Side-Shift to Hydrogen: The Coolest Technology Powering Backhoe Loaders in 2024

Case backhoe loader

The backhoe loader is a classic, but because of its long history we sometimes forget how much the BHL category has evolved today. Traditional backhoe brands like JCB are constantly “focusing on technologies that make backhoe loaders more appealing and easier to use, particularly for younger operators,” says James Gill, backhoe loader product manager at JCB. “This includes advancements in everything from controls and functions within the cab to features that enhance the machine’s overall performance.”

Today’s backhoe loaders can do almost anything a skid steer, wheel loader or excavator can do. For starters, backhoe loaders do more than dig and load. Modern backhoe loaders are tool carriers, wielding attachments, varying hydraulic flow modes and pressure-compensated, load-sensing hydraulic systems. It’s not just attachments off the backhoe end either. Case Construction Equipment recently launched its 580SV Construction King backhoe, which touts a tool carrier-style front end, ideal for businesses who use the loader end of their backhoe as a material handler — loading and unloading pallets, moving pipe or grappling other bundled material.

Today’s backhoes also boast a luxurious experience. BHL cabs today are giant command centers with the option for air conditioning and heat, big LCD screens and air ride seats that easily swivel from loader to backhoe. Powershift transmissions allow effortless switching between gears and high roading speeds up to 25 mph. All-wheel-steer backhoes offer higher performance, allowing for greater utilization in applications traditionally reserved for wheel loaders. Joystick controls, which can be seat mounted, range from mechanical to pilot to electric over hydraulic. Pattern changers allow operators to quickly switch those joysticks from backhoe to excavator patterns (SAE to ISO).

Many manufacturers offer a variety of operator control modes, providing precise response, speed and torque. John Deere’s 320 P backhoe loader offers Lift Mode, which increases craning capacity by up to 15 percent, and Precision Mode, which reduces flow by 55 percent to enable more precise control without sacrificing overall lift performance.

John Deere’s telematics solution, JDLink

“We’ve also moved Autoshift into the base machine configuration,” notes Emily Pagura, solutions marketing manager at John Deere. “Enabling this feature lets the transmission shift automatically to optimize engine rpms and ground speed, improving the operator experience in load-and-carry operations. Of course, the operator can still turn the Autoshift off and shift using the conveniently located Transmission Control Level on the left side of the steering column.”

Backhoe loaders today are decked out, making them accessible to all types of contractors and markets — municipal, landscape, general construction, rental, agriculture and beyond. Let’s take a deeper look at what makes the latest generation of backhoe loaders so very appealing today.

By James Gill, Backhoe Loader Product Manager at JCB

Rise of Side-Shift Technology: There is a growing opportunity for side-shift backhoes. As operators become more familiar with this concept, it is expected to gain popularity due to its efficiency and versatility, especially in confined spaces.

Shift to Pilot Controls: There is a trend away from traditional manual levers (“wobble sticks”) toward pilot controls. This shift makes machines easier to learn for the younger generation and aligns more closely with the controls used in other equipment like excavators and wheel loaders. While manual levers have been favored in the rental sector due to their low cost and ease of maintenance, their use is expected to diminish over time.

Growth of All-Wheel-Steer Market: The all-wheel-steer market is anticipated to grow, offering higher performance from a loader perspective and allowing for greater utilization in applications traditionally reserved for wheel loaders.

Size Considerations: It is unlikely that backhoe loaders will increase significantly in size, as larger machines lose mobility and ease of transportation, leading to a preference for dedicated equipment like large 360-degree tracked excavators.

Urban Environment Adaptations: Growth is expected in urban environments where it is challenging to bring in large equipment. Machines like JCB’s 3CX Compact, which can be easily transported to sites and maneuver around confined spaces, are likely to become more popular. These machines can perform a variety of tasks, thereby reducing site damage and costs.

