Motor Grader Makers Regroup after Tier 4 Final

June 24, 2015

With Tier 4-Final engine changes largely out of the way, motor grader manufacturers are beginning to focus more energy on the rest of their machines—and incorporating customer requests that may include the spread of joystick controls.

There is one less major player in the North American motor grader category now that Volvo has dropped out and ceded its graders to its Chinese value brand SDLG (so far, there are no plans to bring SDLG-branded graders to North America, and at Intermat, Volvo CE president Martin Weissberg indicated the graders would be targeted at less-regulated countries).

Cost of Ownership

Size Class (hp) Avg. Purchase Price Hourly Rate*
To 74 $80,990 $41.53
75-114 $121,624 $55.15
115-129 $213,075 $58.32
130-144 $269,638 $70.85
145-169 $320,159 $81.18
170-199 $372,658 $95.44
200-249 $460,744 $114.00
250 & over $682,242 $164.17

*Hourly rate represents the monthly ownership costs divided by 176, plus operating cost. Unit prices used in this calculation: diesel fuel, $3.46 per gallon; mechanic’s wage at $52.33 per hour; and money costs at 2.125 percent.

The remaining large OEMs are finding a market that’s recovered nicely from the Great Recession, but is not exactly setting the grader world afire.

“For North America, the industry is slightly down right now, and we feel that’s attributed to commercial sales in Canada being down,” says John Bauer, brand marketing manager for crawler dozers and motor graders, Case Construction Equipment. “This is due to the oil and gas industries there declining.” U.S. numbers have been up, Bauer says, but gains were offset by a substantial, double-digit decline in Canada reflecting that slower oil and gas activity.

“As we look at the U.S. and Canada industry in the last couple of years, we’re in a pretty good spot, but I’d call it flat, although definitely up from 2009 and 2010,” says Mike Ackerman, product marketing manager, motor graders, John Deere Construction & Forestry.

Out in the field, customers are telling grader makers about some specific machine needs. One of them is for beefier machines.

“They’re looking for weight and horsepower; these are probably the two main driving factors moving forward,” Bauer says. “We’ve seen an increase in size compared to what they were looking for in the past. I think it’s more the horsepower-to-weight distribution that they’re looking at. In some applications such as road building and snow removal up north, they want the larger machines that are probably more stable.”

The ability to translate more of the grader’s weight into traction and pushing power also has users investigating six-wheel drive.

“Everybody thought that if they were snowplowing, they needed six-wheel drive and that was it, but customers are really recognizing the benefits they get and the blade pull they can accomplish by putting that whole machine to work—the whole weight of the machine,” Ackerman says. Deere offers six of its 12 grader models in a six-wheel-drive configuration.

“I think six-wheel-drive use is now across the board,” Ackerman says. “A lot of the early machines were tandem, four-wheel-drive machines, and people got used to that. Now, any ripping or road building, anything where they’re utilizing that machine to move a lot of dirt, they’re seeing the benefits in the ability to get more tractive effort from the machine. If slippery conditions come up, they’ve got that extra six-wheel-drive feature to get them through that.”

Customers are also asking for more machine-control systems for grading work.

“We continue to see more and more utilization of grade control,” Ackerman says. “Many graders are out there with different grade-control systems. We’ve got the 2D cross slope on our GP models from the factory, and then as part of our WorkSight suite of technologies, on our GPs, we’re open architecture, meaning we can support Topcon, Trimble or Leica. Then there’s the telematics piece; customers are really starting to utilize what that machine’s telling them to keep the machine up and running.”

Caterpillar M Series 3 motor graders, introduced early last year, are equipped with the company’s Product Link telematics system, which helps fleet owners track machine parameters through the online VisionLink interface, and also offer optional grade technologies like cross slope and Cat AccuGrade.

“Leica is our partner for machine control; they’ve incorporated their system into our machine, or made it adaptable for our machine,” Case’s Bauer says. The company announced its Leica partnership just after Conexpo last year.

