Top ten earthmoving couplers and attachments

By: Ron Horner

Presented by
  • Earthmovers & Excavators

With almost 50 years in the business, there’s arguably no one better equipped than Ron Horner to compile a list of the 10 attachments that have been real game changers for the earthmoving and civil construction industry

Top ten earthmoving attachments

When it comes to making choices in life I have had a problem in picking the correct one straight up. But when it comes to excavators and their capabilities, I reckon I have a pretty good handle on them.

Having owned more than 50 and put them just about everywhere possible, stretched them to their ultimate limits (and sometimes beyond), pioneered and witnessed the technology in hydraulics and hydraulic attachments designed for excavators, and the unbelievable popularity in excavator growth over almost 50 years in the game, I reckon I’ve got a bit of experience to comment on this topic.

So when Earthmovers & Excavators asked me to put a few words together and outline my top 10 choices of couplers or attachments I jumped at the chance. The reasons I have made these choices are based on the overall impact they’ve had on the industry, the safety aspect, the labour savings, the cost effectiveness and the efficiencies created.

Quick -Hitch


When excavators first came to Australia and started to create some inroads into the construction industry (who would have thought they had fight to survive), one would get one bucket and one bucket only.

But private bucket fabricators slowly started to emerge to assist the needs of the industry. There were no quick hitches in those days so the main bucket pins had to be driven out of the bucket assembly, by hand, every single time you had to change a bucket.

Large hammers, drive pins, and plenty of grease were needed – along with the biggest bloke you could find to swing the hammer. Hours of frustration, plenty of swearing and cursing until you drove that last pin home and the bucket or ripper was firmly attached.

Then came the quick hitch. Firstly it was a manual quick hitch but when the hydraulic quick hitch came on the scene it was a game changer. This, in my opinion, changed the excavator’s place in the construction industry forever. It tops the list and ticks all of the boxes and laid the platform for all of the attachments we see – not only on excavators but those fitted to skid steers, backhoes and loaders.


Tilting -bucket


The quick hitch meant you could change attachments quickly and efficiently from the cab and with one person, but you could only dig square or perpendicular to the ground until the tilting bucket was designed. That was the next big game changer.

Having the ability to cut a level pad on sloping ground and cutting batters at any angle by using a tilting bucket was – and still is – one of the best and innovative tools created for excavators. This innovation has laid the groundwork for the rotating quick-hitch attachments that are available today.


Hydraulic -rock -breaker


Prior to the hydraulic rock breaker almost everything that could not be conventionally excavated had to be drilled and blasted. This proved to be quite menacing when the rock was a small amount and in close proximity to residential, public areas and roadways. Air-operated hammers were available but in comparison to the hydraulic rock breaker were not in the same league either in break-out force or efficiency.

These hammers were slung from the dipper arm of the excavator and driven by an air-line and several oil bottles all hooked up to a large air compressor some distance away. The machine operator could not slew full 360 degrees and the control of the hammer was always an issue. It took at least 2-3 men to control the air compressor and move the hoses from the tracking excavator as well as the operator. So when the hydraulic rock breaker came to the fore it was a definite game changer.

The hydraulic rock breaker is a compulsory excavator attachment these days but back in about 1976 it was in a league of its own.


Excavator -blade


Since owning a couple of the first mini excavators that were imported into Australia I have been a firm advocate of ‘blading excavators’.

Nissan exported (via Banbury Engineering Kato Dealers) the first mini excavators to hit Australia in the 1970s but they weren’t accepted until Kato developed the 180G. I was demonstrating them for Banbury and decided to take one home with me. I was so impressed – especially with the blade attachments.

A very rare item of gear in those days but today mini excavators make up more than 40 per cent of excavator sales in Australia – all with blades fitted to them. Game changer? Bloody oath!

Excavator -pontoon


Excavators, modifications to them and almost every attachment conceivable, have kept them at the top of the food chain for many years; and it doesn’t look like changing in the short term. There just seems no end as to where you can put them and the tasks are only governed by your imagination and enthusiasm.

I have personally put them on top of high rise buildings for demolition, worked them in rail and road tunnels, operated them several kilometres underground in metalliferous mining operations, in swamps, sand plants and open-cut pits, but surely once we put amphibious pontoons on them and walked them into deep water and floated them … well, that takes the cake.

I thought I had seen it all but floating excavators across lakes, dams and waterways to gain access to previously inaccessible, overgrown, flood debris covered areas really is a sight to behold. That is only part of the reason for choosing floating pontoons as my fifth choice of game changers.

Auger -head


The auger head is one of the most labour-saving and efficient attachments I have seen. The brilliant engineering and technical advances of hydraulics has to be the greatest single thing to happen in the evolution of excavators.

The laborious tasks were systematically identified and someone went and invented a hydraulic attachment to suit the excavator. One of those extremely labour-intensive tasks identified was digging post holes or round shafts deep into the ground.

Most mini-excavator contractors would have access to an auger attachment which eliminates the arduous task of hand digging post holes. A proven, cost effective, quick, safe and efficient innovation and well worth its place in my top 10.


Vacuum -pipe -lifter


In the pipeline and pipe-laying industry there is no safer or more efficient attachment than the vacuum pipe lifter. This innovation ticks all the boxes but stands up for efficient and safe operation in unloading either singular or stacked pipes without the intervention of a dogman to monitor and connect the slings and/or chains to the pipe being lifted.

Fitted to the end of the dipper arm where the bucket would normally be located, this attachment utilises air to create a vacuum between the pipe and suction plates of the pipe lifter. Such is the power of the vacuum pipe lifter that it can lift massive steel pipes safely and speedily from one point and slew them onto transport, another stockpile or place them safely on the ground.

Pile -driver


Once upon a time and not that long ago, pile driving was an arduous task relying upon massive track-mounted machines which would take up large areas on site and be ever so cumbersome and difficult to move around a congested construction site.

Enter the field of hydraulics and we now find that hydraulic pile-driving heads are manufactured and can be fitted to excavators. The advantages are numerous: smaller site footprint, easier to float to and from site, cost effective, super-efficient, and safer for site labour to work around.

GPS-machine -control


Gone are the days when you would have stringlines, grade checkers, surveyors and line markers for an excavator operator to complete their task of excavating precise sewer or water trench, batters and pads to grade. Welcome to the era of GPS, where the line in the sand is drawn as the old-school operators meet up with the new generation of operators.

Position -Partners -i Dig


One of, if not the most, talked about issues in today’s mining and construction industry is the advent and introduction of autonomous equipment, whether factory-fitted or bolted on as a retrofit attachment. Although operational in many underground mining operations throughout Australia and the world for some time, we are now seeing the introduction of autonomous haul trucks on our mine sites.

Self-driving, driverless, un-manned or robotic vehicles are here and they will make a huge impact on our industry. These vehicles are capable of sensing their environment and navigating without human input, and can be programmed to drive, stop, take off, load, tip, change gears and follow a designated programmed route all shift without the intervention of an operator or driver.

If you happen to be a mine owner, you would be grinning all the way to the bank as you would not have to have staff on site arranging accommodation, travel, pays, leave entitlements, shift rosters, meal breaks and union disputes. A potential game changer!

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