The backhoe loader, better known as the TLB in our local circles, has always been deemed the trusted ‘pick and shovel’ of the local construction industry, and continues to dig its way onto local sites. However, in line with global trends, the compact excavator is continuously digging for a sizeable share of the market as the move towards compact solutions on African sites continues to gain pace.

The ever-growing trend towards smaller construction equipment is at this point anchored by mature markets, where about 70% of total equipment sales are driven by compact ranges. In Africa, the opposite is true; 75-80% of
machines sold are still heavy ranges. However, there is a gradual growth of smaller machines in Africa.
Exact opposite
A few years back, the local sales ratio was a single compact unit for every 20 heavy machines (20-t plus). In Europe, it was the exact opposite; 20
compact units for every single large excavator sold.
“We are slowly moving towards the European ratio and we believe the potential is massive for compact excavators and compact equipment at large,” says Tom Bloom of Smith Power Equipment.
Bread and butter
“We would all agree that generally the TLB has for years been the trusted solution for the industry, accounting for a sizeable chunk of the total equipment sales in South Africa. This machine is by far the ‘bread and butter’ line in the construction and plant hire industries.” The versatility of the TLB has made it a machine of choice on construction sites where applications call for digging and loading of material.
While the TLB has long been a staple on many job sites, in recent years, more contractors are opting for a mini excavator instead. “Both machines have their own benefits, but understanding your jobsite applications is the key to making the right decision for your job,” Tom comments.
Ask the right questions
It is very important to ask the right questions because these two machines differ greatly in versatility, mobility and transportability. “Be sure to assess the pros and cons before you make that important buying decision. The three key questions to ask yourself should relate to the right machine
for the application at hand, the size of the jobsite and the distance between sites, among other considerations.”
Backhoe loaders can perform not only trenching, lifting, excavating and loading jobs, but they can also travel at higher speeds in a wide range of applications. On the other hand, mini excavators are compact and lightweight to minimise track marks and top ground damage, especially in sensitive working areas.
In terms of job site size, TLBs can travel easily across a job site to complete more than one task, and an extended line of work tools improves versatility.
Meanwhile, mini excavators can fit through small gates and around crowded sites to complete jobs in tight spaces, like occupied parking lots and indoor projects.
With manoeuvrability in mind, the mini excavator is more versatile in a lot of digging situations, but keep in mind that with a mini excavator comes a
trailer and / or a truck to move it. The backhoe loader can be driven between sites.
The future
While the TLB still offers an array of benefits and still continues to earn a spot in operators’ fleets, there is general consensus that the compact excavator is fast growing as a tool of preference on South African sites.
Customers are benefitting from the versatility of small excavators on sites and increased productivity.
“To give an idea, mid-sized units such as the 8-tonne (Kubota KX080) are taking trenching work away from the tried-and-tested TLB, and we
believe that it’s only a matter of time before the compact excavator becomes the prime tool of choice considering the comparative production speeds.”
While the TLB continues to hold a sizeable share of the market, the next big thing may be the compact excavators. The market is growing significantly,
accounting for a whopping 100 000 units a year globally.
Opportunity for growth
In South Africa, the market is still approximately 130-140 units strong, with model ranges varying in size and capacity. “We believe the compact
excavator sector is the only market currently showing some type of opportunity for growth although the total volume is not the biggest in the compact machinery sector,” Tom adds.
“There are application opportunities in plumbing, electrical and telecommunication, as well as in the specialised agricultural sector. At Smith Power, as demonstrated by our focus on compact machines
for many years, we believe that the future lies in supplying both compact excavators and TLBs to the market.
“However, we don’t necessarily believe that the compact excavator will entirely replace the TLB.
The two solutions will co-exist together. It just depends on what you are doing, where you are doing it and how much space you have,” he concludes.
Smith Power Equipment
JHB Branch
Robert Keir
Communications Officer
Tel: 011 284 2000