Every year Equipment World’s editors roam the aisles of tradeshows and fly all over the country looking for the most innovative new designs in construction equipment. And while equipment manufacturers crank out hundreds of top-notch new machines every year, only a handful of designs can be said to be truly innovative. These are not upgrades or improvements to existing lines or new combinations of old technology – as valid as those machines may be. Our Innovations Award winners are not only thinking outside the box, they’ve redesigned the box. This year we found six machines worthy of that designation.

Caterpillar’s SystemOne undercarriage: A fresh take on a century-old concept
Tracked undercarriages have been around for about a century now, and their value in sloppy ground conditions is beyond dispute. But despite 100 years of refinement, undercarriages still offer contractors a host of maintenance headaches. The abrasive nature of their movement and the gritty conditions they work in conspire to grind down rollers, idlers and bushings. Even the most advanced undercarriages maintained on vigilant preventive maintenance programs are routinely subjected to costly downtime and expensive repairs as they wear out.

Caterpillar was a pioneer in the development of the first track-type tractors and continues today to work on extending undercarriage life and productivity. That 100-year development effort recently culminated in the company’s SystemOne undercarriage – the result of years of testing, development, numerous patents and extensive collaboration with contractors. SystemOne’s development path began six years ago when an initial brain trust of 60 designers, engineers and specialists throughout Caterpillar gathered in Peoria. Their mission, according to Tom Neeley, undercarriage commercial manager, was simple: Develop a quantum leap in small tractor undercarriage design. “In the past, we usually designed undercarriages for the largest tractors in the Caterpillar lineup, and scaled them down to make them work on our smaller machines,” Neely says. “But this time around, we set out to create a revolution in track design – instead of an evolution.”

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At the core of this undercarriage revolution was a desire to reduce the “fuss factor” found on previous undercarriages, adds Roger Lawson, undercarriage service engineer and field contact. “We set out to create an undercarriage that required fewer adjustments and less maintenance over its service life,” he says. “And those goals went hand-in-hand with our related mission, which was to reduce overall operating costs for contractors who would use the new undercarriage.”

If it looks good, it probably is good
The first phase of the development cycle was a brainstorming session to map out different concepts and development strategies. Lawson notes, however, Caterpillar customers were engaged in the process from the very beginning. “What the customers did was bring the real world into the process,” he says. “They really brought the whole thing full circle back into the dirt, melding our ideas and concepts with realities of their jobsites.”

In fact, the SystemOne developers eventually came up with four prototype designs for the new undercarriage. “Two were presented to the contractor advisors, and they were the ones who told us the SystemOne configuration was the version with the best chance of success,” Lawson adds.

Everything about conventional undercarriages points toward self-destruction, from the sand and grit they operate in to the harmful friction created by metal idlers, bogies and treads grinding together as the machine moves. Creating a track that wasn’t inherently self-destructive required the team to target several key areas on the undercarriage, says Michael Hasselbusch, project leader. “We focused on minimizing parts and developing a clean, simple design,” he says. “And at the heart of the effort was the application of technology and materials to develop a lubrication cartridge that separates oil from those track links in a self-contained unit. It sounds simple, but given the rigorous conditions these tracks work in, it required a tremendous amount of technology.”

At the same time, Hasselbusch notes, the team developed a new track linkage system and center-tread idler. And all of these components had to be brought together in a symbiotic way. “We’ve changed the age-old method of how the idler interfaces with the links as the track moves backward and forward over it,” Hasselbusch explains. “The straight-link track design is, in some ways, similar to a bicycle chain. And it continues to surprise us with how strong and resilient it is.”

Surprisingly, orchestrating all track parts to move and work together in a new way wasn’t the greatest challenge the SystemOne team faced as they developed the undercarriage. “Crafting a durable seal for the oil cartridge – that was the biggest hurdle we encountered,” Hasselbusch says. “In order to ensure these seals would last for the entire life of the undercarriage we had to eliminate bushing turns on the track and come up with a new, more robust design for the cartridge using all-new materials and untested technology.”