Side-Shift Backhoe Booms

Case 695SV tractor loader backhoe with side shift

Backhoe loaders have always been able to help increase productivity and reduce operational costs on projects because they can 1) dig deep, 2) lift heavy loads and 3) reach up high. This trio has kept backhoe loaders sales steady for decades.

“The number of backhoes sold in North America has stabilized over the last several years to the 10,000 range,” says George MacIntyre, product manager at Case. “For 2024, we may see a little bit of a decline with the overall output of construction equipment seeing a small drop, but longer term we expect the backhoe loader market to rebound a little as customers see the product’s advantages. The recent introduction of more side-shift models to the market should help this positive trend as well.”

Yep, the boom on the backhoe portion of the machine has multiple options these days. Pros can choose an extendable boom, maybe bi-directional auxiliary hydraulics to run two-way attachments or a side-shift boom. American has traditionally been a center-pivot backhoe boom market, but the emergence of side-shift booms (both hydraulic and manual) has finally reached U.S. jobsites and dealer lots. Just like it sounds, the side-shift boom allows the backhoe boom to shift from side to side without repositioning the machine. These side-shift machines use stabilizers that vertically move straight up and down vs. the traditional center-pivot stabilizers that stretch away radially from the unit. According to MacIntyre, the advantages of a side-shift backhoe include:

  • Better digging parallel to walls or other structures.
  • Less repositioning of the machine to excavate an area. For instance, the side shift allows digging of square trenches without repositioning the machine.
  • The design provides a larger area of digging coverage since the backhoe can move left to right along the carriage frame.
  • Side shift provides clear lines of site to the bucket and excavation site.
  • Those vertical stabilizers also minimize the width of the machine.

Two of Case’s newest models — the 580SV and 695SV backhoes — are offered with hydraulic side-shift configurations. JCB offers the side-shift chassis configuration on all of its models. In fact, JCB’s 1CXT and 3CX Compact models are exclusively available with a side-shift chassis, a design choice that aligns with the compact nature of those machines. For all models except the 1CXT, JCB provides a hydraulic side-shift feature known as the Powerslide.

“Operating a side-shift backhoe is similar to a center pivot backhoe with advantages like improved visibility and reach, particularly when loading over the side,” says Gill. “While there’s a small learning curve for operators new to manual side-shift, the process is straightforward and quickly mastered. An additional benefit is the auto-level feature available on some models like the JCB backhoes, which aligns the machine at the correct angle for level excavating and reduces setup time. In terms of size, the width of a side-shift backhoe usually matches that of a center-pivot model, with the width largely determined by the front bucket size. However, JCB does offer a narrower 3CX variant for regions with specific road use requirements, which also helps reduce freight costs due to its ability to fit into shipping containers.”

Cat 432 backhoe loader

Caterpillar has been producing backhoe loaders since 1985. In North America, Cat offers six center pivot backhoes (the 416, 420, 420 XE, 430, 440 and 450) and three side-shift models (the 428, 432and 434). David Young, senior product consultant at Cat, sees the pros and cons of side-shift backhoes. First Young points to the stabilizers. With stabilizers lowered, tip lines are established. On side-shift backhoes, those tip lines are closer to the body of the machine, so it will be more tip limited than a center pivot. Yet, side-shift backhoes also offer interesting advantages. For instance, they’re better on streets.

“Roading position is such that the machine is shorter dimensionally than a center pivot because of the way it is folded over and stowed,” says Young. “This also improves the roading experience because the weight of the backend is closer to the rear axle. It won’t gallop as much as a center pivot.”

“The compact design and centralized weight contribute to better travel speed and make the side-shift backhoe more maneuverable, both on site and on highways,” agrees Gill.

Interestingly, choosing side shift isn’t that much more expensive. “Caterpillar currently has the 428 and 432 priced the same as their center pivot counterparts,” says Young. “The 434 is an equal size tire machine but does not have a center pivot equivalent.” For Case units, “the side-shift configuration adds a few thousand dollars to the overall cost of the backhoe loader, but the benefits can certainly pay for that higher initial investment,” says MacIntyre.

