Review: Cat New Generation excavators

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  • Earthmovers & Exacavators

Evarn Covich heads to Cat’s launch of its ‘New Generation’ 320GC, 320 and 323 excavators to get a taste of what’s in store for operators

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In 1972, after years of testing, Caterpillar released the 225, its first hydraulic excavator to ever hit the market. Being around the 20-tonne mark, these machines were a sizable unit for their time, so it seems quite fitting that 46 years on it would choose this same weight range to release the flagships of what it claims to be a ground-up revamp of the hydraulic excavator in what is now considered to be the medium-weight class of digger.

After about $50,000,000 in research and development spent over the past five years, Caterpillar feels that it has manufactured a product that will send shockwaves through the earthmoving industry around the globe in the form of the new ‘Next Generation’ excavators. Bold statements that include "Up to 25 per cent fuel savings" and "Up to 15 per cent less maintenance costs" from their predecessors, not to mention the operator efficiency that could be boosted by "Up to 45 per cent" through the use of the integrated Cat Connect Technology that is standard in two of the three machines, are only a few of the upgrades made to these machines that have just been released onto the world market.

The three new models of machine are the 320GC, 320 and 323. All diggers are almost identical in size and working range, with the only real difference being machine weight, bucket size and slight variations in breakout force. I will touch on all machines in the course of this report, along with how these percentage numbers have come about, but first I will take you through some of the common ground that they share.

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All New Cab

Input collected from clients all over the world has resulted in Cat’s design team coming up with a new, more operator-friendly work station that comes in Comfort, Deluxe or Premium packages. The Comfort cab has a mechanical seat and is standard for the 320GC while the air-adjustable/heated seat of the Deluxe package seems to be the staple for the 320 and 323, with the upgrade to Premium incorporating seat cooling and advanced cab sound suppression in this ROPS-rated work station.

The expanding operator waistlines of the world have also been addressed by way of a tilt-up console to make cab entry and exit easier and safer, while a change to electric over hydraulic controls means no more pilot lines, with the end result being a streamlining of the control lever consoles. This has made way for more room to fit a wider seat which is rated at up to 160kg. The seat is fully adjustable, separate from the levers, and also able to move together with the controls to provide optimum legroom. I don’t think anyone would encounter any difficulty positioning themselves in a comfortable manner for their time in the driver seat.

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Some of the machine’s functions have been incorporated into the touchscreen control panel, abating the need for excessive buttons and switches. Those that remain have been positioned in front of the operator to negate the need to twist and turn unnecessarily. Touchscreen functions can also be programmed into the control lever buttons, mitigating the need for the operator to take their hands off the controls to cycle through the screen and select a different function.

There is an excellent amount of storage available in the cab with Bluetooth and USB ports available to connect your smart devices. Visibility has been improved with smaller front-cab pillars that allow for more window area along with a rear-facing camera that comes standard. A camera system upgrade can allow the operator to have a full 360-degree view around the whole machine, ideal for those who work in tight areas or if there is a bit of foot traffic around.

Automatic climate control is also standard across the range. Personally, I think this should be a standard fixture on any cab machine produced by all manufacturers around the globe given the technology that’s available today. It always makes for a nice work environment when you can keep your cab at a constant comfortable temperature throughout the shift.


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Safe Maintenance

A shuffle around of daily maintenance pre-start items has enabled this procedure to be fully carried out by the operator at ground level. Engine oil, coolant, water separator etc, along with filters and scheduled oil sampling ports are within easy reach through the side doors of the machine, negating the need to climb onto the machine in order to check these items. This not only makes the procedure a lot safer and quicker for the operator to perform but may also help encourage some of the people out there that have trouble or just can’t be bothered ascending the machine in order to perform this task on a daily basis.

Extra steps have been conveniently placed on the track-frame to provide access up the side and onto the back of the machine if need be via stairs moulded into the new 345-litre polycarbonate fuel tank. Although the stairs were slightly squeezy for my ample girth, this safety feature enables the operator to keep three points of contact throughout the mount and dismount with the help of well-placed handrails. The new shape of the tank also affords the operator increased visibility on the offside of the machine from inside the cab.