For the first time ever, Cat engineers ran the prototype undercarriage in a 24-hour, seven-day, nonstop test cycle, intentionally trying to cause premature track failure. They were unsuccessful. In fact, to date, not one SystemOne undercarriage – in field-testing or customer use – has experienced a premature failure.

Editor’s Comments
Cat’s fresh look at an age-old problem – undercarriage maintenance and durability – has culminated in an all-new design with truly astounding performance. SystemOne will allow undercarriages to work harder, last longer and cost less over the life of a machine; attributes that will benefit earth-moving contractors greatly in the years to come.
— Jack Roberts

Ditch Witch’s XT850: This excavator tool carrier hybrid has become a key product
in the company’s push into the compact equipment market.

Approximately two years ago, engineers at The Charles Machine Works started delving into the compact equipment market. They looked at compact skid steers and excavators and came out with their own models in 2003. Still, something was missing.

“When we looked at all the jobs for which customers were using compact machines, we felt there was a gap that wasn’t being answered,” says Mike Lumbers, senior product manager, compact utility. Soon several engineers and product people came up with a wish list for a machine that would fill this gap: it had to cover more than 180 degrees of swing, have two working ends with one set of operational controls, have a seat that pivots into position much like one on a backhoe and offer excellent all-around visibility.

Thus was born the Ditch Witch XT850 excavator tool carrier, and product development soon gained warp speed. “From the time we literally sketched our ideas down on a napkin to the time when we sold our first units was 18 months,” Lumbers says.

Cody Sewell, head of engineering and the grandson of company founder and chairman Ed Malzahn, put all the ideas together and built the first concept in July 2002. Before the first prototype was built though, the team discarded the idea of using an operator’s station that turned 360 degrees, such as those seen on compact excavators. “We decided it would defeat trying to turn around in a small space, especially with the tool carrier on the other end,” Lumbers says.

So Sewell designed a patent-pending 260-degree excavator sweep, which gives the machine the ability to offset dig 130 degrees left and right of center. The pivot point of the excavator end of the XT850 is located at the front of the machine where the boom connects to the tractor. A second pivot point is beneath the floor of the operator’s station, under the seat. It rotates the entire boom assembly, including the boom-swing pivot.

To offset dig, the assembly rotates in one direction from the center pivot and the boom is swung from the front pivot point in the opposite direction. This ability allows users to dig against a footing or wall, or choose a number of positions where to dig and where to put spoils without having to move the machine.

Designers knew they would have to make the XT850 easy to operate, so two joysticks control both the excavator boom and the tool carrier end. With a flip of a switch, users can alternate from controlling the ground drive, lift arms and attachments to controlling the excavator. More than 70 attachments fit on the unit, including buckets, forks, augers, trenchers and tiller.

Market acceptance of the XT850 is above even the company’s expectations, and the company shipped more units this past year than originally planned. In November, it won a technical innovation award from an Italian trade group.

Although the product has appeal for more traditional customers such as municipalities and gas companies, it has also allowed the company to expand its market horizons into landscaping, irrigation and ranching. “Landscapers like its stability,” Lumbers explains, “especially since it handles slopes well and has a low 3.4-psi ground pressure that hardly leaves a mark on the lawn.” In addition, the company has seen home hardware stores take on the XT850 as a rental item, opening up the consumer market.

“We feel we’ve defined a new product class with the XT850,” Lumbers says. “While it’s not going to replace skid steers, compact excavators or compact backhoes, it will help someone do more jobs than with any of those machines alone.”

Editor’s Comments
No doubt about it – Ditch Witch grabbed an opportunity with the XT850, which is giving the company a leg up in formerly unexplored markets. The machine’s development, however, also marks the passing of the design torch from Ed Malzahn, a man with innate tinkering ability, to his grandson Cody Sewell, who was lucky enough to inherit his grandfather’s inventor genes.
— Marcia Gruver

GOMACO’s Pavement Profiler can track slab smoothness on four highway lanes in one pass.

