An attachment that’s considered a machine standard in northern Europe is now making headway in North America.
Generically known as a tiltrotator, the attachment originated in Sweden in the mid-1980s and gained steam during the ensuing years. It’s now so well established in Scandinavia that operators there regularly express amazement on social media that it still gets a golly-gee-whiz reaction from operators here.
You may have seen a tiltrotator demonstrated at a recent trade show or viewed a video on YouTube. There’s no doubt about it: explaining what a tiltrotator can do requires visuals. (Check out a sampling of user-produced videos at the end of this article.)
“We sold our first unit it the United States after a guy saw it on YouTube,” says Stefan Stockhaus, co-founder of tiltrotator manufacturer Steelwrist, which just opened a U.S. office in Berlin, Connecticut. “We’ve had tremendous interest from the U.S. market. We’ve been growing as fast as you can grow, actually.” (Volvo Construction Equipment has minority ownership in Steelwrist.)
Rototilt established its North American presence in 2008, opening a sales office in Ontario, Canada. “We feel that our competitors are actually helping us, even though we were here first,” says Gerry Mallory, general manager. “All of us have increased the awareness of the product. The base is here now and it’s growing fast.”
When Rototilt announced an expansion of its plant in Sweden in late 2018, it specifically cited continued growth in North America as one of the reasons for the move.
“Most of the contractors we speak to in the states are quite open minded about it. There’s a huge interest on social media,” says Sten Stromgren, communications manager, Engcon, which established a U.S. office in 2017.
Anthony LaFata, LaFata & Son Incorporated, a specialty recycling and site development contractor in Guilford, Connecticut, shares the enthusiasm of these manufacturers: “I think this country is about to see a wave of these things come through,” he says.
Why all the excitement?
A tiltrotator allows users to not only tilt an attachment left and right plus-minus 45 degrees but also rotate it 360 degrees. Advocates say this gives excavator operators the ability to perform a variety of tasks without repositioning the excavator. That in turn leads to reduced labor and material costs and lower machine hours, they say.
“You’re totally transforming how you use an excavator,” says Mallory. “With a tiltrotator you can dig, backfill and level contour with your machine in one spot. You can work around and under pipes and other obstacles.”
“We’re seeing a 25 percent increase in production on our grading and backfilling jobs, and we’re using 25 percent less material,” says Tom Gardocki, co-owner with Craig Hammel of New Era Excavation, Manchester, New Hampshire. The two-man residential site work operation first put an Engcon 226 tiltrotator on a John Deere 200 LC excavator. When they bought a Cat 316F in 2018, it was fitted to share the tiltrotator.
“It’s just the two of us so we are interested in any tool, attachment or machine technology that will save us time and allow us to stay small,” Gardocki says: “With a tiltrotator, I can be in the machine and on jobs where Craig normally would have to shovel stone after it’s dumped, he can be in another machine instead and be productive.”
Pete Stroeder, owner-operator of Pete Stroeder Contracting. Ottawa, Canada, is the definition of early adopter. In 2005, he saw his first Rototilt on a machine sitting in a Toronto-area subdivision. “I thought, that could just change everything, it would be easier to do a lot more,” he remembers. He made the plunge in 2006, buying a Rototilt RT60 as a package deal when he bought a Volvo EC 210B.
Since then, Stroeder estimates he’s put 20,000-hours-plus total on five Rototilts, two of which he still owns. “If you compare me with anyone else out there with a 20-ton machine, I’m easily 35 to 40 percent more efficient,” he says.
One of the areas where the tiltrotator really shines for New Era is in backfilling a perimeter drain, Gardocki says: “We usually put in 6 inches of stone and then a filter fabric followed by dirt. With a regular excavator you can’t get the stone exactly where you want it.” A tiltrotator, he says, allows him to turn the bucket and angle it any position. “There’s no shoveling or wasted material,” he says.
Grading is also “unbelievably faster,” Gardocki says. The tiltrotator eliminates how many times he has to reposition the machine. “You can pretty much travel in a straight line and grade around any bump outs or anything else that’s around a house.”
LaFata cites his recent experience taking down a 1,000 feet of chain link fence. “It usually takes an operator with two guys about three hours to do the job,” he says. Using the tiltrotator with an integrated gripper (also called a grabber) and a grapple attachment, his operator did it in 45 minutes. “He pulled out each post with the gripper and laid it on the ground; then he took the grapple to load up several posts in the truck. He then used the gripper again to roll up the chain link fence and put it the truck…all by himself.”
