Skid-Steer Loaders Go Remote

Written By: Christopher Weishaar, Technical Writer, Two Rivers Marketing, Des Moines Iowa | September 28, 2010

Provided By: Bobcat Company West Fargo, North Dakota

Troy Cooper knew it could be done. The crane was remotely controlled. The vacuum was remotely controlled. So, why couldn't the skid-steer loader be remotely controlled?

That is the question that led Cooper, terminal manager and a 23-year employee of Holcim (US) Inc., to the purchase of a Bobcat® S220 skid-steer loader and the Bobcat loader radio remote control system.

"It gave us an opportunity to get a worker out of the environment in the barge," Cooper says. "We want a safe and healthy working environment for our people."

Holcim's New Orleans facility — located on a canal connecting the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain — is one of nine such facilities in the country that receive shipments of cement products by barge and unloads them. Holcim loads the products into tanker trucks to ship across the country for use in construction products and projects.

Several years ago, the barges that came to the facility were pneumatic, self-unloading barges, Cooper says. That changed about nine years ago with the arrival of grain barges, which require the use of a vacuum or screw to get the cement products out.

Getting all the cement out of the flat-bottomed barges with these methods can be difficult. The facility began using skid-steer loaders — lowered into the barge with a knuckle-boom crane — to assist with the process.

"You get to a point where there's an area clean enough to put a skid-steer loader in," Cooper says. "The skid-steer loader is used to clean off the bottom of the barge and get the excess product that the vacuum can't handle."

Lowering a machine into the barge meant an operator had to climb down and be present to control it. The temperature inside the barges gets hotter than the air outside, making for a very hot work environment. An enclosed cab with air conditioning could not be used due to the humid New Orleans weather, so operators worked in an open cab, exposed to the dry, powdery cement dust. They were required to wear goggles, protective clothing and respiratory protection.

"In that environment, [cement] dust gets into everything," Cooper says.

Thinking of the other remotely-controlled machines at the facility, and the goal of taking workers out of the environment, Cooper began making calls to compact equipment dealers in the area to find a solution.

Cooper did not find the solution he was looking for until he received a call from Sid Duhon at Duhon Machinery, of St. Rose, La., a Bobcat dealer.

"I was happy when Sid called me up and said we might have something for you," Cooper says.

A Bobcat S220 skid-steer loader — chosen for its size and weight — arrived on June 15 with the recently-introduced Bobcat Loader Radio Remote Control System. The system is designed for use with Bobcat skid-steer, compact track and all-wheel-steer loaders featuring the selectable joystick control option.

"The operators were hoping it would work; they were praying it would work," Cooper says. "Since day one it has worked. You have guys out here that are smiling every day they come into work now."

The system took about five minutes to install and Cooper says that within an hour the main operator was driving the machine remotely as if he had been doing it for years.

Once the loader is lowered into the barge, the operator stands atop a platform next to the barge to get a bird's-eye view of the loader and work area. The platform also features an air-conditioned room where operators can sit and still have a full view of the work area.

Cooper says the facility unloads a barge a day, and the loader radio remote control system has cut approximately 30 minutes from the process.

As a maintenance precaution, the S220 does feature an enclosed cab to keep dust out and has also been sealed with silicone wherever possible. When the loader is finished in the barge, it is raised out with the crane and the dust is blown off with an air compressor.

Cooper, a member of the Holcim safety committee, says that not only have workers been taken out of the dusty environment, but the loader radio remote control system has made for a safer process.

"We're always looking at the safety aspects of any job," he says. "If you can eliminate a potential safety concern, if you can remove that step from a job, it's worth it."

The New Orleans facility is acting as a testing ground for the remote control system to be used at other Holcim facilities, Cooper says.

"You're not just talking about barges," he says. "There's a lot of potential for this unit. I have no doubt it'll be used."

For Cooper and the operators in New Orleans, being able to remotely operate a skid-steer loader in the barges has proven a success.

"I can't say enough about that machine, to be honest with you," Cooper says. "It's something I hoped for for years and something I've seen come to a close now. I just knew it could be done."