GSI Pavement Profiler: GOMACO’s non-contact profiler has proven so adaptable,
its designers are still finding new applications for it.

A smooth surface is vitally important to concrete and asphalt paving contractors. In the past, direct-contact readings had to be taken from the concrete once it had cured or, in the case of asphalt, had cooled down. The flexibility to repair abnormalities while the concrete was wet, or the asphalt was hot, did not exist.

GOMACO has changed that with the 2004 introduction of its GSI Pavement Profiler. GOMACO calls the GSI system an “As Soon As Paved,” or ASAP, profiler for wet or cured concrete and asphalt slabs. And unlike older systems that require physical contact with the surface being gauged to obtain readings, the GSI system uses sound waves to determine slab smoothness and identify abnormalities, which can be rectified before the curing process is complete.

Readings are taken via three sensors, two sonic sensors and one slope sensor, on each trace as the profiler is driven over the slab (the GSI can track smoothness on eight traces or up to four highway lanes in one pass and operates independently, attached to a paving machine or a utility vehicle). That preliminary data is fed into the GSI’s onboard computer, which then presents the operator with a real-time measurement of the slab being surveyed, either wet or dry. According to GOMACO, the GSI Pavement Profiler has several benefits including:

  • Provides immediate data to make on-the-go adjustments to assure maximum smoothness results
  • Gives the operator immediate graphic displays showing the smoothness of the slab being surveyed
  • Locates irregularities in the slab that need to be corrected and records those locations via a distance tracking encoder system
  • Checks sub-grade smoothness readings to obtain maximum yields and determine smoothness potential before paving begins

Lasers or sound waves?
The benefits of a non-contact pavement profiler have been envisioned for years. “It’s a concept that our company founder and CEO Gary Godbersen always wanted to accomplish,” says Kevin Klein, research and development manager, GOMACO. “But it wasn’t until four or five years ago that we really started to study it to determine the possibilities.”

Initially, Klein says, GOMACO engineers thought laser systems would be the most logical method for creating a non-contact profiling machine. But Klein says cost was a concern. “Even today, laser technology is still considerably more expensive than sonic profiling methods,” he explains. “We quickly determined a sonic measuring system was arguably more durable than a laser system, and as precise for concrete and asphalt slab measurements. And there were already devices on the market that could easily be adapted for profiling applications. So, from a research and development and final-cost perspective, sonic technology quickly became our focus when developing the GSI system.”

Although there were sonic sensors, GOMACO engineers at first didn’t think they were fast enough for pavement profiling. “We really thought we were going to have to upgrade those systems significantly,” Klein notes. “So we contacted Iowa State University and considered a research project with them to develop higher speed sonic sensors.”

Initially, Iowa State’s estimates were as discouraging to GOMACO as the earlier laser research had been. “Again, we were looking at some very high costs to develop the high-speed, sonic devices we thought we needed,” Klein says. “And although GSI is a valuable, productive system, we didn’t feel the marketplace would bear the research and development costs we were looking at.”

Still, Klein and his fellow engineers were certain the concept was valid. “We decided to take a closer look at standard sonic receivers on the market today, on the off-chance they had the capability we needed.” This led to more research, this time with the TSD Company, which helped GOMACO utilize the sonic sensors for its intended task. Their studies proved that off-the-shelf sonic sensors could easily handle the precision required for accurate slab profiling.

Breakthrough computer programming the key
Once the viability of standard sonic sensors was proven, the next step was to develop the software – specifically the algorithms required to achieve accurate profile results as data was collected. This turned out to be the most difficult phase of the GSI’s development process. Again, GOMACO relied on TSD to help work through the technical problems.

“We knew from the beginning that because GSI was going to be a non-contact device we were going to have to come up with a way to establish an electronic baseline as a reference in order to establish the profile independent of vehicle movement,” Klein adds. “That’s what proved to be our biggest challenge.” In essence, because the GSI profiler moves on a surface independent of the slab, GOMACO and TSD engineers had to figure out algorithms that would remove the machine’s relative motion over the slab from the readings being taken to establish the final profile the system generated.

