Skid Steers: The Next Generation

Star date 20-06. It’s been more than 45 years since the inception of the skid steer and much has changed since the M-400 Melroe self-propelled loader
was introduced. From the skid steer’s controls to its brute strength, today’s compact equipment jack-of-all-trades is an evolved machine mongrel — vastly different from its 1960 self. Working its way to the top of the industry, the skid steer’s story follows it from three wheels to four,
radial to vertical lift, hand and foot controls to pilot joysticks and beyond.

Today’s skid steers are going where no tool carriers have gone before — and in comfort and style. While loaders of yore had a bad reputation for rattling teeth, today’s skid steers are smooth rides, engineered with low-effort joysticks.

“For the sake of the customer, today’s cabs are quieter and joystick pilot controls are now an available option on skid steers,” says Kelly Moore, Mustang product manager for skid steer loaders. “Before Cat introduced the first joystick pilot controls, you had two hand levers for the drive controls and foot pedals for the loader controls. With joystick pilot controls, your hands control the drive and loader controls, though there may be a foot throttle pedal on some machines.”

Although companies like Bobcat, Caterpillar, Mustang, Gehl and New Holland retain the more traditional dual lever and foot pedal controls, all offer a pilot joystick option. When opting for the joystick pilot controls, you can expect to add $1,800 to $2,000 to the price tag of your loader.

Much like the great debate between backhoe and excavator controls on a mini ex, skid steer pilot controls also offer two distinct control options — The ISO and H patterns. With the ISO pattern, the left joystick controls the machine’s movements. Pushing the joystick forward moves the machine forward, pulling it back reverses it, tilting right counter rotates right and tilting left counter rotates left. In the other hand, the right control operates the bucket. Pushing the joystick forward lowers the loader arm, pulling back raises the arm, tilting left controls the bucket curl and tilting right controls the bucket dump.

With H-pattern controls, machine and loader arm controls are split between the two joysticks. Pushing forward on both the left and right joystick will move the machine forward and pulling back on both will reverse. To counter rotate, push one joystick forward and pull back on the other. For loader controls, the left joystick controls the loader arm (tilt left for raise and right for lower) and the right joystick controls bucket movement (tilt left for curl and right for dump).

Sometimes you feel like an H and sometimes you don’t, so Bobcat offers Selectable Joystick Controls, which change from ISO- to H-pattern controls at the flick of a switch.

Ride control, a feature pioneered by Case in 1998, is a popular option to couple with joystick pilot controls — it stabilizes the boom on rough-terrain jobsites and minimizes material spillage.

“With its additional hydraulics, sometimes referred to hydro-glide, the ride control system provides a smoother ride, keeps the load in the bucket and allows the operator to drive a bit faster because of the load security,” says Moore. “It’s a standard part of Mustang’s joystick option today.”

Meanwhile, Bobcat offers its own ride option (speed management) that is paired with its selectable joystick controls. With the speed management feature, operators can dial in their required travel speed in small increments, from 0 to 7 mph, while maintaining driveline torque, full hydraulic power and full use of the joystick’s range of motion.

Creature comforts go hand-in-hand with ease of operation, as the more comfortable you are, the longer you are going to be able to operate the equipment. Most manufacturers offer a cab package that features every luxury you would want in your skid steer, or dream home. With offerings such as an enclosed cab with heat and air conditioning, a deluxe suspension seat, power outlet and cooled glove box for your lunch, you may never want to get out.

“Today’s skid steer loaders are available with comfortable cabs with excellent visibility and more room for less operator fatigue,” says Mike Fitzgerald, Bobcat loader product specialist. “With Bobcat skid steer loaders, a rear-pivot seat bar accommodates larger operators and doubles as a secondary restraint and arm rest. This provides comfortable support and more precise operation of the controls.”

Cabs are also quieter with silencing insulation on fans and air intake lines. Using sophisticated technologies, some manufacturers, such as Mustang, monitor cab acoustic levels before the machine rolls off the production line to ensure the skid steer provides a quiet work environment.

Completely Attached

Besides the operator, skid steer attachments have been a major motivator for skid steer innovations. After Bobcat’s patent on its quick-attach system, Bob-Tach, expired in 1989, many manufacturers gobbled up the opportunity to slap a quick-attach system on their machines. Since then, operators have been swapping attachments like they are going out of style.

“Without a doubt, the single most driving force behind the skid steer being a multifaceted machine has been the attachments,” adds Moore. “It seems that every week there is a new attachment that makes better use of the skid steer’s power.”

Anyone who has operated a skid steer within the past 10 years should be familiar with the Bob-Tach system. You simply scoop the top of the attachment frame under the attachment’s top flange, curl the bucket up to pick up the attachment and flip the pins to secure the attachment to the machine. To make attachment changes even easier, companies like Bobcat offer a power Bob-Tach system that engages the secure pins with the flip of a switch on the cab’s dash panel, allowing you to change the attachment without leaving the cab.

To power the latest and greatest attachments, the skid steer’s hydraulic system needs to provide an ample amount of hydraulic oil flow and pressure. High-flow hydraulic systems originated in the 1980s to power larger niche attachments, and today is an option on nearly every skid steer loader. While current standard hydraulic systems have improved over the years to accommodate hard-working attachments like hydraulic brooms and grapple buckets, high-flow hydraulics are still required to power heftier attachments such as a cold planers, rock and concrete saws and large trenchers and augers.

