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Caterpillar reveals details of new future-focussed excavators

With the introduction of its next-generation hydraulic excavator range, Caterpillar is promising to transform the industry by improving operator efficiency, reducing fuel consumption, and lowering maintenance costs

Caterpillar organised a product demonstration to showcase the features of its next-generation excavators.
Caterpillar organised a product demonstration to showcase the features of its next-generation excavators.

As one of the biggest – if not the biggest – players in the global construction machinery and equipment market, Caterpillar has had a hand in setting and defining the rules by which the industry has operated over the years.

The manufacturer, however, doesn’t appear to have any qualms about breaking those rules – or at least pushing them aside to make way for new ones.

“Welcome to the biggest improvements in fuel efficiency. Welcome to the lowest maintenance costs. Welcome to our next generation of excavators. New range, new rules,” goes Caterpillar’s preamble to the grand reveal of its new hydraulic excavator (HEX) range, encouraging the members of the international press gathered at its Málaga Demonstration and Learning Centre to “get ready to tear up the old rule book and rewrite the rules”.

A 106ha facility located on Spain’s Costa del Sol, the centre was established in 1971. It boasts a 220-seat auditorium, a 625m2 exhibition centre, several conference rooms, a number of service training facilities, around 60 demo machines, and a viewing terrace.

It also features a grandstand that looks out over a quarry – the setting of the official unveiling, which proves to be a spectacle of sound and light that hints at what’s to come by referencing the Michael Bay film, Transformers: The Last Knight, in which a Cat excavator makes a cameo.  

The equipment is none other than the 320, one of three models that comprise Caterpillar’s next-generation excavator range in the 18.1-tonne (20-ton) size class, the other two being the 323 and the 320 GC. 

With the new range, Caterpillar promises not just a new set of rules but a new game altogether.  

“Up to 45% efficiency improvement for the operator, up to 25% reduction in fuel consumption, and up to 15% maintenance cost reduction – this is game changing,” says Herwig Peschl, global marketing manager of Caterpillar. “Game changing is what we’re about. We keep investing in our products and services to make sure we satisfy our customers [by giving them] what they have been asking for.” 

Damien Giraud, vice president of global construction and infrastructure (GCI) at Caterpillar, elaborates on Peschl’s statement by emphasising Caterpillar’s goal of “transforming” the global excavator industry.

Noting that the excavator business, specifically the 9.1t to 81.6t (10-ton to 90-ton) market, has a global value of $22bn and is a “huge industry by itself”, he says: “[Our only purpose] is customer experience. If you think about the contractors working on jobsites, they struggle to recruit operators. They have a hard time finding skilled operators.

“Our job, coming in with the new generation excavators, is to make any average operator a great operator, to make sure that they can do their jobs even though they have not [received much training] in the past, [to help them] evolve from just being okay to being the best in class – this is what we intend to do for our customers.” 

In addition to operator skill, Caterpillar aims to address fuel and maintenance costs, jobsite safety, operator comfort, and variations in market requirements with its new range, announces Peschl.

“Game changing can be summarised in three words: simplification, innovation, and choices,” he says, revealing that Cat’s simplification strategy has meant slashing the number of its platforms, cabin types, and air filters by more than half.

“This is not just applicable to the [18.1t] size class but to all our product lines. With our current excavator series, we have 28 different platforms. We are reducing these to 12,” he continues. “What is a platform? A platform is a chassis; it is the hydraulics, the drivetrain, and the powertrain.”

Commenting on how the change will benefit Caterpillar’s customers, he explains: “The fewer platforms you have, the fewer parts you would have in the overall product line, [and] the more commonality you would have if you owned different size-class products.”

The heavy equipment manufacturer, Peschl discloses, is also reducing the number of cabin types from 16 to three. This decision was taken following discussions with customers, who stated that operators found it challenging to adapt to different cabs when using different sizes of excavator. This feedback takes on more significance in light of reports from customers that they are having difficulty finding good operators, Peschl points out. “There will be three cabs across the whole excavation product line, whether it’s a small excavator or a large excavator.

“This is a big change and [it will] really help drive benefits for our customers, making it easier for the operators to switch models, switch size classes, and still have the same controls.”

Caterpillar’s simplification strategy extends to air filters, Peschl adds, explaining that the company has decided to reduce the number of air filters in its excavator range from 15 to four. With all four serving the whole product line, Caterpillar is confident its customers will see their inventory costs go down.

In a move reminiscent of a guru reciting a mantra, Peschl shifts his attention to the topic of Cat’s innovation strategy by repeating the event’s magic numbers: 45, 25, and 15 – 45% improvement in operator efficiency, 25% decrease in fuel consumption, and 15% reduction in maintenance costs. 

These claims are expanded on by Julien Roux, Caterpillar’s regional product application manager for Europe, Africa, and the Middle East, who details the features of the next-gen HEX range.

“Over the years, all manufacturers – Caterpillar included – have had the same approach,” Roux recalls. “We offered technology through optional attachments that allowed a progressive adoption of technology by the market, but that also created a lot of complexity in our machines. 

