Types of material handling equipment
Below broad definitions of various loader types are outlined.
Some of these definitions are interchangeable and often just relate to the size loader you are talking about. For example "articulated loader" is the generic term for any articulated loader and can include - mini loader, mini digger, front end loader, wheel loader and can even include some backhoe loaders which are articulated.
An articulated loader has an articulation joint in the middle. The loader is made from two chassis joined together, as opposed to a rigid bodied machine, like a car or skid steer. An articulated loader by definition has articulated steering, and covers all loaders with articulated steering from articulated mini loaders weighing in at just 1500kg, to the world's largest wheel loaders.
Articulated loaders have a lot of benefits compared to rigid bodied machines and any operator will quickly tell you this.
MINI LOADER and MINI DIGGERS
A mini loader is generally classified as a loader with a weight under 2000kg. The smallest mini loaders are stand on skid steer type loaders, although relatively recently some companies have released stand on mini articulated loaders. The stand on mini loaders are very limited in terms of capacity and size, as operators aren't given a high comfort level as they have to stand up all day which isn't conducive to a productive work life. The mini stand on loaders are suited to small jobs requiring the operator to jump on and off frequently.
The next step up in mini skid steer loaders are mini "bobcat" style loaders which have a seated operating position. These mini skid steers allow the operator to perform tight access work, and the comfort level increases as at least the operator has a seat to sit on throughout the day.
The biggest recent trend however is towards articulated mini loaders which are now rapidly becoming commonplace on construction sites across the world. They have a seat to operate from , great all round visibility as the operator sits on top of the machine and are able to handle more weight as the wheel base is significantly longer than a mini skid steer. An articulated loader of the same weight can outperform a mini skid steer in lift capacity as a longer wheel base gives more leverage at the tool frame.
The articulated mini loaders are also very comfortable to drive if an oscillating articulation joint is incorporated between the two chassis. The oscillating articulation joint allows the loaders wheels to conform to the rough terrain so each bump isn't going through to the operator's seat, basically it acts a type of suspension. Articulated mini loaders are now highly maneuverable so give the advantages of a longer wheel base, but are still able to work in restrictive areas, the same as a mini skid steer. The articulated mini loader also has the massive advantage of low ground disturbance and very minimal tyre wear.
Being able to run as many tools as possible is critical with any mini loader and hence all mini loaders - either articulated or skid steer, will have auxiliary output as standard. to be able to run tools.
FRONT END LOADER
The term front end loader can refer to any loader with a bucket attached at the front. However it is just about always referred to as an articulated loader and not a skid steer as front end loaders were traditionally used for the heavy duty front end work. The mast of a front end loader is fixed horizontally, as opposed to a telescopic loader, which can "telescope" out to gain more reach (described below). An articulated mini-loader, articulated loader and wheel loader are all a type of front end loader. What weight class actually contributes a front end loader category is quite arbitrary, but some manufacturers will designate articulated loaders in the operating weight 2 tonnes to 5 tonnes as front end loaders, however any size machine can often be called a front end loader.
The term front end loader is also used for tractor style front end loaders. These are a separate mast and bucket attached to the front end of a tractor, often after purchase, to enable it to do some work at the front of the machine. Tractors however are built for towing as the main weight of the machine, the engine, is placed far forward to give traction when towing and so is not ideal for heavy duty front end loader work.
All articulated front end loaders, articulated wheel loaders and all articulated mini loaders built by major manufactures have the seating position mounted on the rear chassis section. This is important as it allows much greater performance to be achieved quickly by the operator. When the operator sits on the rear of the loader, reversing is the same as when reversing a car, however when you sit on the front of the loader - every time you need to reverse the loader it is like having a swinging trailer behind you. Most operators' can eventually get used to this operating position, but having to think every time when reversing hinders productivity, even with very experienced operators. This is particularly noticeable when working in confined areas as the tail swings out when attempting to reverse and must be controlled. This is the reason that all major world manufacturers now make the operator sit at the rear of the machine.
A wheel loader is generally regarded as a large articulated loader, however one of Australia's industry bibles - Earthmover and Civil Contractor Plant Spec's classifies all articulated loaders as wheel loaders and further categorizes them by operating horsepower. It is only articulated steering that gives the ability for such a large machine to operate efficiently, particularly over around the 8 tonne mark. Wheel loaders are often regarded as articulated loaders over 5 tonnes and continue up to the largest loaders in the word which are over 200 tonnes.