Spanning flow ranges from 16 to 40 gpm, the hydraulic system pulls hydraulic fluid from a reservoir, using fluid under pressure to power the attachment. The more flow you have, the larger the displacement motor and the larger the motor, the more torque you’ll have for a desired speed. Generally, standard flow hydraulic pressures range from 16 to 25 gpm, while high-flow hydraulic pressures range from 26 to 40 gpm.

As skid steers grow in power and productivity, the importance of daily maintenance checks cannot be understated. And that responsibility falls squarely on the shoulders of the operator. To make daily service checks less painful, manufacturers have made access to service points easy and localized. Additionally, many manufacturers such as Case, Bobcat, Mustang and Volvo build the skid steer’s cab to either roll forward or backward for quick engine access and major repair work.

“A swing-open tailgate gives owners excellent access to the engine package,” says Fitzgerald. “Operators should check engine fluids, fills, drains, filters, the battery and air cleaner daily.”

The manufacturer’s operator’s manual is the bible of equipment service and maintenance checks. And today’s operator’s manual is chock-full of checklists for all daily service points and routine maintenance intervals (when the machine reaches the 25-, 50-, 100- and 150-hours of operation milestones).
In case of a maintenance emergency, many of today’s skid steers have indicator panels with lights and gauges that track major problems that would immediately require an operator’s attention.

Choose the Path

To choose or not to choose, that is the question. Manufacturers have come up with so many new skid steer technologies that, in addition to the standard goodies, they give you the chance to choose even more productivity-enhancing options. Aside from deciding on your machine’s control pattern, standard or high-flow hydraulics and whether to go with the climate-controlled deluxe cab, the choice of a vertical or radial lift machine could potentially be the most important decision. After all, matching the machine to your tasks is the path to a wise investment.

The skid steer was originally developed in the early 1960s as a radial lift machine. Ten years later, New Holland introduced its Super Boom Series, which featured a vertical lift path for loading applications, a tradition that New Holland continues today. The majority of equipment manufacturers offer both lift types within their skid steer product line, making the choice between the two less of a lift path rivalry and more of a task-oriented decision.

“Radial lift tends to be a more robust, stronger machine because of less pin pivots. And it has a higher mid-height reach. However, vertical lift tends to be more consistent, as it keeps the load in the same lift pattern,” says Moore. “With vertical lift, you’ll see higher load capacities and a bit more versatility. For forklift-type and loading applications, the vertical lift does a great job, but heavier digging and heavy-duty applications tend to be better suited for radial lift.”

Both the vertical and radial lift machine have a place in the market, with advantages in particular applications, says Fitzgerald. Vertical lift path skid steer loaders excel at lifting applications where the lift arms can be raised straight up and down. Vertical lift loaders provide operators with extra reach at the maximum lift height. On radial lift machines, the boom follows an arc when raised.

Spin-offs

There have been quite a number of machines that have taken a cue from the jobsite king of versatility. The compact track loader has recently come of age, but rather than being a threat to the skid steer market, the two machines work well in their respective environments.

“Bobcat compact track loaders resemble skid steer loaders, but the undercarriage is much more sophisticated than simply swapping rubber tires for rubber tracks,” says Fitzgerald. “The compact track loaders complement skid steer loaders, performing well in muddy or soft ground conditions, where they have excellent maneuverability, flotation and breakout, pushing and grading forces.”

While the skid steer spends most of its time working on demanding surfaces and pavement, the compact track loader has a softer side, preferring to work on more sensitive grounds such as lawns and soft soil. Being forgiving on more delicate surfaces has made the compact track loader a big hit in the landscaping market, where a skid steer would traditionally tear through the earth on counter rotations.

Yet, Bobcat took the opportunity to send one of its skid steers to therapy to work on its sensitivity issues. When the A300 all-wheel steer loader emerged, it was ready to go to work on sensitive landscaping, utility and municipal jobsites. The all-wheel steer allows the inside tires to turn at a different angle and speed than the outside tires, which means it turns more like a car instead of counter rotating like a skid steer. However, sometimes the A300 likes to get down and dirty on tough gravel and pavement jobsites. So with a flip of a switch, it returns to its roots as a fully operational skid steer machine.

The other machine that follows closely in the skid steer’s path is the compact utility loader (CUL). Bold enough to also be called a mini skid steer, these shrunken machines feature either tracks or wheels and can get into small nooks and crannies that their larger brethren would dare not go. Although CULs have the strength of 10 men and the ability to power many attachments like its bigger brother, it lacks the skid steer’s speed and agility.

Despite those machines that challenge the skid steer’s throne, manufacturers have their sights set on achieving a better hydraulic performance and ease and comfort of operation to allow the skid steer to continue its jobsite reign.

“With the new federal regulations, system changes are required such as new coolers, fans and air intakes. Then you have to fit the engine into the chassis and make sure that all the peripherals are working,” says Moore. “With Tier 3 requirements coming up in 2008, there are going to have to be new ways to reduce noise and emissions while improving productivity.”

Jason Morgan is assistant editor of Compact Equipment.

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