Komatsu has concentrated its technological resources on the transmission of the GD655-6, a 218-horsepower unit introduced just this spring. It has a dual-mode transmission designed and built specifically for Komatsu motor graders.

This drive train incorporates a powershift transmission with eight forward speeds and four reverse speeds, coupled to the Komatsu SAA6D107E-3 engine by both a torque converter and a direct-drive lock-up clutch. Operators are able to use direct drive for high travel speeds and lower fuel use, and the torque converter for increased tractive effort and fine control at lower speeds. The unit also has Komtrax, the company’s standard telematics system.

Deere’s most recent major change to its G Series models was to incorporate John Deere PowerTech Tier 4-Final engines, but the company also tweaked other areas of the machine.

“Updating the G-Series engines to Final Tier 4 allotted us the opportunity to talk with customers in more detail about what they liked and didn’t like with the design,” Ackerman says. “They wanted an emissions solution with no compromises, better all-around lighting, a more modern radio, an improved rear view camera with a dedicated monitor, and a few upgraded cab features.” The emissions solution Ackerman refers to now utilizes SCR and DEF in addition to a DPF, and “continues to make particulate filter cleaning seamless.”

“Deere’s development of its Final Tier 4 technology has allowed our customers to extend filter cleaning intervals, and filter cleaning occurs without operator involvement; there’s no raising of rpm, and it doesn’t change the characteristics of the machine,” he says. “So if you’re doing a final pass on a road, low rpm, low speed, real fine grading, that grader is going to continue to act just like it did before the filter cleaning started. In addition to this, ash-service intervals for the DPF are condition-based and may not be necessary until the first engine overhaul depending on machine application, regular maintenance practices, and type of lubrication oil.”

The latest technology thrust for Case is in machine control. “We’re in the process of working on machine control, blade control on the units, working on an interface for all three major brands [Trimble, Topcon, Leica],” Bauer says. “Plug-and-play is the intent right now; it’s still in developmental stage.”

One grader feature that may see increased use and acceptance in the coming years is joystick steering. When Caterpillar introduced joystick steering to graders in 2007, many in the industry were surprised that the M Series eliminated the steering wheel.

But Cat had done extensive research and testing with operators, and still cites that its hallmark motor grader controls, two electronic joysticks (the left of which includes steering control), reduce arm movement by 78 percent, help lessen operator fatigue, and increase productivity.

Two years later, John Deere introduced its G Series, half of which (the “GP” models) gave operators a choice of using a steering wheel or lever steering. The marketing thrust at the time keyed on the choice, betting that veteran operators would still want a steering wheel available to them. Yet, younger operators raised on joysticks, and presumably those users who had tried Caterpillar’s M Series, could still have fingertip steering.

Case has been watching the market carefully and talking with customers specifically about grader controls. “We do have a steering wheel on our machine today, but we have had discussions with customers, and our dealer personnel on what they’re hearing, and the consensus is there needs to be some sort of joystick operation for the blade movement and functions, however [operators] still want to have a steering wheel in the machine,” Bauer says.

“They want to have that flexibility to do both, to drive the machine using the joystick, but always have that failsafe or override option to go back and use that wheel if they get into a situation where they feel uncomfortable steering with just the joystick,” he says.

“We’re seeing that the next group of motor grader  operators will come from a different generation—they are accustomed to joystick-type functions over the conventional controls,” Bauer continues. “We don’t have a defined plan yet on where we’re going with joystick-type controls for the machine, but we are looking into the possibilities.” Case has the traditional “antler rack” controls, as does John Deere on its base G Series units.

Deere seems content to stay with both modes on the GP models. “As we continue to talk to customers, we find that a steering wheel, in most cases, is still a big deal to folks,” Deere’s Ackerman says. He’s seen the same operator take advantage of both steering methods.

“The most common thing I have seen is you’ve got a customer doing road maintenance, road building, or some of the finer work, where the beauty of the lever steering is the operator can minimize movement in the cab because all the controls are there at their fingertips,” he says. “But then, when they’re going to road the machine to another job site, they have the benefit of the steering wheel as they work their way through traffic at higher speeds.”