The larger the wheel loader, the greater the tendency for the loader to become a dedicated machine and not have a quick attach too frame. This is because wheel loaders are often used for production and so versatility is not required. Purpose built loaders can often be more efficient for a single job than a general purpose machine, by bringing in the hitch closer to the front axle of the loader, so capacity and stability is maximized.
FRONT AXLE STEERED LOADER
Front axle steered loaders are rigid bodied loaders, with the same steering principle as a car, the front wheels turn to steer the loader. This group covers the backhoe loaders, as explained below and all tractors. Tractors, although they can be fitted with a front end loader attachment to do light duty work, aren't designed from the ground up for industrial earthmoving but are instead designed for towing as they have the majority of their weight mounted far forward so weight is still maintained on the front wheels when towing heavy implements.
Backhoe loader's are a front end loader with a permanently mounted backhoe, which is an excavator arm designed for trenching. Most manufacturers offer backhoes as a rigid bodied loader for extra stability when trenching, however a couple of articulated backhoe's do exist. Backhoes in recent years have fallen out of favour as the purpose build excavator will always outperform them on a job site. The backhoe is also a compromise as a front end loader as an articulated loader will always outperform a rigid bodied loader due to the advantages of articulated steering.
A new entry into this backhoe market that crosses some traditional boundaries is the release of the front mounted excavator hoe. This allows the front end loader operator to add a front mounted hoe to perform some excavation work. The performance isn't the same as a purpose built excavator, but allows extra utilization on a job site and doesn't require trucking a new machine in just to finish off routine excavation tasks. The front hoe is particularly suited to articulated loaders as the operator needs to just turn the steering wheel slightly to dump the load out of the front hoe, and then to turn back again to start excavating again. Skid steers on the other hand start to scrub a lot of earth out from under the skid steer wheels when turning on the spot to dump after excavating a scoop of earth.
A front end loader has a fixed mast - the mast can't extend horizontally, only up and down. A telescopic loader on the other hand can extend out horizontally. The extra reach of a telescopic loader can be advantageous in certain situations but must be used with caution as the further the mast is extended, the lower the capacity if the loader as the centre of gravity shifts out. For true earthmoving work or materials handling with a bucket, an articulated loader or one of the modern articulated telescopic loaders is always the machine of choice due to superior all round visibility compared to rigid bodied telehandlers.
A skidsteer is a rigid bodied (single chassis) loader, designed to skid on their wheels or tracks to turn sharply, and can even turn on the spot if necessary. Articulated front end loaders on the other hand use the articulation joint between the front and rear chassis to steer the loader in the required direction, so they cannot turn on the spot. Modern articulated loader manufacturers now make articulated loaders highly manoeverable and give numerous benefits over skidsteers so give the extra benefit of low tyre wear in comparison to a skidsteer. For a skidsteer to turn so sharply, one side of wheels/tracks locks up allowing the wheels on the other side to skid on themselves, allowing a very sharp turn. The downside here is that the tyres may be worn out very quickly as a result. The ground also gets ripped apart, often doing a lot of damage to the surface, even on asphalt. Visibility is also quite bad, as the driver is confined in a small metal cabin with the mast attached either side of the cabin, further restricting visibility. The driver sits very low to the ground with the engine behind the operator.
Skidsteers are broken up into two main groups - stand on skid steers, and larger skid steers. All sizes of skid steers are available with conventional tyres or with tracks. Tracks give more grip in boggy conditions, however maintenance costs are incredibly high compared to wheeled skidsteers. The cost isn't just the tracks themselves, but also the complex lug and wheel assembly that turn the tracks. Fuel consumption is also significantly higher in a tracked loader as the rolling resistance of a track is much higher than wheels.
A forklift is an industrial vehicle with a hydraulically operated vertical mast and pallet forks. Forklifts are a common sight in warehouses worldwide and generally don't have the capability to operate off hard surfaces unless they are specifically built for an all terrain capability. The pallet forks or tines are inserted under loads to lift, stack and move them. Typically a forklift is not designed to have many other tools or attachments.
Forklifts are purpose built and are able to lift larger loads that a comparable front end loader with a fork attachment. The vertical mast of the forklift is mounted much closer to the chassis of the machine, so the centre of gravity of the load is closer which allows the forklift to always outperform a front end loader of comparable weight. Some operators however still prefer to use a front end loader as the extra reach allows them to unload a truck from one side. A new entry into this market is the Schaffer articulated forklift, it combines the all terrain capability of a strong earthmoving front end loader with the capacity of an industrial forklift.