For 60 years the skid steer has been the chameleon of the equipment industry. Today it must concede some of that diversity to its compact track loader cousin. Fitted with hundreds of unique attachments (from brooms to breakers to backhoes), skid steers and track loaders can both spearhead projects as diverse as dirt work and demolition (they even use the same universal quick-attach plate). But while these two machines seem very similar, track loaders and skid steers continue to find separation in specific applications. In fact, today tracked units are selling better than wheeled variants.
“The popularity of the rubber track loader market in North America continues to increase year over year,” explains Kevin Coleman, product expert for Caterpillar. “More and more customers are recognizing the improved traction, increased floatation, lower ground disturbance and greater machine stability that a track machine offers versus a rubber tire skid steer. Additionally, a rubber track loader allows customers to extend their working season with the additional flotation and lower ground disturbance. Rubber track loaders also offer the benefit of a larger more stable footprint which provides the ability to lift and handle larger loads than could be done with a comparably sized skid steer loader.”
As manufacturers like Caterpillar continue to monitor these market shifts, they are also adapting wheeled and tracked loaders to meet new operator and application demands. Because of the diversity of uses and the large number of unit sales (skid steers and track loaders combined for about 70,000 units sold in 2016), there are a large number of models and manufacturers in the market. In 2018, there will be (at least) 16 major brands of skid steers and track loaders being sold in North America: ASV, Bobcat, Case, Cat, Gehl, JCB, IHIMER, John Deere, Kubota, LiuGong, Mustang, New Holland, Takeuchi, Volvo, Wacker Neuson and Yanmar.
There are some manufacturing supply agreements here. For instance, JCB custom manufactures Volvo’s skid steers and Gehl and Mustang are both owned by Manitou and have similar machines. In the past, overall industry sales were ruled by five main manufacturers — Bobcat, Caterpillar, John Deere, Case and New Holland (the latter two are both owned by CNH, but their product lines are different) — but in the last few years Kubota has made a sizable impact.
“Kubota’s penetration into the skid steer market, which began in late 2015, has been successful, and we’re now considered among the top five brands,” says Jorge De Hoyos, Kubota senior product manager of skid steers and compact track loaders. “We did this with just two models — the SSV65 and the SSV75. Kubota is considered among the top three sellers of compact track loaders in the U.S. We may be running a bit behind Cat and Bobcat, but we keep gaining ground.”
According to De Hoyos, the skid steer market hit record lows in 2016 with unit sales falling under 30,000 units. Conversely, the compact track loader market continued to grow at a rapid pace (in 2017, around 13 percent over 2016). De Hoyos predicts: “Total U.S. volume for [compact track loaders] will reach the mid-40,000 volume this year, and as compact track loaders versatility increases that number may reach 50,000 in 2018, but that too is under evaluation with key economic indicators.”
The choice between skid steer and track loader is usually based on application, and more and more niche applications (from brush cutting to snow removal) are pushing skid steers and track loaders into separate markets.
“Customers are looking for the best match between a machine and their application needs, allowing them to complete the job, while also providing them with the lowest owning and operating cost solution,” explains Coleman. “In some cases, this may be a compact track loader. In other cases, it may be a skid steer loader. Skid steer loaders excel in applications where the ground conditions are firm. If higher travel speeds are required, a skid steer loader may provide an advantage, as compact track loaders traditionally have slower travel speeds. A skid steer loader also weighs less than a comparably sized compact track loader, allowing for more flexibility to transport. So, a skid steer may be preferred for certain agriculture tasks, concrete and asphalt applications and snow removal.”
Rolling on rubber or steel tracks, compact track loaders can spearhead operations and navigate jobsites with extra flotation — especially in the wet weather months. A dedicated undercarriage also gives added tractive power (great in dozing operations), yet dispenses the weight of the entire machine through multiple track contact points for a lighter footprint. With extra power, lower ground pressure and added flotation and traction, the advantages of compact track loaders are growing on all types of professionals.
“Track loaders more often appeal to construction customers and landscapers,” notes Gregg Zupancic, product marketing manager for skid steers and compact track loaders with John Deere Construction and Forestry. “These segments, particularly homebuilders and commercial builders, do a lot of dirt work and site prep. Landscapers need the stability that track loaders provide for heavier loads, like carrying a lot of pallets, sods and blocks. Skid steers tend to appeal more to ag and rental markets, especially mom-and-pop rental companies.”
The rental market continues to account for 20 to 25 percent of skid steer and track loader sales. According to Chris Girodat, Bobcat Co. marketing manager, rental owners gravitate to those 2,000- to 3,200-lb rated operating capacity machines with 74-hp diesel engines. They stay under that 75-hp threshold to avoid needing additional engine aftertreatment systems and diesel exhaust fluid. These machines are also easy to operate and transport.
“Skid steer loaders definitely have a place in the rental market, but we are seeing more and more rental centers updating their compact equipment fleets with compact track loaders,” explains Girodat. “This is a direct reflection of rental store customers requesting compact track loaders to allow renters to maintain their schedules and stay productive. With a tight labor market and strict deadlines, going without a machine or not being able to work because of soft soil can be critical, which is why we think compact track loaders will only continue to increase in the rental industry.”
Geography can also have an impact.