Once an electronic baseline and the appropriate algorithms had been determined, Klein and the GSI development team moved into the testing phase of the development process. Beta tests went smoothly, but there were still a few surprises, albeit pleasant ones. “At this stage, we concentrated on refining the interface to the operator,” says Mark Brenner, product development engineer, GOMACO. “Making sure the product was user friendly – in how the information is presented to the operator and making the system easy to set up and use.”

But as the beta tests proceeded, it became apparent to Klein, Brenner and the GOMACO team that the GSI Pavement Profiler was far more adaptable than they’d originally envisioned. “One of our beta test paving contractors asked us about using the system to verify smoothness of stringline and also testing subgrades in addition to paved surfaces,” Brenner recalls. “Up until that point, those weren’t applications we’d considered for the system. But after a few additional tests, we realized it could handle those tasks as well as the profiling the original system was designed for.”

“We’re learning new things about this product’s potential every day,” Klein adds. “We’re looking at ideas, applications and concepts that we can’t discuss publicly at this time. The GSI is that advanced of a system. It’s a tool that allows paving contractors to better use their paving equipment fleet and improve their entire performance on a project. We’re very proud of that.”

Editor’s Comments
GOMACO deserves credit for developing a long-sought-after product and bringing it to market. The company took a hard-nosed look at current technologies and refused to be dazzled by expensive lasers and high-speed sonic systems. Instead, it revamped proven sonic technology and combined it with cutting edge computing systems to create a powerful, affordable and durable tool for paving contractors. The GSI Pavement Profiler is the very hallmark of an Equipment World Innovations Award winner: A breakthrough product unlike anything else on the market today that offers contractors an immediate and measurable boost in productivity.
— Jack Roberts

Loegering Versatile Track System: Wheels or tracks, all you need is an hour to change from one to the other and keep on working.
Chalk it up to divine inspiration. On the evening of March 21, 2003, George Loegering, a prolific inventor and the retired founder of the company that bears his name, sat down with a pencil and paper to sketch out a few ideas. Suddenly it hit him.

“My mind started racing,” Loegering says. “In two or three minutes it all came to me.” After sketching the basics of what was to become the Loegering Versatile Track System – a bolt-on tracked suspension that converts rubber-tired skid steers to tracked vehicles in an hour or less – Loegering rushed into the kitchen to show his wife Marilyn, who also happens to be the daughter of the man who invented the over-the-tire track system and co-invented the original Melroe Bobcat skid steer.

The first people he showed the drawings to weren’t particularly excited, Loegering admits. But one day a team of local visiting business consultants saw the sketches and insisted that Loegering take the idea to the company. Sales, engineering and the board of directors quickly gave the project a green light.

Loegering’s son Steve and company engineer Ron Hansen tweaked the design and the process of turning drawings into prototypes took up the next year of Loegering’s life. But, as he says, “If somebody doesn’t take a project and spearhead it, it doesn’t happen.”

To accommodate different wheelbase lengths, Loegering designed the VTS with two and then later three different front mounting positions. Another challenge was the distance the axles protruded from the body on different machines. To solve this problem he created a reversible, dished sprocket.

Testing started with company operators, followed by contractors and a final round with strain gauges and stress testing in a lab. The only change recommended by the contractors was to stiffen up the front suspension. Testing also showed that the suspension was less jarring when running over obstacles and more stable on side slopes.

The main advantage to the VTS, says Loegering, is that a lot of operators don’t need a tracked machine on every job. “They use it when they need it, and take it off when they don’t,” he says. Not only does this give you the right machine for changing conditions, but since tracks and their undercarriages are high-cost, high maintenance items, it allows you to make more efficient use of your equipment dollars.

