Budget cuts drive backhoe resurgence
00:00 03 Apr 2009
By Dan Gilkes
http://www.contractjournal.com/Articles ... gence.html
With companies everywhere having to tighten their purse strings, the multifunctional backhoe loader is enjoying a resurgence in popularity. Dan Gilkes reports.
The backhoe loader has always been a jack-of-all-trades, a machine capable of digging, loading, excavating, lifting and powering a raft of attachments, front and rear. Yet backhoe sales have been in gradual decline over the years in the UK, as contractors moved more to individual machines such as mini excavators and telehandlers to tackle different tasks on the building site.
However, while few people are rushing out to buy new machines of any description at present, the virtues that made the backhoe loader popular in the first place, are once again coming to the fore.
"Customers are carefully considering the type of work available and as house building work has significantly reduced they are looking for machines that offer greater versatility and which are multifunctional so they can undertake a variety of different work," says David Bell, managing director of JCB Sales.
"Typically, building sites have excavators on site for long periods, but as the work has reduced, it has left many machines standing idle, which is not generating an income. Customers can therefore see the benefit of a backhoe loader as they don't have to rely on other vehicles to transport the machines, so they can travel to and from job sites as and when the work requires."
Scott Freeman at Case agrees, stating that two years ago there had been a big move from backhoe loaders to machines like 7t crawler excavators.
"There has definitely been a halt in the decline in backhoe sales," he says.
"The backhoe is fairing better than anything else at present," says Caterpillar dealer Finning's backhoe specialist Rob Doble. "I think some small builders are trading in two machines and buying a backhoe loader for a couple of years. There's always work for a backhoe loader."
This situation is being aided by the fact that due to changes in the exchange rate, the UK has become one of the cheapest places in Europe to buy a machine, making it easier for hire companies and contractors to sell on their used equipment overseas.
This means that they are not having to take such at hit by trading in to local dealers. Doble says this could also be leading to some customers changing machines more rapidly, to make the most of their strong residual values.
Of course backhoe loaders are not immune to the current economic situation, any more than any other type of machine. But while the overall plant market in the UK fell by around 30% to 36% last year, backhoe sales were down by just 11% to 15%, depending who you talk to.
JCB, which still dominates the sector in the UK, says it improved its share in 2008, a claim echoed by Finning with the Cat range and also by Case. All agree, however, that high-specification machines seem to have become the norm rather than the exception now for UK customers.
Certainly all of JCB's Tier 3 engined backhoes now come with turbo power, the most popular being the 68kW 3CX Sitemaster. Extending dippers, 6-in-1 front buckets and all-wheel drive also seem to be virtually a standard fit in the UK market, even with cost-conscious hire companies. The firm reports a strong move to its locking torque converter option since its launch two years ago. The system is said to maintain speed on inclines, improving travel times and boosting productivity.
"We have seen a significant take up of the Lock-Up Torque Converter," says Bell. "This gives the owner up to 25% fuel savings, a huge benefit with current fuel prices."
The 580 remains the top machine for Case, followed by the 590 and the all-wheel steer 695.
It's not just the market leaders that are seeing high-specification machines on order, however. Volvo reports that most of its backhoe loader sales, which are primarily to owner operators, are for the well-equipped BL71 and the BL71 Plus.
For Caterpillar, the high specification 423E is the big seller in the UK. The E series is a mature range of machines now with proven reliability and customers are prepared to spend that bit more for what would normally have been called luxury features.
"We're getting lots of good feedback," says Doble. "Customers like the servo-controls and they are saying that the Cat machines are good on fuel too."
With regard to servo controls for the backhoe, they seem to be growing in popularity too, despite the extra cost for most machines. Last year's SED exhibition saw JCB introduce three options for backhoe customers, from traditional X-pattern manual levers, to the EasyControl and Advanced EasyControl servo set-ups.
"With the increased sales of mini excavators over recent years, more customers are learning to operate on mini excavators and the newer generation of operator prefers servo controls," says Bell.
"However, there are still a large number of operators who prefer the traditional manual control levers that JCB continues to offer. Many excavator operators were deterred from operating a backhoe loader as they were used to servo controls and thought they were only available with manual controls. Once they tried the servo controls, they were amazed how similar it was to driving an excavator."
Servo, or Pilot Controls as Case prefers to call them, have become an increasingly important option for Case too. The firm says that around 20% to 25% of Case backhoes sold in the UK now have some form of Pilot Controls - and that proportion is growing.
For Finning, the number is far higher. Doble says that last year, around two-thirds of Cat E series models sold in the UK were specified with servo controls for the backhoe.
"It's been very good for us, though I can't ever see it going to 100%," he says. "But owner operators in particular can see the advantages in both comfort and productivity."
Of course, the regular 3CX-sized backhoe is no longer the only model available, though this size of machine still takes by far the lion's share of sales. There are a host of compact backhoes out there from a wide range of manufacturers, including the likes of Kubota.
However, JCB in particular has been broadening its line-up, with the addition of Mini CX 4x4 and Midi CX models last year.
At the large end of the market, there are also the high specification machines from Hydrema and Huddig to consider. These models are, however, out of the price range of many in the UK, particularly in plant hire.
The more compact models have taken the backhoe into new industry sectors recently, including landscaping and grounds keeping, where their relative light weight and the ability to power a range of attachments makes them the ideal tool for local authorities and contractors in this sector.
"We've sold a number of Midi CX into cemeteries, caravan parks, stately homes, golf courses and of course plant hire, small builders and for utility work," says Bell.
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