn in equipment sales during the recession, it’s milling machines. Now, thanks to the ever-increasing need to replace aging pavements and the new two-year transportation bill, milling machines are on the rise once again.

If there’s a product category that kept its head above water and was largely immune to the big downturn in equipment sales during the recession, it’s milling machines. Now, thanks to the ever-increasing need to replace aging pavements and the new two-year transportation bill, milling machines are on the rise once again.

“I cannot find any product that didn’t suffer a substantial collapse in whole-good shipments when the housing market crumbled in 2008 and 2009 with the exception of milling machines,” says John Hood, manager, milling and reclamation, for Bomag Americas.

Milling Machine Costs of Ownership

Category Avg. Price Hourly Rate*
Wheel-mounted $246,162 $171.67
to 25.9” $189, 901 $130.25
26-49.9” $343,436 $130.25
50-71.9” $404,435 $292.58
Crawler-mounted $574,251 $443.22
26-49.9” $432,950 $283.72
50-71.9” $500,586 $342.47
72-87.9” $625,718 $502.90
88” & over $774,123 $684.93

*Hourly rate represents the monthly ownership costs divided by 176, plus operating cost. Adjusted operating unit prices used in the calculation: diesel fuel, $3.79 per gallon; mechanic’s wage at $50.31 per hour; and, money costs
at 2.5 percent.
Source:, 800.669.-3282

“From 2005 on, as a general rule, they’ve been on a growth pattern; there are hundreds of thousands of miles of asphalt that need to be recycled or reclaimed,” Hood says.

While it may not seem like it, with budget cuts, state and municipal purse strings strained, and an economic recovery still termed “fragile” at best, the market is in the midst of maintaining what was the most massive infrastructure expansion since World War II.

“Over the last 20 years, we’ve gone through a massive infrastructure expansion in North America,” Hood explains. “Everyone knows about the growth after World War II, but from 1987 on is when America went through another infrastructure expansion, with parking lots, subdivisions for the housing boom, county roads, and interstate expansions, and asphalt has enjoyed a very large share of that.”

Indeed, post-World War II growth might have been bigger in terms of construction, but in comparison, there was much more money available from 1987 to 2007 than there was from 1942 to 1987.

“We’ve enjoyed a massive expansion and at some point you have to maintain, so you have to recycle the asphalt and that’s where all the growth is coming from,” Hood says. “So now we’re seeing the fruits—we put it all in, now we get to maintain it. There will be much more maintenance-type equipment sold in the next 10 years than expansion-type equipment.”

Hood says the market size for milling machines was 281 units in 2005, yet in 2008 and 2009, at the height of the recession, it was 312 and 303, respectively. In 2011, it was 392, and he expects to 2012 to be relatively flat or slightly rising. (For a listing of milling machine specs, see below.)

“The current market right now is steady, but definitely better than last year,” said Wirtgen’s Tom Chastain, an applications specialist. “We’ve seen more contractors buying, or replacing their older machines, and some of that is happening because they are getting a larger workload.”

Highway bill helps milling machine market

The two-year transportation bill, passed by Congress this summer after a long period of partisan wrangling, is having some effect on contractor workloads.

“The two-year bill eases the states’ minds a little bit,” says Rob Hannan, Volvo Construction Equipment regional sales manager for milling machines in North America. “Instead of 90-day and six-month extensions, and all that uncertainty, the two-year bill will release some funds so states can fund projects that had been put on the back burner because of insufficient funds, or because there hasn’t been a solid plan.”

Of course, the optimum scenario for the planer market would have been for a more courageous Congress to pass a six-year plan.

“Six years would have calmed the fears of a lot of contractors,” Hannan says. “A two-year plan will release some of the purse strings, but not fully. Road machinery is still a bit of an impulse buy; when a contractor wins the bid, he’s got to buy pavers and milling machines. But since 2008, it hasn’t been easy for contractors to plan purchases. A lot of milling contractors have had to stick to a plan on hours and replacements, increasing life cycles as a result.”

But firms keeping their machines longer has not been enough to place a significant drag on the milling machine market. A two-year bill might just be re-establishing the order of things, according to Bomag’s Hood.

“The highway bill serves every segment of the industry, but more importantly, it keeps the larger contractors out there [on larger highway projects],” Hood says. “It limits the amount that larger contractors step down into the commercial avenue. The larger guys stay where they’re comfortable, and now the commercial guys can flourish, and the small residential guys can flourish, because the commercial guys aren’t coming down to their market.”

Current trends in planers

Now that there’s relative stability in road funding, what’s selling?

“The half-lane machines are still leading the way,” Hannan says. “On the mid-sized machines, I’ve seen a little up-tick in the 1,300- to 1,500-millimeter size class. The rest of it is pretty steady—on full-lane machines.”

According to Hannan, much of the full-lane planer market is area-driven, as some states are more relaxed about hauling full-lane machines “complete,” or fully assembled.

“What we would call utility milling machines, grinders and trimmers 24 inches or less, remain a constant in North America and have since 2005,” Bomag’s Hood says. “Half-lane machines have remained very consistent, only up about 10 percent from 2005 to 2011. The growth segment that’s almost doubled is the 4-foot class. There were nearly 120 sold in 2011. There’s a very strong trend for those machines doing small streets, parking lots, utility cuts, water and sewer, and fiber optics, instead of saw cutting and excavating. You do a 4-foot-wide plunge cut all the way through, down 12 inches, and you get through the asphalt and base. Instead of destroying the whole street with a big machine, you’re changing a job from weeks to days.”

