By Ken McKentee
Wheel loaders are the “Swiss Army knives of the scrapyard,” says the director of national accounts for a Swedish heavy equipment manufacturer with its U.S. headquarters in Pennsylvania. “You can put a large assortment of attachments on the machine to give it different capabilities.” Among the most popular wheel loader attachments in scrapyards are buckets, forks, and grapples that allow the machines to load scrap into containers, unload and move scrap cars, move materials around the yard, and perform other duties. “If the yard has the space and capability to accommodate a wheel loader, it is the most versatile tool you can have,” says a senior product specialist for a South Korean company with its U.S. headquarters near Atlanta. “It can be a forklift. It can be a loader. It can handle a lot of different tasks.”
With models available in a wide range of sizes and capacities, from compact 60-hp machines with buckets less than a cubic yard to 500-plus-hp machines with massive 9-yard buckets, manufacturers say almost any scrapyard could put this equipment to good use. Two size ranges are the most popular in this industry, says the marketing manager for a Japanese company that also has its U.S. operations outside of Atlanta: Yards use loaders with a bucket capacity of roughly 3 cubic yards to move loose material in the bucket or end-of-life vehicles with a fork attachment. “The other common size is the larger 70,000- to 100,000-pound [operating weight] loaders that are used to push material, stack piles that require high reach, [stockpile] material, or [load] trucks or railcars.”
The marketing manager for a third company with U.S. operations based in Georgia agrees that loaders with bucket capacities in the 2.5- to 4.5-cubic-yard range are the most prevalent in this industry. “That size is small and agile enough to move around the yard and accommodate any load [recyclers] will need to handle,” he says. “Usually the machines in the scrapyard will have a heavy-duty carriage and longer forks to accommodate larger raw materials like cars and other scrap.”
In recent years, manufacturers say they have tweaked these versatile machines to improve safety, efficiency, and durability when working in a scrap environment. Here’s a look at the latest innovations, how to select the right one for your yard, and how to keep it in service as long as possible.
Safety improvements first
Safety is of paramount importance with a wheel loader, these representatives say. “You can have the most efficient, well-run yard, but if you have safety issues, it can shut you down in a heartbeat,” the national accounts director says. Safety should be a major component of the operator training equipment dealers offer, the marketing manager for the Japanese company says. First and foremost, every wheel loader should have seat belts, and you must train loader operators to wear them. Training in the proper use of backup cameras and mirrors is essential as well.
“A lot of changes have been geared to making the machines not only safer to be in, but also safer to be around,” this marketing manager notes. “We have radar detection systems that help to prevent operators from bumping into people and things. Multidirectional cameras give the operator a bird’s-eye view of what’s going on around the machine.” In addition to the proximity detection system and cameras, the company offers safety equipment on wheel loaders that includes window guarding and fire suppression.
The senior product specialist notes a similar video camera system with proximity detection that his company recently made an option on its wheel loaders, which range from 156 to 376 hp and 3 to 7.3 cubic yards’ bucket capacity. A camera is on the front of the cab, on each side of the machine, and on the rear, offering a 360-degree view around the machine as well as a top-down view, side view, and various other views on a color touch-screen monitor. The system also includes intelligent moving object detection, which alerts the operator to the presence of people or objects up to 23 feet away. “If there was a safety design spec for wheel loaders, that would be my highly recommended option,” he says. The Georgia-based marketing manager agrees that visibility around the wheel loader—especially while it’s operating in tight, confined areas—is a key safety component.
Locking differentials are an important feature for scrapyards that can add to safe operations when the yard is experiencing slippery ground conditions, the senior product specialist says. “Having a locking front axle provides better traction to dig into a pile of material.”
Safety for the wheel loader operator is important as well. “We’ve focused on the way the machines are designed—the access points to get in and out of the machines, the cab design—the ergonomics for the driver,” the national accounts director says. The Japanese company’s marketing manager also notes its wheel loaders’ enhanced operator environment, for both comfort and safety, and their improved guarding packages, for both safety and durability.
Efficiency and durability
These representatives tout their wheel loaders’ efficiency improvements as strongly as their safety improvements. The Georgia-based marketing manager points to his machines’ hydrostatic or continuously variable transmissions. Those transmissions transmit engine power by use of a system of hydraulic pumps that pressurize and release fluid. The design can provide a quick increase in power, but it isn’t efficient for acceleration or maintaining high speeds. “They are more efficient in applications where machines don’t have to do a lot of traveling but are doing some repetitive work,” such as in a scrapyard, the marketing manager explains. “It makes it easier for the operator to go from forward to reverse.”