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Cat claims that owners should expect to save up to 15 per cent on maintenance costs compared to predecessors over the life of the machine (12,000 hours). This has come about through the use of new filters that have increased their life by around 50 per cent to 100 per cent over previous designs. According to Cat staff, the longer intervals between services equate to about 820 litres less oil and up to 50 fewer filters over the machine’s life.

The revamped hydraulic system now uses one less pump, two fewer filters, has a 20 per cent smaller tank, and operates using 50 metres less hydraulic hose than previous models, which equates to a lot less fluid in the system. A move to electric cooling fans eases the burden on the engine and they are able to be reversed in order to blow dust build-up back out of the cores when needed.

Auxiliary hydraulic lines are an option on these machines, and although I understand that not all companies require the use of added attachments, I do however feel that all excavators in this day and age should come ready equipped with quick-hitch piping as standard. You will be pretty hard pressed to find a machine without one in today’s climate.

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Fuel Efficiency

Claims of up to 25 per cent better fuel efficiency over previous models I’m sure will turn a few heads, as this can equate to a considerable amount of savings to the owner throughout the life of the machine. Operating in the new Smart Mode setting constantly adjusts engine speed to suit hydraulic demand in order to optimise fuel consumption and enhance performance in all types of digging applications.

The 320 and 320GC both run a Cat C4.4 Acert engine. The 320 motor is Tier 4 emission-rated and produces 122kW (164hp) while the 320GC configuration is Tier 3 and produces 108kW (145hp). The 323, however, is equipped with a Tier 4 emission-rated, Cat C7.1 Acert powerplant that also has a gross power of 122kW (164hp). The engines have been selected to provide optimum performance, efficiency and cost for each of the units’ intended applications.

All three machines come with Product Link and Vision Link, which is software enabling the tracking of unit location, hours, fuel burn, diagnostics and idle times etc. from a remote location. This enables owners to see where productivity can be improved while lowering operating costs. Some operators might have to be careful as the boss will know whenever you try to take advantage of the new roomier cabin and go toes up for a bit of a break if you’ve had a late night.

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Operator Efficiency

Arguably the boldest statement to come out of the Next Generation excavator launch is the claim of up to 45 per cent increased operator efficiency. The Cat Connect Technology that makes all this possible comes standard on the 320 and 323 but is an optional extra on the 320GC.

The Cat Payload system provides the operator with the weight of each bucket along with a running total while loading. This eliminates guess work and optimises efficiency with the knowledge that every truck load is legally maximised.

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The Cat Grade with 2D system enables the operator to set levels and create ramps and grades with the touch of a button. Engaging the Cat Grade with Assist option automates the boom, stick and bucket, allowing the operator to dig to these set levels with the use of just one control lever without fear of getting it wrong (as long as the settings are right!). This negates the need to get off the machine or have someone extra to check levels throughout the dig; it will, however, have the ability to make even the most inexperienced novice look like a seasoned pro. The only downfall I can foresee is, if an unskilled operator becomes too reliant on the assist function, they will never learn the intricacies that are involved with becoming a final trim professional.

E-Fence is another feature where the operator can set up pre-determined boundaries that the machine cannot move past; an excellent safety feature when working around or under structures, power lines, services or near roadways etc. Also good for when the learner operators are in the saddle!

An optional upgrade to Cat Grade with Advanced 2D or Cat Grade with 3D adds an extra 10-inch monitor in the cab along with in-field design capabilities and also expands grading proficiency while 3D encompasses high accuracy through satellite positioning. This upgraded system has the potential to have a whole job programmed into the digger and, wherever the machine is on the site, it will be able to tell the operator exactly how much cut, fill, slope etc. is needed in that particular area. This could prove to be a huge time and cost saver to the owner, especially on larger sites.

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You have probably figured out by now that the 320GC is the most budget-conscious of these three machines. It is the lightest with an operating weight of around 20.5 tonnes and seems to be aimed more at the average contractor who is not in need of too much in the way of technology. The machine is set up more towards easier digging applications and would probably perform a lot of its work on hourly hire.

