Machine Heads Video: Bobcat Is Shaping the Future of Compact Equipment with Electric and AR Innovation

Over the last 10 or so years the construction equipment industry has seen a particularly rapid advance of technology. Of course, the world around us feels like it’s now constantly shifting under our feet due to the proliferation of technology, the internet and screens in just about every facet of our lives. But the construction industry was a longer hold out from this technological transformation than most.

Perhaps the first tree to fall in this digital advance was Tier 4 Final regulations, rules requiring lower engine emissions from construction machines and off-highway trucks. This introduced more complexity to diesel engines and many manufacturers used the opportunity to introduce new wiring harnesses that would lead to electro-hydraulic control schemes and, eventually, battery-electric and autonomous machines.

And it was right around that time that the subject of today’s article began to ignite a company-wide focus on accelerating innovation. In 2014, the Bobcat Acceleration Center opened in Bismarck, North Dakota, a $28 million investment in creating the next wave of great ideas. The Acceleration Center has certainly lived up to its name. Since its 2014 opening, Bobcat has established a pace of innovation, invention and revision that is unmatched in the compact equipment segment.

The result has been a flurry of prototypes and product launches — in some situations the former has turned into the latter — in the last four years, including everything from cab-less compact loaders, fully-electric machines and cab-glass that is transparent one second before turning into a giant touchscreen display in the next. Because of all these interesting new ideas and products we wanted to get a better understanding of what goes into product development at Bobcat and why introducing so many concepts, and prototypes is important to the company. Here’s what we learned.

A Startup Within a 77-Year-Old Company

Bobcat Acceleration_Center_2

Following the opening of the Acceleration Center in 2014, a small group of about four people in the company started chatting with Bobcat CEO Scott Park about making sure that Bobcat was truly open to experimenting with all types of cutting edge technology. This led to a lot of ground-up R&D work. But the group, led by Joel Honeyman, started to wonder how things might change if that ground up R&D work started to come from the top down. How would that change the culture of the organization?

So, about seven years ago, Bobcat established a dedicated innovation team. Today, Honeyman is the Vice President of Global Innovation at Bobcat, and that small team has now grown into a division of the company that works with parts of the entire organization to address how to make Bobcat equipment more productive, easier to use and safer, in addition to creating wholly new product categories.

You can think of Honeyman’s Innovation staff as tech-focused construction equipment startup within a 77-year-old company — the same company that invented the skid steer back in 1957. So, the first and foremost reason Bobcat has this renewed energy around innovation is to build upon its legacy of being an innovator. The company remains dedicated to building equipment that meets the needs of today’s construction business owner and equipment operator, but it is also focused on doing what it needs to do remain relevant and set itself up for success for the next 77 years.

To Bobcat, that means not being afraid of building out new ideas quickly, trying out bleeding edge technologies, or of presenting customers with bad ideas. It also means listening to customers when they tell you that you’re focusing on the wrong part of a good idea.

MaxControl, the first big idea that came out of the innovation team at Bobcat and progressed to commercial availability, is a good example of this. Bobcat initially came up with a bunch of ideas around full autonomy for compact loaders. To get it ready to demonstrate for customers, the team rigged up a rudimentary remote control app on an iPad. In the demo, they were able to make the loader go back and forth and automatically load onto a trailer.

However, after the demonstration, customers were less interested in the loaders working autonomously than they were in this iPad remote control function. So, Bobcat listened to the feedback and MaxControl Remote Operation was launched in 2019.

No Bad Ideas

Bobcat's RogueX

But you can’t have relevancy and legacy if you don’t also create actual solutions — machines and features that solve customer pain points. So, the second reason Bobcat has adopted such a frenetic pace of innovation is two-fold: to address customer pain points through unique solutions and to make sure they’re doing so faster than the competition. But doing that doesn’t just mean listening to customers and addressing the issues they’re having today. It also means being able to identify technology that may not be quite mature for commercialization just yet, but could address a problem customers don’t even know they have in a few years’ time.

Bobcat’s RogueX and RogueX2 vehicles are perfect examples of this type of work. The RogueX was unveiled at CONEXPO-CON/AGG 2023 and is a concept machine that reimagines the compact track loader. The RogueX story actually begins years before its release. It builds upon the development of the Bobcat T7X compact track loader and S7X skid steer, prototypes of which were seen all the way back at CONEXPO-CON/AGG 2020. Each and every compact equipment manufacturer out there has been actively developing electric machines since that time, but Bobcat made it a point to be the first to release an electric CTL and skid steer to the market.

Bobcat’s all-electric S7X skid steer loader

The T7X was launched in 2022 and the S7X is still in development. Like the T7X and S7X, the RogueX is fully electric, meaning that it is not only battery-powered, but uses electric motors and actuators in place of hydraulics. But the most unique aspect of RogueX is its lack of a cab, making it designed for remote or fully autonomous operation only.

