For the most part, construction equipment used to be equated with massive machines that could move mountains. But today, small is big.

While most of the construction-equipment industry has seen relatively slow growth in recent years, sales of compact equipment such as skid-steer loaders, compact wheel loaders, and mini excavators have been climbing at a double-digit pace.

That’s due to factors ranging from America’s aging infrastructure and changing demographics to the fact that smaller machines are better suited to many of today’s worksite demands.

Market shift
There are relatively few major U.S. infrastructure projects on the drawing boards — new freeways, dams, airports, or power plants. But construction on a more modest scale, such as strip malls and new housing, is definitely on the rise. And, as evidenced by the orange barrels that seem to line most every freeway, maintaining aging roads and bridges is starting to get the attention it deserves.

“There are not a lot of interstate highways being built, but there’s a lot of repair work going on,” explains Roy Brookhart, program manager with Caterpillar’s Construction Products Div., Sanford, N.C. This type of construction and rebuilding, he indicates, often means working on small sites, which lends itself to compact equipment.

That’s one reason sales of mini excavators have doubled over the last couple years, according to Lorenz Merfeld of Kobelco, Calhoun, Ga. “One advantage is these machines can work in much tighter, confined areas,” he says. “And it’s easier to position them exactly where needed.” A mini excavator operating in a narrow alley between two closely spaced buildings, he explains, can dig, swing 180°, and load material into a truck without moving. A more traditional tractor-loader-backhoe, on the other hand, must back out and turn around to dump each bucket. Thus, smaller machines can be much more productive than their larger counterparts, says Merfeld.

Another reason for the heightened interest in small construction equipment is the growing reluctance of average Americans to earn a living with a shovel, says Brookhart. As a result, construction projects that were once heavily labor intensive are becoming more mechanized. Regulators are also taking an increasingly hard look at the potential safety risks of handheld power tools such as jackhammers, which creates an added incentive for contractors to minimize their dependence on manual labor.

Economics plays a role, too. In many cases, small machinery is simply a better buy. “The cost of big equipment has continued to escalate,” says Mike Fitzgerald, a product representative with the Melroe Co., Fargo, N.D. In the meantime, manufacturers of compact equipment have benefited from the economies that come with higher production volumes, indicates Fitzgerald. He points to today’s Bobcat loaders which are significantly better than older versions when measured by almost any engineering and performance yardstick. Yet, thanks to more efficient manufacturing processes, they’re priced about the same as early 1980’s models.

Versatility is key
Compact equipment is no longer limited to just niche applications. For instance, skid-steer loaders were originally designed for the agricultural market, notes John Osarczuk, product manager for the New Holland Co., Carol Stream, Ill. But their use in the construction industry has exploded in recent years. Today, they’re used for residential and nonresidential construction, roadwork and bridge repair, as well as for demolition, recycling, and landscaping.

The key to growth in compact construction equipment has been their transformation from single-purpose devices to highly versatile machines. That is in large part due to the development of a wide range of work-tool attachments that let the equipment perform many different tasks. “Ten years ago traditional machines only carried a bucket.” says Osarczuk. “Now they’re portable powerplants, running everything from handtools to hydraulically driven attachments.

“A lot of times, the attachments actually drive the machine purchase,” he adds. Today, most manufacturers offer a wide range of quick-mount work tools, including general-purpose and job-specific buckets, as well as pallet forks, augers, hydraulic hammers, landscaping rakes and tillers, vibratory compactors, and brooms. The bottom line is that one machine equipped with the proper attachments can replace several dedicated machines. For instance, he explains, a skid-steer loader equipped with a cold planer, broom, and bucket can perform all the activities required on a road-crew work site.

As a result, compact equipment is no longer viewed as an extra machine or utility unit on a work site — it’s often the primary workhorse. “Ten years ago, skid loaders were being used as clean-up machines, maybe two to three hours per day,” says Osarczuk. “Now they’re used for entire eight-hour shifts, three shifts per day.”

This, in turn, has put heightened emphasis on performance and reliability. The latest in compact equipment offers a range of features such as simplified controls, onboard electronics that maximize power and fuel efficiency, and designs that continue to pack big-machine performance into smaller packages.

© 2010 Penton Media, Inc.