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Little Bob grows up

PLANTHIRE - Fuelled by industry enthusiasm for its 8-tonne 442 excavator, Bobcat decided to scale up and join the big boys this year with its 12.5tonne 444 model. Geoff Ashcroft and John Woodward put the machine to the test

THE UK'S 13-tonne excavator sector is br istling with choice. Good news for hirers and buyers, perhaps, but from a manufacturer's point of view it makes the market very price sensitive.

Yet the new players keep on coming. Takeuchi has already signalled its intention to swoop on the market with its TB1140, a 14-tonner, and now Bobcat has joined the party with its 444, built for it by Terex Schaeff.

With a massive choice of machines already, there seems little point bringing another 'me too' product to the sector. It is a point not lost on the makers of these latest two machines, with specifications that extend to rubber tracks, boom offset and blade ? features more closely associated with mini excavators.

Buyers are looking for innovation, functionality and versatility as the modern-day 13-tonner appears to spend most of its time running round sites rather than sitting on a stockpile and simply loading trucks.

Which brings us to the Bobcat 444. Launched at SED, the German-built machine has the appearance of a mini excavator on steroids and its mini antecedents are emphasised by Bobcat.

'The 444 is not a small large excavator, it's a big mini excavator, ' says Andreas Hactergal, Bobcat Europe's product manager for compact excavators.

Its development follows the surprising success of the 8-tonne 442 model. 'Based on demand for the 442, we soul-searched and asked if it would make sense to go bigger. This was driven primarily by Ingersoll Rand's Utility Group, which has a specific focus on the US equipment market, ' says Mr Hactergal.

The 442 was expected to achieve sales of about 100-150 per year, when sales passed a rate of 250 per year, the firm realised there were additional opportunities beyond compact excavators.

'Bobcat should no longer be considered as just a compact equipment manufacturer, ' Mr Hactergal says, but adds that the firm has no plans yet to go any bigger than the 12 to 14-tonne sector.

He says that while initial demand for the larger 444 has come from the USA, the machine has been designed with a Eu ropean audience in m ind.

'The UK takes about 50 per cent of the 3,000 units that are sold in Europe in the 12 to 14-tonne sector, so it was important for us to ensure that a European audience would be interested in the machine too.'

The bulk of sales are expected to be to the hire market. But with a price premium of about 5-6 per cent compared with excavators without a blade and offset boom, the firm has faces a challenging time educating the market into paying for something it has so far managed without.

'We've seen it with zero and shor t tailswing machines, though, ' says Mr Hactergal. 'The market managed without them for years, but now they are extremely popular. We need to convince end-users of the benefits of choosing a machine with such a specif icat ion, so they will then insist that hire f leets provide the right tools for the job, and not just what's in the yard on that day.' The Bobcat 444 shares its cab with the 442, and while it draws on some of the smaller model's technology and features, the 12.5tonner is effectively all new, says the firm.

It gets a side-mounted Deutz four-cylinder tu rbo engine rated at 92 hp that d r ives a var iable displacement, load-sensing, single element hydraulic pump. With a f low rate of 158 litres/ min, it feeds a seven-section valve block.

Two additional pumps ? both gear type ? feed a secondary valve block, and although non-load sensing they supply slew, boom offset, blade and auxiliary services.

Opting for a side-mounted engine gives easy access and allows hydraulic and fuel tanks ? with a collect ive capacity of 330 lit res ? to be used as additional ballast in the rear of the upper structure while maintaining a short tailswing. The 444's rear extends just 120 mm beyond the t racks when slewing.

A refuelling pump is available as an opt ion.

Underpinning the excavator is an X-type track frame carrying seven bottom rollers and one top roller, while 500 mm rubber tracks spread the weight over a 2.62 m-long frame.

Bobcat says ground pressu re is below 6 psi.

Track rollers are f langed alternately between outer and inner edges to help track retention, while optional 500 mm or 800 mm steel tracks can be specified. With a two-speed tracking system, Bobcat claims the machine offers a useful 8.2 tonnes of pushing force at the blade.

Two booms are available, the standard onepiece design and a two-piece articulated boom.

Whichever is specif ied , the offset at the boom foot responds to the same inputs and gives 65 deg offset to the left and 53 deg to the right.

There are two dippers to choose from. Our test machine came with the standard 2 m version, but a longer 2.35 m dipper can be fitted. Servo control joysticks adorn the cab, but there are no fancy modes, electronics or automated functions ? it is cables and levers f rom here on in.

It seems that in the 444, Bobcat has engineered its way into the volume sector with a no-frills, practical alternative to traditional excavator designs. But the price premium could be a stumbling block, despite offering functionality over modernity. If the firm can achieve its ambitious target of 8 to 10 per cent of the UK market in the first year, it will have done very well indeed.

Bobcat 444 data Machine weight: 12,500 kg Engine: 92 hp Deutz BF-4M 2012 4-cylinder turbo Boom: one-piece design with offset Dipper: 2.0 m (2.35 m optional) Tracks: 500 mm rubber tracks Track drive: Two-speed hydrostatic ? 2.7-5.4 km/h Operating modes: None Fuel tank: 190 litres