Place a loader equipped with Bobcat's new loader-radio-remote-control system in the capable hands of a professional operator, and we can all but guarantee that you'll be impressed by how precisely the machine can be managed.
We can say that, because when professional operators Scott Mennenga and Chris Tomblin strapped on the remote-control transmitter and used it to work a Bobcat T300 compact loader, the machine performed as smoothly and exactly as if a skilled operator were in the seat, even gently depositing heaping-bucket loads of crushed limestone into a waiting truck and deftly handling construction debris with a grapple.
Mennenga and Tomblin are instructors in Local 150's (International Union of Operating Engineers) Apprenticeship and Skill Improvement Program, and we asked them to spend some time with the Bobcat loader-radio-remote-control system, then to give us their thoughts. And, since we had the services of these two skilled operators for the day, we also asked Bobcat to loan us an S330 — the newest and largest skid-steer loader in the Bobcat range. Although the S330 has been available for about a year, we'd not yet had the chance to put it in the dirt; this seemed an opportune time to do so.
The S330 and T300 arrived at Local 150's impressive new facility near Wilmington, Ill., on a bright, warm day in early November. Accompanying the T300 were all the components needed to convert this conventionally operated compact track loader to remote control. Why not use the S330 with the loader-radio-remote-control system and avoid having to ship two machines for our evaluation? Good question. The reason is that the only S330 available for our use was not equipped with Bobcat's Selectable Joystick Controls — a requirement for the remote-control system.
Helping us sort all this out and ably assisting us with the on-site evaluation of the two units was Bobcat's Aaron Kleingartner, loader product specialist, from the company's West Fargo, N.D., headquarters.
The new S330 is a powerful machine, with a rated operating capacity (ROC) of 3,300 pounds and a turbocharged, four-cylinder, 3.8-liter Kubota diesel that develops 85 horsepower. But, of course, Bobcat is not unfamiliar with big skid-steers. In 1977, the company introduced two models — the 974 and 975 — each with a published ROC of 3,700 pounds, and in 1986, the model 980 entered the market with a published ROC of 4,000 pounds. Even though the rating system used for these machines resulted in about 10 percent more capacity than would be derived from today's rating system, they were, nonetheless, the skid-steer brutes of their day.
Although some Bobcat users appreciated the power of these large units to take on tough jobs, the company ceased producing them in the early 1990s, when sales figures made it clear that most skid-steer users preferred smaller models. You might say, that for Bobcat, the skid-steer market has come full circle, with a significant number of today's buyers now looking for machines with the capability to handle larger attachments and to load larger trucks.
Said Kleingartner, the new S330 is aimed at these more-demanding users. The new vertical-lift-path machine has an operating weight of 9,185 pounds, a lift height of 10 feet 10 inches, and an auxiliary-hydraulic system with the horsepower to efficiently run the likes of planers, wheel saws and brush cutters. The auxiliary system provides a standard flow of 20.7 gpm and an optional flow of 37 gpm.
Local 150 has a number of Bobcat machines in its fleet, so Mennenga and Tomblin were somewhat familiar with the S330's design, but asked Kleingartner for a quick walk-around of the new vertical-lift-path model. At the rear of the machine, both operators agreed that the S330's transverse engine mounting gave ample access to routine service points, but Tomblin did suggest that a hinged panel in the S330's removable cooling-system cover might simplify adding coolant. But the removable cover does, both said, give wide-open access to the machine's coolers (engine, hydraulic oil and, if equipped, air conditioning) for easy cleaning. Kleingartner noted that the S330 incorporates Bobcat's SmartFAN cooling system, which continually senses coolant and hydraulic-oil temperatures, then adjusts operation of the hydraulically driven fan accordingly. The benefits, he said, are reduced horsepower drain and significantly lower sound levels.
When professional operators are looking over a machine, not much escapes their observation. Tomblin, for instance, took note of the lock that holds the heavy tailgate in place if it's opened when the machine is on an incline.
"If you have the tailgate open for service," he said, "a slight bump with your elbow or a gust of wind can cause it to swing shut and maybe catch your finger. This positive lock is a nice feature."
Because Mennenga and Tomblin in their roles as instructors are always focused on emphasizing safety to their students, Mennenga took note of the many "informative decals" on the S330.
"For the novice operator," he said, "this kind of information can be invaluable."
In the cab, Tomblin asked about the glow-plug indicator. It's an automatic system that senses coolant temperature and, if needed, heats the air in the cylinders for a varied amount of time, said Kleingartner, but it won't prevent an attempt to start the engine if the operator chooses to do so.
Both Mennenga and Tomblin then used the S330 (which was fitted with standard Bobcat controls) to do some grading in crushed limestone and a bit of heavy digging in Local 150's indoor operating arena.