The Benefits of Asking “What If?”

And while exploring automation is certainly one of the driving forces behind RogueX, Bobcat says that the most important design exploration the company is doing with this machine has to do with how a CTL that doesn’t have a cab can function differently from one that does. For instance, because the RogueX has no cab, Bobcat was able to engineer a completely unique lift arm construction. The lift arm on RogueX runs right down the middle of the machine. Because of this, the machine doesn’t need two lift cylinders. Instead, RogueX has a single electric actuator.

More importantly, the design allowed Bobcat to design a unique lift arm geometry that can both raise and move forward, supporting both vertical-path and radial-path lift capabilities on the same machine. This allows RogueX to supply an extra two feet at the top of a dump while also being flexible enough for all types of jobs. Earlier this year at CES, Bobcat released the RogueX2, which is essentially a wheeled version of the RogueX. So if the RogueX is a futuristic, all-electric cab-less CTL, the RogueX2 is the a futuristic, all-electric, cab-less skid steer.

Bobcat says the major benefit of wheels on the RogueX2 is that powering the wheels consumes far less energy than powering tracks. That means the RogueX2 can go up to eight hours on a single charge of the battery, compared to the RogueX’s four-and-a-half to five hours. Bobcat may never bring either of these machines to market. Or they might! But whether a machine that looks exactly like one of these concepts does hit the market isn’t really the point.

The point is what Bobcat learns from building these machines and features, manufacturing them as prototypes, and the reaction they generate from customers. The value in this type of investment is the experience and knowledge Bobcat gains as they build the machines that actually do hit the market in the future and how those machines apply the lessons learned by not being afraid of any one idea.

A Clear Advantage

Bobcat booth at CES 2024 advanced screen display at electric skid steer

Another benefit of having an organization-wide open-mindedness to any technology and any implementation is it allows for truly original solutions and a lead in a feature category that did not exist prior to its conception. That brings us to the third reason for Bobcat’s focus on innovation: creating paradigm-shifting technologies.

And that’s exactly what Bobcat’s transparent display tech represents. During a trip to CES about six years ago, Honeyman and his team saw the demonstration of a projection-based head-up display that could project data to the windshield of an automobile. The company decided to build out a few ideas using the technology but the projection-based technology didn’t result in anything very compelling.

But the project got the team thinking “Why can’t the whole panel of glass be a display?” So, they ordered a 52-in. OLED TV, peeled it out of its frame and mounted it to the front glass of an excavator and turned it on. What they saw was far more interesting than the projector-based tech.

Over time, the company struck up a partnership with LG and devised a way to embed a transparent OLED touchscreen display into the glass of a construction vehicle cab. Bobcat first showed this technology to the public at the Bauma show in Munich in 2022. In that first showing, Bobcat replaced the boom-side window of the telehandler with a transparent display. When the display is off, you can see right through it like a normal window. But when it is on, you can still roughly see what’s on the other side of the glass, but overlaid on top of that is a remarkably vibrant and crisp touchscreen display.

In the telehandler implementation, Bobcat tied the transparent display window to a camera that allowed the operator to “see through” the telehandler boom when it was in a position that would normally block the operator’s view to that side of the machine.

But Bobcat and LG have continued to revise and improve upon the technology and this year at CES, Bobcat showed a CTL with the transparent display in the front glass of the machine. Like the telehandler demo from 2022, the display was able to show a camera view, this time giving the operator a view of the blade edge.

Though electrification and autonomy have dominated the tech news around construction equipment for several years now, Bobcat’s transparent display feels like a viable solution few people — if anyone — saw coming. While just about every competitor has either released an electric machine or is working on releasing one, none of them have Bobcat’s proprietary transparent display tech, which the company is busy patenting. And with the rise of augmented reality through devices such as Apple’s Vision Pro and Meta’s Quest 3 headsets, AR is a technology that offers several clear benefits today.

Bobcat is exploring implementations as simple as the ability to move core display functions such as operation indicators, maintenance alerts, and camera displays to this transparent display, but is also exploring the idea of being able to overlay the jobsite in front of an operator with site plans that update in real time.

Conclusion

Bobcat's RogueX2 electric and autonomous loader

Honeyman and Bobcat are the first to admit that traditional, diesel-hydraulic construction equipment will be around for a long time yet. However, whether it’s with the aim of imagining the next production-increasing feature, changing the way people use a machine, attracting new talent to the company or ensuring that a company’s long history continues well into the future, Bobcat is fully invested in the exploration of new ideas and technologies and they are doing so at an unmatched pace.

Honeyman has told me that Bobcat doesn’t want to just be a company that shows off cool pictures of concepts in PowerPoint presentations. The company’s true love is building real things that make life easier for its customers and empower them to change the world around them.

Wayne Greyson is the Machine Heads editor for Compact Equipment.