“We’re just breaking away from that approach. The 320 GC is very similar to what the market knows today. It delivers competitive performance and productivity, durability, and reliability for those customers who want to do the job, while keeping a close eye on their owning and operating costs.”

He explains that the 320 GC, designed for low- to medium-duty applications, has the lowest cost-per-hour performance and fuel consumption of the three. The 320, on the other hand, is intended for medium- to heavy-duty applications, offering versatility and the lowest jobsite cost; while the 323, described as the heavy-duty digger, has the most power and lift capacity. 

Standard to all three are Cat Connect Technology – which increases operating efficiency by up to 45% over traditional grading operations – and a rear-view camera. In regions where regulations require it, a right-view camera will also be provided. The 320 and the 323 are installed with the Cat Grade 2D system. The system, which can be upgraded to Cat Grade with Advanced 2D or Cat Grade with 3D, reportedly offers guidance for depth, slope, and horizontal distance to grade, to help operators achieve their target grade quickly and accurately.

The system, says Roux, comes with an e-fence feature that allows the operator to create a “bubble” around the machine, preventing any part of the excavator from moving outside operator-defined set points, boosting operational safety. 

Other standard features of the Cat 320 and 323 include Standard Grade Assist and the Cat Payload on-board weighing. 

Standard Grade Assist automates boom, stick, and bucket movements, allowing operators to stay on grade with single-lever digging, while the payload component is expected to deliver precise load targets and increased loading efficiency with on-the-go weighing and real-time payload estimates without swinging, to prevent truck over- or under-loading. 

Operators of the 320 and 323 will also have access to Cat Link hardware and software, which connect jobsites to the office, providing customers with machine-critical operating information. 

“[For the 320 GC excavators], all other control and guidance features can be provided by our technology dealer network, Sitech,” says Roux. 

To achieve a reduction in fuel usage, Caterpillar has installed its next-generation excavators with engines that provide power ratings from 107kW to 117kW, as well as a new smart mode operation feature that automatically matches engine and hydraulic power to digging conditions. According to the manufacturer, engine speed is also automatically lowered when there is no hydraulic demand.  

Further boosting the products’ fuel efficiency is a new cooling system, says Roux, explaining that the setup employs multiple electric fans that independently monitor hydraulic oil, radiator, and air-to-air aftercooler temperatures to deliver the exact airflow required. 

With a new hydraulic system built for responsiveness and efficiency, the 320 GC, 320, and 323 all feature a new main control valve that eliminates the need for pilot lines, reduces pressure losses, and lowers fuel consumption, says Caterpillar, adding that fewer hydraulic lines results in 20% less oil required, lowering long-term operating and maintenance costs.

Moreover, the new range features a new hydraulic return filter that boasts a 3,000-hour service life, a new air filter with integrated pre-cleaner and primary and secondary filters that extend service life to 1,000 hours, and a new fuel tank cap filter that extends service life to 2,000 hours.

“Each component that you will find in those machines can be programmed for efficiency, for extra productivity, for better fuel consumption, and for more safety,” says Giraud.

“Another point I would like to make […] is that this platform is a true global platform. The only thing you will see changing from one region to [another] is the engine arrangement, because regulations are different depending on where you are in the world, in terms of emissions regulations. But the machine itself, the technology itself, [and] all of what is going to create customer value [are] exactly the same.

“It’s a true first global platform that we will be shipping from our factories with the same quality wherever you are.”

Caterpillar’s next-gen HEX range is expected to become available in the Middle East in the second quarter of 2018, with production already underway.

Talking about the region as a Caterpillar market, Peschl tells Construction Week: “The Middle East is a very important market for us, and we have, in fact, offices in Dubai. [The region] is a big part of our business, and it will remain that way.”

The manufacturer, says Peschl, is working closely with Al-Bahar, its local dealer, to build its capabilities in the Middle East and to make sure that the products it is supplying to the market can withstand environmental challenges like high temperatures and sand.

But the challenges in the Middle East go beyond its regional conditions, notes Peschl, explaining: “The region is expanding and growing quite fast. The growth [can be] overwhelming, and very often in the Middle East we see places that grow very fast – in an explosive way, I would say – and then come to a sudden halt again. This unpredictability is the kind of challenge that we face.”

He continues: “From a product perspective, we’re trying to bring adapted solutions for our customers, and that will include the 320 GC, the 320, and the 323. This means we have options for big customers that need highly advanced products, as well as simpler products for smaller customers that are just starting their business.”

Customers are at the core of what Caterpillar does, Peschl emphasises, saying that the company, in the process of developing its next-generation excavator range, conducted “thousands of interviews” with its customers and “listened extensively” to what they had to say.

This customer-centric approach, he notes, is the secret behind Cat’s position as an industry leader.

Expressing a similar viewpoint, Roux says: “We strongly believe that by serving the customers better [and] allowing them to make more money with our machines than with any other machine on the market, they will keep coming back to Caterpillar.

“So, while we can be sure that [the] competition will copy our approach in the next 18 to 24 months, we have a window of opportunity to set Caterpillar as the standard technology provider in this industry,” he adds, concluding: “The transformation of our industry has started.”

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