Mennenga's initial comment, after using the machine in the dirt, was that he could quite easily adjust a balance between torque and speed when digging aggressively.
"It has adequate horsepower to fill the bucket quickly, but it doesn't spin its wheels in the process."
Other of his observations included the machine's "excellent all-around visibility — you can almost see the cutting edge if you lean forward a bit," and its nimble maneuverability.
"I tried to see how quickly I could build a small pad, and was impressed at how easily it maneuvered and how well I could grade with it. And its good ground clearance is a plus —that would be especially helpful in concrete work, where you might be climbing over curbs."
Tomblin's first reaction to the S330 was what he considered the machine's flat-footed behavior.
"I'm impressed at how well the machine handled a loaded bucket at a relatively high dump height."
He also mentioned the machine's ability to shift travel speeds smoothly. "You can shift from high to low without having your face pressed against the front window." And as one who takes note of a machine's less obvious features, Tomblin was complimentary about the S330's shoulder harness: "It holds you back and doesn't cut into your middle like a lap belt when you lean forward."
The Bobcat loader-radio-remote-control system has been approved for use with all the company's skid-steers (except the two smallest models), with all its compact track loaders and with the all-wheel-steer A300. The only qualifying requirements for using the system are that the machine be equipped with Bobcat's Selectable Joystick Controls, already noted, and that the machine's operating system have "version 57" or higher software. On the latter point, says Kleingartner, a machine can be upgraded with appropriate software by using a laptop connected to its service port.
Mennenga and Tomblin were impressed by how easily the T300 was converted from standard operation to remote control. Kleingartner installed the system in about 15 minutes, while explaining each step of the process. The basic components of the system are the transmitter, receiver and control-mode selector/emergency-stop box.
The latter component attaches to the tailgate with magnets and has a key switch that provides a positive means of selecting either remote control or cab control. A large plunger-type control above the switch allows instant shutdown of the machine in emergencies. The transmitter, worn by the operator, provides controls for the machine's starting system, travel and steering functions, lift and tilt functions, and auxiliary hydraulic functions. The receiver, placed atop the cab with magnets, conveys transmitter signals to the machine's drive and hydraulic systems. Only two cables are required to wire the system: one between the control-mode selector and the receiver; the other between the receiver and the machine's loader-control harness.
Installing an external rear-window-removal kit (or removing the rear window) completes the installation. This last step is necessary to allow access into the cab if the machine shuts down during operation and can't be restarted via the transmitter. Accessing the cab through the rear window avoids having to enter from the front if the lift arm is in a raised position.
Kleingartner explained that the system must comply with ISO (International Standards Organization) safety standards, which limit maximum travel speed in remote-control operation to 6.2 mph. Thus, the T300's low-speed travel was reduced from 6.9 to 6.2 mph, and its high-speed function locked out. Because Bobcat machines equipped with Selectable Joystick Controls feature the company's Speed Management system (allowing the operator to fine-tune the machine's top speed to match attachment operation), the transmitter has toggle switches for selecting top speed as a percentage of the machine's capability — in this instance, some percentage of 6.2 mph.
The remote-control system, however, runs the engine at set speeds, and the operator has no throttle control. Tomblin questioned the wisdom of shutting down a hot, turbocharged engine at speeds higher than idle, but Kleingartner said that running the engine at no load for a few minutes before shutdown avoids any potential problems.
As Kleingartner explained the transmitter controls to Mennenga and Tomblin, he noted that safeguards are built into the system, such as delaying engine-start for 5 seconds, while the transmitter and receiver establish that they're a "matched set." The transmitter also has a switch equivalent to the in-cab "Push to Operate" control, which shuts off all hydraulic functions until activated. According to Kleingartner, the remote-control system has a practical working radius of 1,500 feet, and the system is designed to allow multiple machines to work remotely on the same site without signal inference.
The two operators spent the next couple of hours using the remote-control T300, first with a grapple to handle construction debris, then with a bucket to load from a crushed limestone pile and dump into a small truck fitted with a contractor's body. Both seemed to pick up quickly on the remote-control technique, because machine movement was smooth from the beginning.
"After a couple of hours with the remote," said Mennenga, "you could be as competent as on the machine itself. I'd caution, though, that you really need to have some experience on the machine before getting your hands on the remote control. Overall, I was impressed by how responsive the controls are — it's pretty much like sitting in the machine."
The two operators also used the T300 to level a grade in the limestone, and both agreed that the ability to clearly see what the cutting edge was doing was a "real plus."
"The controls were surprisingly smooth," said Tomblin. "I was impressed at how well the system worked."
Mennenga and Tomblin have enough experience working on jobsites to appreciate the remote-control system:
"A machine like this would be extremely valuable on a 'hazmat' job, or in extremely dusty conditions," said Mennenga. "Or, basically, in any situation where you couldn't — or would prefer not to — place the operator."