“In terms of regions, compact track loaders continue to see growth in the coastal regions, like California, Texas and Florida, where there are a lot of sandy environments and overall softer soil conditions,” says Zupancic. “In the Midwest, where the ag market dominates, the skid steer is the more popular option, though we do see growth in track loaders for farmers who are working in muddy conditions.”
Implements Push Evolution
New applications fuel new attachments. Today, mulchers, grading systems and high dump buckets seem to be popular new categories for these tool carriers. Land management applications are pushing manufacturers to focus on launching new brush cutters, mulchers and heavy-duty mowers, while also providing “forestry” units (usually on tracks) that come with both high-flow hydraulics and a safety package adding armor to the model.
“Caterpillar recently introduced a new Industrial Brushcutter for skid steers and track loader machines,” says Coleman. “The Industrial Brushcutter is designed for land clearing, right-of-way maintenance and brush cutting. In addition, Caterpillar also introduced a new Box Blade attachment. The Box Blade is designed for grading and leveling for large commercial properties, housing pads, roadways, parking lots, athletic field construction or concrete prep. The box blade can be operated both manually and automatically with the use of laser or GPS grading systems.”
Grading attachments and grade control automation systems are another hot application market for skid steers and track loaders. Blades, box scrapers and landscape rakes can tackle soil preparation, restoration, leveling and even fine grading for projects. Track loaders seem to excel at grade control jobs because of their light footprint and high pushing power.
“Grade control is a new and exciting segment, where folks are equipping their attachments with laser grading and GPS grading technology to better control the grade of the land,” says Zupancic. “Specialized units, brush cutting, asphalt planing and grade control jobs are all new growth markets for skid steers and track loaders. Land clearing and brush cutting continues to be a strong growth market. Cold planing and asphalt is as well — anytime where the attachment is spending the majority of the time on the machine is a growth market.”
And as manufacturers continue to push the envelope for more powerful and precise attachments, hydraulic flow and pressure continues to increase. High-flow models are pushing 40 gpm and pressures are topping off in the 3,500-psi range today.
Luxury Offices for All
Regardless of the wheels or tracks, opulent cabs and high-tech controls are an increasingly popular commodity on today’s skid steers and track loaders. Cabs are now considered all-day offices with pressurized cabins, air-ride and heated seats, air and heat options, satellite radio and ergonomic controls that make operators feel like they are in the driver’s seat of their own car. Some loaders even have the option of a backup camera. Low-effort, electro-hydraulic (EH) controls have grown in popularity with the ability to switch from ISO, H and foot patterns.
“The migration to low-effort controls continues to gain momentum,” says De Hoyos. “Low-effort controls can be of two types: electro-hydraulic and straight hydraulic. In this control configuration, Kubota remains dedicated to straight hydraulic pilot controls which tend to be more precise, have more feel and are not as susceptible to electrical nuisance issues.”
Many of these new operator stations come with sophisticated digital control panels that allow for attachment and machine automation. Routine tasks such as boom settings, attachment speeds, hydraulic flows, wheel speeds, ride control and return-to-dig functions can be automated into your joysticks and engineered into the armrests, which can be adjusted for your perfect comfort level. Digital interfaces allow operators to individualize and save these machine settings, change languages and add security measures. Telematics systems can be installed to track and log all machine functions, spearhead maintenance schedules, perform security measures like geofencing and (eventually) help operators operate better.
“Visibility enhancements like backup cameras and deluxe LED lighting outputs are helping operators in all industries stay productive longer,” explains Zupancic. “Also, our JDLink telematics technology is unique to the industry, allowing customers to track their machines, their machine hours, maintenance schedules and provides geofencing.”
Such technology is a far cry from the three-wheeled skid steer loader created in a small town in Minnesota to clean out turkey barns. To meet ever-new demands for operators, skid steers and their tracked counterparts continue to adapt to a variety of North American equipment sectors. In fact, with so many different options on the market, it’s sometimes hard to choose between the type, size and brand. Bobcat offers some advice.
“Before deciding on a specific model, consider what attachments may be used and how large of a load the machine will need to lift,” suggests Girodat. “Consider the types of surfaces the machine will be operating on. If the machine will be on surfaces such as streets, sidewalks, parking lots or driveways, it makes sense to buy a skid steer loader or all-wheel steer loader. If the machine will be working on surfaces like established lawns or soft ground, a compact track loader makes most sense. And, don’t just rely on machine specs to decide on the type and size of machine you need. Specs can be deceiving, but operating the machine you are considering to purchase will give you a much better idea of whether it will be able to perform the specific tasks you will demand from it.”
Chris Girodat, Bobcat Co. Marketing Manager, Explains Vertical and Radial Lift
Each lifting pattern has its own benefits so it’s hard to say if one is actually more popular than the other, but ultimately it depends on the job that a loader is doing. Radial-lift-path compact loaders are best for projects that require dumping material over walls, backfilling or loading flatbed trucks. This economical configuration lifts the bucket or attachment in an arc pattern, providing greater reach at mid-range heights compared to a vertical-lift-path range of motion. Vertical-lift-path compact loaders are ideal when placing pallets of blocks or sod or dumping into high-sided trucks. On vertical-lift-path loaders, the load is raised straight up, closer to the machine. An operator can safely lift more than an identical radial-lift-path machine. Since there is more reach at full lift height, the machine can dump material into the center of the truck or keep the loader farther away from the truck.