The 320 is a bit heavier duty with an operating weight at a touch under 22 tonnes. It comes ex-factory with all standard technological options and is suitable in most applications and digging conditions.

The 323 weighs in at just under 24.5 tonnes. This heavy-duty/high-production machine is designed with some of the hardest tasks in mind and is probably more suited to the fixed-price job market. Dimensions are practically identical to the 320 with the extra weight coming from added strengthening situated throughout the machine. It also comes ex-factory with all standard technological options, has a high lifting capacity and is suited to all digging applications.

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Australian Launch

The Australian product launch of the new Next Generation excavators was a somewhat elaborate event hosted on the Performance Lawn at the Brisbane Powerhouse by excited Caterpillar operatives and executives. After the formalities were completed we were treated to an unveiling that rivalled something out of a Transformers movie, with a bit of Cat history on the big screens along with an ornate light show complete with smoke machines and fireworks as the excavators were rolled out into view. Once the festivities were over we were provided with the opportunity to have a walk around and inspect the machines up close.

The next day was a come and try day provided to clients from around the region at the Cat Distribution Centre in Yatala, just south of Brisbane. I was allocated a 30-minute slot to give a machine a bit of a going over and test but, unfortunately, due to a couple of logistical timing factors, I was only able to spend around 10 minutes in the driver’s seat before the client demonstration began.

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I was quickly run through how to set grade flat and slope on the touchscreen in order to try some "one-arm digging". I was not allowed to actually dig into the dirt with the client demo coming up, so I did a bit of air trimming just above the ground. I know it’s not the same but it did give me a good idea of how the system works and it seemed to be quite fast and smooth, although I’m not quite sure how some dirt in the bucket would affect things.

Next, I swung the machine so that the bucket was almost touching a bollard in front of me, and then I set up the E-Fence. I swung back the other way to give myself a bit of room before slewing back toward the bollard at full speed. As the arm started to approach the target, the machine began to lose speed until the bucket finally inched its way through the last metre before coming to rest back next to the bollard.

I was allowed, however, to dig some dirt from the back of the stockpile that I was on in order to try out the payload system; two buckets’ worth actually! It was loose topsoil so I wasn’t going to get much indication of how well this unit could dig but each bucket weighed in at a touch over two tonnes. After emptying the bucket, I was instructed to park it up safely before the demo proceeded.

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With my limited time in the seat, I am really unable to comment about the machine’s performance, however, from what I experienced, it did still feel like a Cat digger to operate. The specs, such as break-out force etc., are just as good – if not better – on paper than previous models. The new improved work station will be a winner for most operators. After all, these are the people that sit in this office day after day for hours on end, and if they are happy and comfortable, better production should be the end result.

Caterpillar executives and operatives were all beaming with excitement at the release of these new Next Generation machines, and with good reason too! This technology and the new cab puts them a considerable step ahead of competitors, and with claims of up to 15, 25 and 45 per cent greater efficiency, they are all numbers that will turn heads and equate to significant dollars back in owners’ pockets.

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The preconception, however, about electronics in machinery is still quite prevalent in some parts of the industry, although I did notice that most of the clientele at the launch were of a younger, more tech-savvy generation who have in some cases inherited the business from their parents and are heading it into a new era. Let’s face it, pretty much everything we drive and operate these days has electronics, so it’s a natural progression that you will see more of this type of technology rolling out on a number of different machines in the future. Machine hours will be the real test of time to see how well the computing systems can withstand what the operators and nature can throw at them. Those of you who have read past reviews of mine will know that I’m not a huge fan of technology that negates the need of operator prowess, but this is the way of the future so we will have to learn to embrace it sooner or later.

Caterpillar has tried to work out a way to deal with the ever-increasing operator shortage problem that has been slowly manifesting itself around the globe. We have particularly felt this in Australia and New Zealand over the past few years, and it is probably about to get worse too! With the huge amount of infrastructure work and mining making a comeback again in Australia, something will need to be done as we have not really had both sectors cresting around the same time for a very long time. This is a step in the right direction but the future does lie with driverless machines. Caterpillar are hoping to demonstrate a fully autonomous excavator by the end of 2019 with production proposed to start around five years after that … so watch this space!


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