The Swedish company announced last year that three of its wheel loaders, with bucket capacities that range from 2.1 to 9.2 cubic yards, are up to 25 percent more fuel efficient than previous models. The models feature “smart control” that better coordinates the engine and hydraulics to reduce the risk of wheel spinning or machine stalling when the operator is filling the bucket and the machine distributes power to the working hydraulics. “Since more power is distributed to the hydraulics, the lifting time is reduced, which shortens the reversing distances in short-cycle applications,” the national accounts director says. The function, which works in first and second gear, optimizes fuel efficiency and performance by ensuring the machine is using the correct torque in all situations. A second feature, “smooth control,” helps operators on uneven ground, such as a demolition site, retain a steady throttle position and engine speed without affecting engine responsiveness, he says, which also achieves better fuel efficiency.
In January, this company announced that it will stop developing new diesel engine-based versions of its smallest compact wheel loaders, with bucket capacities of around 1 cubic yard, and instead develop electric motors for them. “With this move, [we are] the first construction equipment manufacturer to commit to an electric future for its compact machine range,” the company announced. “This follows an overwhelmingly favorable reaction from the market after the successful unveiling of a number of concept machines in recent years.” Diesel combustion currently remains the most appropriate power source for its larger machines, it added.
Fuel consumption can be a significant cost factor in heavy equipment, says the owner of a firm on the West Coast that sells and maintains such equipment. He oversees equipment for several scrapyards, including several dozen wheel loaders. “In the old days, nobody looked at fuel consumption, but I think people need to start looking at it very closely,” he says. He recently replaced a nine-year-old material handler that was consuming 8.4 gallons of fuel an hour with a new machine that consumes just 4 gallons an hour, for example. “That wasn’t a wheel loader, but it’s an example of the money you can save through better fuel efficiency,” he says.
Durability is important when operating in a scrapyard environment as well. The Georgia-based company notes that it introduced a wheel loader last year with a bucket capacity range of 2.5 to 4 cubic yards that offers several features specifically designed for recycling operations, including heavy-duty axles that allow the use of solid tires to improve up time in harsh work environments. Solid-steel lift arm plates; steel plates, cross members, and gussets on the frame; double roller bearings on the top and bottom hinge points; an oversized driveline bearing; and lift arm pin protection are other features it says improve durability. A variable speed, reversible cooling fan can help keep the cooling system clean and operating efficiently. The Swedish manufacturer offers five models with a cooler that slides out of the chassis for easier removal of dirt and debris in addition to reversing radiator cooling fans.
On-board scales and telematics are popular additional technologies on wheel loaders. “An on-board material weighing system is standard with all our wheel loaders,” the senior product specialist says. “It allows the operator to monitor the amount of materials he is handling … and he can segregate them by materials, such as ferrous and nonferrous.” (For more about loader and lifting scales, see the Equipment and Services section of Scrap’s May/June issue.)
Telematics systems, which monitor and remotely share vital information about a machine’s operation via the Internet, have gone from cutting-edge to common in the past decade, the national accounts director says. “They do everything from geo-location to reporting hours and fall codes to [reporting] more safety-related features like overheating, high-speed shifting, and hot turbo shutdown,” he says. (The latter is when the operator parks the machine at the end of a shift and switches off the ignition immediately instead of allowing the turbocharged engine to cool. When done repeatedly, it can damage the turbocharger or the engine.) “Telematics help to get ahead of a [problem] before it becomes a failure so that the customer has maximum up time,” he says. Nearly all wheel loaders sold in the last decade have telematics capabilities, but subscription packages that give buyers access to the machine data vary among the manufacturers. The senior product specialist says his company offers its premium telematics package free for five years with the purchase of a new machine, for example.
With almost 50 manufacturers selling wheel loaders in North America, and each making multiple models, scrapyard owners and managers have a lot to consider when it comes to buying or leasing a machine. “Some of the things you want to think about include the size of your yard and the volume of material you handle, the ground conditions, and the distance between where you load and [unload] your materials,” the national accounts director says.