Editor’s comments
The world would be a great deal poorer were it not for a century’s worth of midwestern farm kids tinkering in their barns and sketching out designs on kitchen tables. George Loegering, although retired, is a part of this great tradition and proof that anybody who is willing to back their inspiration with a lot of perspiration can create a better mousetrap and one idea at a time, make the world a better place.
— Tom Jackson

With its extra wide tracks and the ability to convert to wheels, the Thomas T320 goes anywhere regardless of ground conditions.

Thomas Equipment’s T320 track loader: Big sprockets, wide tracks and a wheel conversion option make this the machine that can’t be stopped.
Rubber-tracked loaders made a big impression on skid-steer users when they first appeared a few years back. Thomas Equipment, however, took a long look before leaping into the market.

“We recognized four years ago it was a field we wanted to be in,” says Peter Mabee, the company’s senior product manager. But Mabee and the engineering staff spent the next few years studying the existing designs and came away unsatisfied. They didn’t like how some designs exposed the drive motors to contamination and damage. They also noted that rubber tracks containing steel tended to wear quickly against the steel teeth on drive sprockets. And the operating and maintenance costs of tracked vehicles were expensive.

“We regrouped in late 2002 and put together a design team made up of new product marketing people, engineering and manufacturing and reanalyzed what was there,” Mabee says.

“We knew we had a good skid-steer drive system, where all the components were internal and not exposed,” he continues. With the company’s internal drive motor design as a starting point the engineers were able to create a larger drive sprocket. The sprocket’s steel bar segments push against rubber lugs molded into the track. With a 180-degree wrap of the track around the sprockets, track slippage and the need for a track-tensioning device were eliminated. And with steel against rubber, both the track lugs and the sprockets see very little wear. The T320 also has an 18-inch-wide track, which, combined with a shorter-than-average wheelbase, creates a machine that can maneuver as well as a rubber-tire skid steer.

“Part of the criteria was to design a loader with a high breakout force and high tractive effort as well as high travel speed to shorten work cycles,” says Michael Twumasi-Boateng, Thomas’ director of engineering. “Because of this we developed a track that did not contain any steel and was not speed limited. This allowed us to use a two-speed transmission and a travel speed of over 12.3 mph.”

Testing began in the spring of 2003. In Florida, Thomas engineers discovered that a mixture of wet clay and sand can plug the drive system around the sprockets, increasing loads. This type of ground condition affects all track loaders; the difference, however, is that the T320’s powerful 87-horsepower engine can easily overcome this increased loading without stalling out, Boateng says. The structure of the drive system was beefed up and improvements were made with the tracks’ self-cleaning features.

In addition to inventing a new track technology, Thomas designed a rubber-tire conversion kit option to go along with the T320. It takes about eight hours to remove the track system and install tires, but doing so gives the operator a true, all-seasons/all-terrain vehicle and rental stores a machine that’s available 12 months out of the year.

Editor’s comments:
Tracked skid-steer loaders are one of the most significant new equipment designs in a generation. And while they captured a good chunk of the skid-steer market, I like the fact that Thomas Equipment held off on building a “me too” machine and instead took the time to engineer something truly different.
— Tom Jackson

The Slide Sledge: Tired of using a sledgehammer to drive out bucket pins? Then check out this device created by an amateur boxer with a desire to keep in prime shape for his sport.
Kevin Lowther’s vocation of auto body repair and his avocation of boxing were on a collision course. He kept cutting his hands doing body work, and any cut kept him out of the boxing ring.

Lowther recognized he got most of his cuts because he was contorting his body between the frame of the car and the frame rack, getting up under the car to pound on the main rails that hold the car straight. So he started experimenting, first using a longer chisel and sledgehammer from outside the car. He finally came up with an automotive device that has now evolved into the Slide Sledge Heavy Equipment hammer.

Both the automotive and the heavy-equipment versions of the Slide Sledge operate on the same principal: A fatigue-proof steel drive bar slides inside a steel cylinder to deliver linear, contained motion for precise, maximum impact.

