PEORIA, Ill.—In an move it hopes will change the way contractors think about what compact equipment is capable of, Caterpillar is introducing the 304.5E2 XTC mini excavator, a 4-ton machine which has a manual skid-steer coupler on the front instead of a standard blade. The operator can switch their joystick controls between the boom and front hydraulic attachment with a single button press, allowing the mini excavator to perform many of the same tasks as a skid-steer loader.

With a maximum dump height of only 6 in., the 304.5E2 XTC is not intended as a total replacement for a skid-steer, says Greg Worley, senior product engineer with Caterpillar. “It’s not a full skid-steer, but we found there’s a lot you can do with it,” he says. “We tested it with a T9B trencher tool and were able to do an 18-in. trench.” The excavator’s bucket could then be used to finish the trench or perform other cleanup work, allowing one machine to do the work of two, he says.

The road to this hybrid machine was long, says Worley. “Did a customer ask for this? No, we came up with it ourselves.” Despite hatching this idea in the lab, Worley cited several situations where a contractor could benefit from having an multipurpose bucket on the front of the excavator, such as transporting landscaping for installation or saving time during backfilling. A pair of forks can be used alongside a grapple on the boom to transport and place railroad ties or other materials that would require a separate tool carrier. Since it has the same hydraulic coupler as Cat’s line of skid-steer loaders, the 304.5E2 XTC can accept many of the same tools, including general-purpose buckets, dozer blades, brooms and power-box rakes.

“We’re at a place now where we can get away from working on emissions and get back to working on innovation,” says Worley, noting that much of the work bringing their engines into compliance with Tier 4 Final is complete.

Caterpillar has seen some difficulties in recent quarters, with reorganizations combining product lines such as its compact and small wheel loader categories, and the elimination of entire product categories such as its vocational truck line. But investment in new technology is not off the table, according to Denise Johnson, Caterpillar group president for resource industries, which includes the company's product-development division. "We're really continuing to invest in R&D," Johnson told ENR. "This past year we invested over $2 billion as a company on R&D, and although our outlook continues to be very challenged, we will continue to invest." 

Worley says that the unusual design of the 304.5E2 XTC was initially met with amusement from some within Cat, but over the course of development even the skeptics came around. “When we first demoed this machine to the skid-steer group two years ago, they laughed about it. Recently we showed what it could do to them, and it was, ‘whoa.’”

As a result of the extra hydraulics, the 304.5E2 XTC weighs about 1,000 lb more than a standard 4-ton Cat mini excavator model. The addition of the skid-steer linkage also drive up the price of the mini excavator slightly. According to Worley, it will have a premium of roughly $7,000 over the MSRP of the standard 4-ton mini excavator.