The type of maintenance being done is continuing to dictate size-class activity in the market. Hood points out that originally, milling was done almost exclusively on highways. With infrastructure expansion in the past 20 to 30 years, there are many more smaller parking lots, cul-de-sacs, and other areas where it is difficult to bring in heavy machines on 4 inches, or less, of asphalt. As a result, the market for smaller, 40,000-pound machines has expanded.

Bomag offers a half-lane model, the BM2000/60-2, capable of up to an 87-inch width and a 12.6-inch depth, but also has smaller models for compact jobs such as shoulder repair and other tasks. The company’s smallest, the BM500/15 has a 19.7-inch milling width and an 8.3-inch maximum depth.

“We also see the smaller guys acquiring milling machines,” Hood says. “You don’t have to be a $20-million contractor to mill.”

Atlas Copco’s Dynapac offers four compact planers for maintenance, ranging from milling widths of 300 milimeters to 1,000 millimeters, another example of manufacturers tailoring product lines to smaller jobs and smaller contractors.

Acquisition factors for milling machines, planers

Managers, whether newly committed to milling or old hands in the business, have to think about the applications they’re faced with before buying machines.

“Choose a manufacturer that’s able to accommodate different applications, from full-depth removal to a microsurface finish,” Hannan says. “Different drum speeds, and the ability to change them automatically, moving forward with the microtextures we’re seeing now, are going to play an even more important role.”

Hannan says Volvo was a pioneer in offering operators the ability to change up to three drum speeds automatically. “Historically, you used one engine rpm level,” Hannan says. “The drum is direct-drive off the back of the engine through a clutch, drive pulleys and belts, so in the past, you’d change the belt pulleys to change the drum speed. Now variable engine speeds will control the speed of the drum through three different rpm levels.”

Both Bomag’s Hood and Wirtgen’s Chastain stress thinking beyond a machine’s purchase price.

“Milling can be very abusive, so maintenance is the key,” Chastain says. “It’s important to think about wear items like teeth, conveyor belts, and track items. Wirtgen has systems like our HT11 tooth holder system, which is a quick-change system. There are lines and cut-outs in the holders so you can see the wear and the life left.”

Hood says that while milling can be highly profitable, there are hidden costs to consider. “The costs of consumables for milling machines can be relatively high, $5-7 a tooth. When you have even 120 teeth on a smaller machine, or 200 on a larger machine and tooth replacement could be done several times a day, those are big maintenance costs,” he says. “With paving, you see everything you’re doing. With milling, you don’t have a clue what’s down there from 20 years ago, or 50 years ago. If you hit railroad iron, you can have a $50,000 repair on your machine.”

Managers also have to look at trucking costs as well. “You have to acquire a truck, and an overweight trailer,” Hood says. “Then there’s the permit every time I move my machine, and added taxes with the permits, just to move it around. A milling machine is a substantial purchase, so weigh all the cost factors.”

The future of pavement smoothness

If the future means milling machines making more of a contribution to pavement smoothness, the future is now. One reason is that specifications are increasingly calling for micromilling, both for better rideability while under construction and better adhesion when it’s time to lay down asphalt. With today’s public budget constraints, the fact that it’s cheaper and faster also helps. Manufacturers have been responding to the trend.

“In keeping with micromilling, we’ve been offering an optional drum package so you can change out tooth holders from a standard space, 15 millimeters, to fine, 8 millimeters, or micro, which is 5 millimeters,” Hannan says. “This can be done over half a day by changing to a single-, double- or triple-tooth holder instead of changing the whole drum.”

In micromilling, the milling machine’s drum doesn’t have to turn as fast to achieve the same smoothness. “Think of it as three times as many teeth in a tighter span together,” Chastain says. “It’s much safer for drivers—drivers would notice the difference with a much smoother ride. When you’re using a microdrum and sonic averaging, you’re taking the small deviations off, averaging the depth over a larger area and controlling it better. You’re giving the paver a better palate to work with for adhesion. You’ll never see the day without standard milling drums, but we do see a point in the future where there’s even more micromilling.”

A second way milling machines are influencing smoothness is through sonic averaging. Rather than one sensor monitoring depth over a 20-inch span, showing operators only part of the picture, a multi-sonic ski system places a sonic system on all corners of the machine, as well as two more in the center.

“With a multiplex electronic ski system, you’re getting readings over the whole area you’re planing,” Bomag’s Hood says. “Every manufacturer is now designing for this. We’re seeing more and more specifying that large road work be done by sonic skis.”

The result is that responsibility for smoothness, which used to strictly be the domain of the paver, is now transferring to the planer. “Contractors will be looking more and more for averaging systems, as far as grade control goes,” Hannan says. “Where grade control itself used to be state-of-the-art, technology has moved on to lasers and averaging systems. Milling machines will be the machines that do all of the corrections to the road, whereas the paver comes in and just adds a good wear surface to the road. Rideability is going to be a whole lot better with the milling machine doing the corrections over the paver.”

There may be a significant change on the horizon away from the business end of the milling machine, as well. “At some point we would have to go with a closed cabin-type machine,” Chastain says. “We sell some in Europe already. Cutting down on dust was really the first frontier, noise will be the next, for operators, and especially for work in residential areas.”