Compact track loaders are the most popular category of compact equipment in America. Learn why with loads of track loader features right here.

Attracting Contractors with Cool Tech

Side-shift backhoes are offering new capabilities to one of the oldest categories of construction equipment, but it’s just one of the increasingly cool options available today. Automation options might include ride control, return to dig, boom kickouts, parallel lift, auto stabilizers up, idle controls (which save fuel while the machine is inactive) and auto throttle (which allows operators to set their hand throttle once). JCB even has an auto pre-heat, which heats the engine block and cab and defrosts the windshield up to 30 minutes before use. More tech is on the way.

“Excavators have really developed some great features regarding grade assist, e-fence, e-ceiling range of motion limits, and those types of features will certainly be migrating to backhoes in the future,” says Young.

The use of telematics to track machine maintenance and security is increasing on backhoes. “Our telematics solution, JDLink, is now included in base with all of our backhoes,” says Pagura. “There is no initial cost, no annual fee, and no subscription.”

One of the most significant developments for backhoe loaders in recent years has been alternative fuel options, noting none are quite ready for the market yet. For years Case has been teasing its 580EV battery-powered backhoe. The 580 EV is powered by a 400-volt, 85-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery pack that can be charged by any 220-volt/three-phase connection.

“There is a great deal of interest in electric powered backhoe loaders,” says MacIntyre. “The buying profile of key segments of the backhoe loader market match well with the electric backhoe. Large cities and utilities are among the buyers with strong interest in an EV powered backhoe, and Case plans to introduce the 580EV model within the next couple years.”

John Deere has also been showcasing its 310 X-Tier E-Power electric backhoe for years, but it’s still in development phase. It’s not just electric. Last year, JCB announced its H2 hydrogen engine, which it has engineered into (among other machines) a hydrogen powered JCB backhoe loader.

“These hydrogen engines offer an advantage over electric counterparts — especially in refueling speed,” says Gill. “Hydrogen can be refueled as quickly as diesel, whereas electric vehicles require charging time. This is particularly crucial for backhoe loaders due to their high energy demands and the need for maximum uptime.”

hydrogen powered JCB backhoe loader

It’s clear the backhoe loader market is embracing a wide variety of new technologies to attract new customers to a classic-style machine. Hey, there’s even a backhoe on tracks — JCB’s 1CXT compact backhoe loader. It also appears manufacturers will continue to re-engineer these machines with technologies and options that allow operators new avenues to ease of use, enhanced performance and alternative fuel solutions. So, where do you start your journey?

“For a person looking to purchase a new backhoe, I would think hard about what you will be using the machine for,” says Young. “What kind of performance and features would you really need. There are numerous models and configurations for backhoes, and it’s easy to over spec as well as under spec a machine. Also, think about future needs. For example, if you are considering a lower spec machine keep in mind that updating that machine for more capability down the road may not be that easy. Especially if the hydraulic system in the machine is not capable of upgrading for future needs down the road. An example of this would be if you ever wanted to add a couplers, auxiliary lines, etc.”

Keith Gribbins is publisher of Compact Equipment.

Side-Shift Backhoe Operation

By George MacIntyre, Product Manager at Case Construction Equipment

From an operational standpoint, the great thing is that the layout of the control towers and handles are identical between the side-shift and center pivot configurations of backhoe. This also includes the switch to convert between SAE and ISO control patterns. So, anyone going from a Case backhoe loader with pilot controls on a center pivot machine will be comfortable with the controls on the side-shift version. The differences really come down to the ability to move the backhoe along the carriage frame and the operation of the vertical stabilizers. At Case, we only offer a hydraulic operated side shift that allows the operator to move the kingpost along the carriage frame with a switch. In Europe, Case offers a lower cost manual version but that requires the operator to use the boom and dipper to manually move the kingpin along the carriage frame. Since we know that many customers are new to the side-shift design in this market, we wanted to make sure that we offered the simplest and most intuitive setup for moving the kingpost from side to side along the carriage frame.

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