Undersizing a new machine may be the biggest mistake yard operators make, the West Coast firm owner says. “Equipment managers in the scrap industry often undersize the machine to save money,” he explains. “If you buy a loader and put a pair of forks on the front of it, then try to lift a 40-foot container full of railroad ties, you’re going to find out really fast if the machine is going to have enough lift. You might think you’re saving money [by buying] a smaller machine, then [you] end up making extra trips around the yard that wouldn’t be necessary with a bigger machine. You’re not only wasting time, but you’re also putting a lot of excess wear on the tires.” Have prospective dealers do a thorough yard and weight study to determine which machine is most appropriate for your operation, that owner says.
An auto dismantling yard that the West Coast firm works with uses wheel loader models in the 24,500-pound to 38,000-pound operating weight range to transport and dismantle vehicles before they get crushed and sent to a shredder facility. The shredder yards he works with in the Western United States use larger wheel loaders, with operating weights from 36,200 to 80,000 pounds, he says.
“Attachment options are another consideration. That depends on what you’re trying to move and what its density is. If the wheel loader is going to be used for multiple tasks, versatility is the key,” the national accounts director says. Yards that change attachments frequently might want to consider a quick-change coupler, the Georgia-based marketing manager suggests. “A quick coupler will allow a user to switch from a bucket to a grapple, for example, in a matter of seconds.”
Manufacturers suggest scrap facility buyers consider solid tires to avoid flats from running over sharp objects, guarding for vulnerable parts on the wheel loader, and heavy-duty axles and attachments. “Durability is a top requirement in the scrap business,” the marketing manager says.
Choosing the right wheel loader isn’t only about the piece of equipment, this marketing manager adds. “It’s also about the dealer relationship and the dealer support that you get after the sale,” he says. “How quickly can you get access to parts and service if a repair is needed? Do you trust the dealer to back you up when you’re down?” The marketing manager for the Japanese company agrees. “Dealer service is also a big consideration when purchasing equipment,” he says. “You need to find a manufacturer that is willing to come out and do some operator and maintenance training to make sure your staff is up to speed on how to use and take care of this machine properly.”
The senior product specialist suggests that prospective buyers “get their minds off branding. They need to really start to closely look at the product itself, whatever the piece of machinery is. For example, just because Nike is the most popular brand of running shoe doesn’t mean it is the best one,” he says. “You have to do your research, do the walk-arounds, find out the strength of the machine and what it offers the operator in terms of comfort, efficiency, and productivity because, basically, that is his office all day long.”
Although these manufacturer representatives were hesitant to discuss pricing, wheel loader prices generally start around $150,000 and can reach into the high six figures. Pricing variables can include the size of the machine as well as various options. “The price of wheel loaders is primarily affected by [the] choice of tires, attachments, and options required in a particular application,” the marketing manager for the Japanese company says. “Hydraulic grapples, coupler systems, and high lift arms can increase the price by as much as 25 percent.”
A properly maintained wheel loader can provide 8,000 to 12,000 hours of service, these sellers say, but that isn’t a hard and fast rule. “It all depends on the environment it is in and how well it is maintained,” the Georgia marketing manager says. The national accounts director agrees. “In the ideal world, a wheel loader will last 8,000 to 10,000 hours. But I have some customers who are at 20,000 to 30,000 hours and still running very efficiently.”
Routine scheduled maintenance, such as oil and filter changes and lubricating appropriate parts and joints, as well as daily inspections, can help lengthen a machine’s life. Newer models have auto-lubrication features that automatically keep joints well greased, the national accounts director notes.
The heavy equipment firm gets a longer life span from its wheel loaders by going beyond the manufacturers’ specifications for routine diagnostics and maintenance, such as by sampling all of its machines’ fluids every 250 hours, the owner says. “I don’t just sample the engine oil,” he notes. “I sample all of the compartments, including the differentials, hydraulics, and transmission. I don’t wait for the usual 1,000 hours for hydraulics sampling because that’s a long time to be unaware of what’s in there. I’d rather sample more often so that I can see what might be coming.”
One way to shorten a wheel loader’s life, on the other hand, is to load it beyond its intended capacity, the Georgia marketing manager says. “It’s important to be aware of the density of the material you’re working with,” he says. “Operators may work a machine just over its maximum capacity and assume that it’s OK because the machine is still working. But over time, they are putting stress on the machine that can shorten its life. I think that is one of the things that operators in this industry need to be more mindful of.”
Ken McEntee is the Strongsville, Ohio-based editor and publisher of The Paper Stock Report and other business periodicals.
With their wide range of sizes and attachments, wheel loaders are versatile machines for scrap processing facilities. Newer models feature improvements in safety, efficiency, and durability that could make them even stronger performers in difficult scrapyard conditions.