The tool’s patented Impact Delivery System focuses the power of the moving rod to the tip of the tool, says Walt Sedlacek, head of new product development for Titus Innovation, the company Lowther chose to manufacture and take the Slide Sledge to market. “It’s a much more efficient transfer of power than using a hammer and chisel,” he says, “because when you swing a hammer, you’re arcing it and you’re hitting the chisel at an angle.”

Tool designers knew they didn’t want solid-metal-to-solid-metal impact, which would cause the tool to vibrate in the user’s hands, plus lose some energy. “With our mechanism,” Sedlacek says, “when you strike it, the power transfer mechanism moves instead of being an immobile object, which allows the most efficient transfer of power.”

Early on Lowther, now vice president of product development with Titus, recognized the beauty of the Slide Sledge would be its ability to attach different tips for different jobs. “Although we realized we’d get the best power transfer with a welded-on tip, it wouldn’t allow us the flexibility we needed,” Sedlacek says. “So we came up with a mechanism that allows the maximum power you put into the bar to come out of the bottom of it and yet still be able to change tips.”

In addition, the tips needed to remain stably fixed during use and withstand dirt, sand and mud. They tried a socket wrench connection approach, which was discarded since it wouldn’t hold up to the force the tool generated and would jam when full of dirt. Compression rings didn’t pass the tolerance test. Tool designers finally settled on a modified leaf-spring device that’s now patent pending.

The Slide Sledge comes with more than 20 tips for a variety of jobs – all tested by a machine dubbed “Thor” that repeatedly drove the tips with a force one-and-a-half times that of a strong human. They include:

  • Pin drivers in six sizes to allow removal and installation of pins
  • A curved chisel tip to cut through most stripped out, rusted bolts
  • Ripper tooth pin inserters and removers in several sizes to get between ripper teeth and insert or remove pins with a linear impact

Although the automotive body market is huge, hammers are used a relatively small percentage of the time, so Titus looked elsewhere for market growth. “We found that the guys who were using big sledgehammers were the ones who would complain about safety,” Sedlacek explains, especially since large jobs require one person to hold a large punch while another person swings the hammer. The Slide Sledge concept offered immediate safety advantages since there’s no threat of injury to the person holding the chisel because it’s a one-man operation, nor is there any sledgehammer bounce back, flying material or damage to the machinery.

Creating the heavy-equipment version primarily involved beefing up the tool’s steel metallurgy, the diameter of the drive bar and the shape of the tip end to achieve more directional control. The four heavy-equipment versions go from a 9-pound tool to fit into tight areas up to a 21-pound drive bar delivering more than 15,000 psi of impact force. A 5-pound weight can be added to the handle for even more striking force. A safety lock prevents the drive bar from sliding out of the sleeve.

Since Titus believes in practical engineering, it took the heavy-duty prototype around to construction equipment shops. In addition to getting immediate input on their concept, they came away shaking their heads at how the pin-removing job was being accomplished. “We saw one shop where they would back up a forklift and then bang one of the tines into a huge pin,” Sedlacek says. “It looked like they were jousting.”

The company has been reeling from the response generated by its introductory appearance at MINExpo in September. “We’re getting international inquiries and we were really just set up to handle demand in this country,” Sedlacek says. Closer to home, the company has seen interest from manufacturers, dealers and construction fleets. The tool is priced between $300 and $400, with each tip in the $30 to $40 range.

Beyond construction, Titus Innovation is also looking at agriculture, military, railroad, shipping and heavy-duty trucking applications. “Based on all the different comments we’re getting from users, we think the tips we have now will just represent about 5 percent of the applications this tool will end up doing,” Sedlacek comments.

Editor’s comments:
One rule of thumb when you cover a trade show is to look for the crowds. While crowds are sometimes generated by a guy doing magic tricks or a woman in va-voom outfit, other times they are an indication of a product that’s excited attendee interest. This was the case with the Slide Sledge booth at MINExpo this past September. The company’s booth was small but it always seemed to have a crowd around it. I actually saw eyes light up when Kevin Lowther, the product’s creator, demonstrated the ease at which Slide Sledge performed the thankless job of bucket pin removal/driving.
— Marcia Gruver