Skid Steer Loaders: More Power + Endless Attachments

Updated: Sep 17, 2019

A new generation of skid steer loaders offer innovative features to optimize your machine for the jobsite. Plus, a variety of attachments options make it a workforce multiplier.

By Construction Equipment Magazine

As a prime example of skid-steer innovations, this Volvo MC135D features a single lift arm and entry through a door on the left side of the cab.

Key Insights for Buyers

  • Skid steer loaders provide the option to switch between tires and tracks to optimize operating conditions.

  • Moving up to models with more size and capacity does not always mean a machine with more horsepower.

  • Skid steer attachments are 'workforce multipliers' for buyers willing to invest in them.

Skid steer loaders vs compact track loaders

Any discussion about the skid steer loader (SSL) these days seems to drift also into a discussion about the compact track loader (CTL)—given that, except for undercarriages, these machines share similar design fundamentals in terms of loader systems, operator stations, and the capacity to handle a wide range of attachments.

That said, some manufacturers are quick to note that their skid steer loader and compact track loader models are not simply identical machines with different undercarriages, but are, in fact, machines specifically designed to function optimally with their given undercarriage. The SSL owner, of course, has the option of installing rubber or steel tracks over the tires, or, in some instances, removing the tires and bolting a complete track undercarriage to the SSL’s existing hubs.

In some operations—but not all—switching between tires and tracks is a viable strategy for accommodating changes in the machine’s operating conditions.

Probably best, then, is to address the relationship of these popular machines before taking a more focused look at the skid steer.

“Compact track loaders are still gaining ground on skid steer loaders,” says Lars Arnold, global product manager, skid steer loaders, Volvo Construction Equipment. “In 2012, the market was approximately 60 percent skid steer and 40 percent track loader. By 2017, those percentages had basically switched. That switch might be attributed in part to more track-loader size classes being introduced to the market in the last five years.”

Debbie Townsley, product marketing manager, Case Construction Equipment, suggests additional reasons for the CTL’s growing popularity.

“The industry migration to compact track loaders from skid steers continues, and that’s being driven [by a number of factors]: the CTL’s lower ground pressure and associated ability to work in softer conditions and not significantly impact existing terrain; the CTL’s considerably higher lifting capacities—compared with a skid steer of similar footprint—due to the stability of the tracks and increased ground contact; and the CTL’s ability to serve as an excellent platform for operating attachments, given its stability.”

But don’t count out the SSL. The SSL remains the machine of choice for a significant number of buyers.

“Where skid steers still win out are in applications where operators are consistently working on improved surfaces such as asphalt and hard-packed gravel,” says Case’s Townsley.

In fact, a skid-steer market segment that has experienced somewhat of a recent expansion is that for larger units, those with a rated operating capacity (ROC) of 2,200 pounds and greater. More specifically, sales of models with an ROC of between 2,700 and 3,150 pounds have been on the increase.

“The trend for both skid steers and compact track loaders is that customers are generally looking for larger machines with greater lifting capacity and greater hydraulic performance,” says Townsley. “They want to do more within a comparable footprint, compared with their previous skid steers.”

As skid-steer users require more capacity from their machines, rated operating capacity (ROC) continues to increase, such as the 3,950-pound ROC for the 100-horsepower Bobcat S850.

An interesting point to observe here is that moving up in terms of SSL size and capacity does not always mean a machine with more horsepower. Some manufacturers are designing these larger models to perform efficiently with 74-horsepower engines—a threshold that in many instances eliminates the need for exhaust after-treatment hardware, such as a diesel particulate filter or a selective catalytic reduction system.

But added capacity sometimes does require more horsepower. For example, the Manitou Group’s Gehl V420 has a 121-horsepower (gross) engine, needed to power the 11,700-pound machine, which has a 4,200-pound ROC and can generate 41 gpm of auxiliary hydraulic flow.

“These machines are designed for equipment users considering a wheel loader but don’t have the space to accommodate a machine of that size,” says Brian Rabe, regional training manager, Manitou North America.

Operator comfort is king

“Along with the continued hunt for more strength and greater capacities from skid steers, the demand for operator comfort is also changing the marketplace,” says Volvo’s Arnold. “Operators spend long days working in these machines, and keeping them comfortable lowers fatigue and increases safety and productivity.”

Tim Boulds, product operations manager, Kubota Construction Equipment, agrees.

