Evarn Covich gets behind the controls of a 1.8-tonne Airman AX17U-6 mini excavator, and finds a simple machine that ticks all the boxes.
The Airman brand was created in 1952 by Japan’s Hokuetsu Industries, which had built a reputation for producing quality air compressor products since 1938. Under the new name the company branched out into various other product lines, including the mini excavator in 1981.
The successful AX line of mini excavators came out in 1992, with the latest offering being the Dash 6 range. I recently took the opportunity to take an AX17U-6, one of the babies from this range, for a spin to see how it performed.
The 1.8-tonne machine looks sturdily constructed with clean, strong looking welds and good sized bolts holding on body panels, pin locks, etc.
Grease nipples all seem to be easily accessible from ground level with two placed on the front of the cab near the boom pivot hinge for greasing the swing gear and swing bearing.
Although the sticker next to them suggests that these only need to be done at 500hr and 250hr services respectively I would probably be inclined to throw a few pumps in each time I greased the machine for peace of mind considering they are so easy to access.
The back panel on the machine lifts up vertically for easier access to the engine within confined areas.
Although it is a fairly tight fit for the 3 cylinder Yanmar engine, there is still enough room to fit my reasonably large hands in to check the engine oil dip stick and easily access the air and fuel filters.
With the flick of a latch the side panel also opens up to expose the radiator and oil cooler — which have been placed next to each other in order to help make them easier to keep clean — the coolant reservoir bottle, battery and hydraulic oil level sight glass.
Also helping with service access is a forward-tilting operator’s seat and an enlarged fuel filler like those on larger machines.
When it comes to the boom, its reach of 3.72m at ground level and the ability to dig to a depth of 2.19m felt quite generous to me for a machine this size. Auxiliary piping also comes as standard ex-factory, which is always an added bonus. As we all know, getting it done after-market can be costly as well as time consuming.
In the seat
The three-pillar canopy definitely makes entry and exit to and from the driver’s seat rather effortless; it’s nice not having to move your body around a pole in order to gain access.
The canopy is also designed in accordance with ROPS (Roll Over Protective Structure) standards and fitted with an OPG (Operator Protective Guard) to help guard against falling objects.
The position of the control levers to me felt quite comfortable, I particularly like the pads that sit under your forearm, which made it easier to control the machine with only a small amount of arm and wrist movement.
In a cabinet below the left hand control lever you can find a pattern changer to make it easier for operators who are used to driving different control lever patterns associated with backhoes, etc.
Having driven a number of diggers of this size in the past I was somewhat surprised at the amount of room afforded from within the driver seat, especially for a zero-swing machine.
The seat was comfortable and was able to accommodate my ample girth and, with the twist of the seat weight adjustment knob, I was able to get enough spring under my backside for a rather comfortable ride.
The leg room was also more than satisfactory for a machine of this configuration and size and the controls also seemed well positioned so I felt that I could quite easily spend a full day in the driver’s seat of this machine.
The dash would have to be one of the simplest that I have ever encountered; the only things displayed are the current engine hours and, most important of all, the fuel level. Other functions like coolant temperature, oil pressure and the like are displayed by way of warning lights.
The throttle is the old-school cable type attached to a lever positioned near the operator’s right elbow.
There are only two other switches near the operator’s right hand: one for the machine work light; and the other for turning off the travel alarm when tramming the machine. However, as a safety precaution, once the machine comes to a halt and then you start tramming again the alarm will once again start to sound requiring you to turn it off again if you wish.
With the flick of a lever located just behind the left elbow the tracks on the Airman AX17U-6 are adjustable. You have the option of making them narrow (980mm wide) in order to access tight work areas or expanding them out (1280mm wide) in order to give the machine greater stability.
This feature can also come in handy when working in soft, boggy ground as you can change the footprint of the machine in order to gain better traction.
The blade is also expandable in order to make it the same width as the tracks. With just the pull of a pin you can fold out each side and then replace the pins to hold them in place.
On the job
Unfortunately the test site that Simon from Brisbane Mini Excavator Sales had lined up for us fell through at the last minute so we were left with having to dig some holes and making a mess down the back of his yard in Yatala in South Brisbane, which probably didn’t please his neighbours too much.
After cranking the machine into life I immediately noticed that it was still easy to talk to someone standing near the machine without too much effort. In fact, even when I raised the revs we were still able to converse without having to raise our voices much at all.
First up I had a bit of a play with the adjustable tracks, expanding and retracting them and then swinging the machine around in order to get a feel of the difference in stability. As you would imagine the machine felt more stable with the tracks expanded but still felt pretty good to operate with the tracks retracted although one would need to take a little more care.
Tramming also seemed to feel quite smooth and the two-speed pedal situated on the floor also helps the machine get around the site at a good rate of knots too.
There were a couple of small hills available in our limited test area, so I could test the machine’s climbing ability. The Airman was able to climb the hills with relative ease in either turtle or rabbit mode without any help required from the bucket.
I proceeded to dig a trench through the grass and topsoil, which the machine seemed to cut through with ease. Even getting down into the thin layer of clay under the topsoil I didn’t seem to notice too much change in the sound or feel of the engine.
Once through the layer of clay, though, I struck some rocky material which I could really sank the teeth into and get the machine to exert some pressure. I felt that it responded fairly well, managing to dig through the hard material with more ease than some larger machines that I have operated in the past.
Overall I felt that the machine performed as well as, if not better than, most other machines found in this class of excavator.
The bottom line
I am always happy to operate a machine that is simple and doesn’t rely on all sorts of gadgets that are there to try and make the operator look better.
As far as I am concerned I will always have the opinion that if a machine is set up correctly there is no need to have all the bells and whistles; a well-balanced machine can help even an ordinary operator look pretty good.
I also like the fact that the outcome of a job comes back to operator ability as opposed to fancy features — and the simplicity of an old school type machine always helps to keep the price down.
Although it wasn’t the fastest machine of this size that I have operated I was impressed with the Airman AX17U-6’s digging power and smoothness of operation.
Even at full revs I didn’t seem to encounter the jerky movements often associated with machines from this category, but this could also be affected by the way that the machine is being operated at the time.
I found it hard to fault anything on this machine as it pretty much ticked all the boxes for me.
I would recommend anyone looking to buy a new machine of this size to have a look at the Airman AX17U-6 and take one for a test drive. I do not think you will be disappointed.