“In addition to power and efficiency, operator comfort has been at the forefront of innovation and design during the last five years,” says Boulds. “For example, the rollup door on Kubota skid steers can be locked in the open position, allowing the operator to continue working without removing and storing the door. Plus, the door can be opened at any point of loader-arm travel.”

The design of the operator’s environment for skid steer loaders has kept pace with that of the most technically advanced machines. Kubota models, for instance, feature a slide-up front window and are available with multi-function control levers and the Kubota Shockless Ride (ride control) system.

As time passes, it seems that SSL owners and operators ask more of manufacturers.

“The skid steer was once thought of as a glorified wheelbarrow, but customer expectations have evolved, such that items that were considered ‘nice to have’ are now necessities,” says Kevin Coleman, Caterpillar product specialist.

“It’s common,” says Colemen, “for customers to expect a quiet, sealed, pressurized cab that delivers such amenities as a Bluetooth radio, rear-view camera, heated seat, and a full color display that also can serve as an operator interface for customizing machine performance to match preferences, experience level, task, and work-tool attachment.”

Coleman also notes a further benefit of user-oriented design.

“In many areas, the shortage of skilled operators places a premium on attracting and retaining qualified people. Providing good equipment that operators enjoy running increases the likelihood of attracting and retaining good employees—plus, a comfortable operator is always more productive.”

Lee Padgett, product manager, Takeuchi U.S., sees the same trend.

“In the past, skid steers were generally stripped-down, basic machines used in a wide range of applications,” says Padgett. “Their low entry-level cost made it easier for someone to get started in a trade. While many things on skid steers remain unchanged, there are some features that have been updated or upgraded. Using Takeuchi skid steers to illustrate, these machines feature pilot controls, updated cabins with simple rocker switches for machine functions, and new LED monitors that provide a great deal of information, including machine vitals.”

Enhanced visibility is also part of the equation

“With job sites becoming more crowded, visibility is at a premium,” says Caterpillar’s Coleman. “These compact machines are expected to deliver excellent visibility to the entire work site and to critical machine areas, such as the bucket cutting edge and sides, tires, rear corners, and the area behind the machine. Good visibility promotes a safer job site and higher productivity.”

Positive, intuitive, easy-to-use controls are also part of the human side of skid-steer design.

“From a machine-control perspective, many technologies currently are being offered for skid steers,” says Jason Boerger, marketing manager, Bobcat Co. “Joystick controls, for example, are offered on many machines, providing fingertip controls that enable an operator to easily control numerous machine functions without letting go of the joysticks.

“Among those functions might be speed management, which allows the operator to adjust travel speed independently from engine speed for greater attachment control, or steering-drift compensation, which keeps the loader on a straight path as the operator side-shifts certain types of attachments.”

Attachments drive versatility

Bobcat’s Boerger mentioned skid steer attachments, which are an integral aspect of the skid steer’s DNA.

“The ability of these machines to operate an increasingly broad array of attachments is important,” says Case’s Townsley, “and as such, outfitting them with hydraulic systems that provide both the flow and the pressure to handle demanding attachments—such as cold planers and mulching heads—is important.

“The skid steer and compact track loader, arguably more than any other platform, allow the user to do more varied work with a single machine than any other type of equipment. The industry will continue to find ways to expand the capabilities of this platform, both for skid steers and compact track loaders.”

As the capability of powered attachments increases, skid steers are being designed with more powerful auxiliary hydraulic systems. The Case SV340’s optional high flow system delivers up to 38.7 gpm.

Kubota’s Boulds sees the number of types of attachments increasing significantly—as well as the machine’s capacity to handle them.

“The versatility of skid steers continues to grow, both with more hydraulic and non-hydraulic attachments and with increases in hydraulic horsepower,” he says. “Attachments are ‘workforce multipliers’ that customers are willing to invest in to minimize purchases of other dedicated equipment. Kubota has seen sales of attachments triple over the last two years.”

Attachments themselves also are becoming more technically advanced. For example, blade boxes and grader attachments for skid steers are available with grade-control systems, including single-slope and dual-slope laser-guided systems, as well as 3D systems with either single- or dual-antenna GNSS guidance.

The increasing number of attachments available for skid steers continues to expand the versatility of these units. The grading attachment on this Takeuchi TS80 can easily be made to accommodate an automated grade-control system.

So, to sum up, although the skid steer loader might be in somewhat of a sales competition at present with the compact track loader, this universally popular machine continues to occupy an essential place in many fleets and in many types of operations.

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