Gardocki is far from shy when sharing his tiltrotator experience. His “The Dirt Ninja” persona on Facebook, YouTube and Instagram has a combined 280,000 followers. “It’s been cool to show off the tiltrotator because most people in the U.S. don’t even know what it is,” Gardocki says. “Everybody from Europe, however, is going ‘well, it’s about time,’.”
Let’s talk about price
Perhaps the biggest barrier to tiltrotator acceptance is sticker shock.
Depending on the specific configuration, a Rototilt that can fit 15-to-24-ton class excavators will cost around $40,000 plus installation and any additional attachments, Mallory says. For installation costs, figure two to three days of labor at your local dealer rate.
Stockhaus estimates a Steelwrist tiltrotator will run 6.6 to 7 percent of the cost of a 20-ton excavator. Engcon places the ROI at 1,500 hours.
Gardocki says New Era spent $65,000 to install its tiltrotator. This amount included labor and two buckets, a grading beam, an integrated grabber –a pincher on the back of the tiltrotator designed to pick up odd-shaped materials — and Engcon’s EC-Oil quick hitch and Trimble-ready option. They have since added a grade beam, SK grapple, compaction wheel, ripper and various size buckets.
“If you just look at the cost, you’re looking at it the wrong way,” Gardocki says. “It’s how much it saves you and how much more efficient you become. Buying this means we didn’t have to hire a laborer. We paid for it in a little over a year.”
LaFata understands hesitations over price. “We first saw it in 2008 and the economy was tough and it was just too much money,” he relates. It still required a big gulp when the specialty recycling and site development firm made the decision to buy a Steelwrist X12 last spring. “They kind of held our hand and walked us through it and ran the numbers,” he says.
Part of his uncertainty was the everyday terrain in his locale. “We’re in a very rocky, boney, wooded area, so I was concerned about the durability,” LaFata says. “But they told us not to be shy, so we get into ripping and pulling out stumps and loading some large timbers with it. Granted, we’ve had it for less than a year, but based upon what I’ve seen, I’m not scared.”
LaFata estimates he spent $28,000 on his tiltrotator, which was put on a one of company’s two Kubota KX080s. “It’s paid for itself in just this short amount of time in labor and materials. Right now, we have seven excavators, and eventually we’d like to convert all of them to tiltrotators.”
“The best way to learn is to just operate it,” Mallory says.
Getting used to the tiltrotator joystick controls can appear daunting. For example, there can be up to three rollers and seven buttons on each Engcon MIG2 joystick. The right joystick controls tilt, and the left joystick controls rotation. Integrated grabber controls are on the back of the right joystick.
“The first day or two I would do the odd thing that made me look stupid,” Stroeder says, “but it was a really quick, natural pick up.”
“At first you love it, then you hate it because you’ve got something strange at the end of the excavator and you’ve got all these buttons at your thumbs and you get frustrated because you just want to go back to the old way of doing things,” is how LaFata, who’s been running equipment for around 40 years, describes it. “About a week later, you feel you can’t live without it.”
Although Gardocki was used to operating tilt buckets, the rotation added an entirely new element. “I’ve had it for more than two years and I’m still finding uses for the tiltrotator that I would never thought of,” he says.
A tiltrotator can be applied directly on the excavator dipper stick or underneath a hydraulic quick coupler. After the tiltrotator is attached, contractors can either use attachments designed by the tiltrotator manufacturer or purchase adaptors that allow them to use their existing attachments.
New Era’s tiltrotator is shared between the company’s two similarly-sized excavators. “It’s an attachment that comes on and off the machine, so we have a normal quick hitch on each machine and attach the tiltrotator to it,” Gardocki says. The tiltrotator itself also has a quick hitch, so various attachments can be attached at the bottom.
Gardocki uses the Engcon EC-Oil quick hitch, which allows him to disconnect the tiltrotator in 10 seconds without leaving the cab. “There’s no more hooking up hydraulic hoses,” he says. “You can buy any attachment for the tiltrotator, and they sell the brackets that allow them to be used.”
Gardocki recommends using a tiltrotator-specific bucket: “They’re shaped a little differently than most buckets you see in the U.S., with a longer bottom and lower sides. It makes it easier to scoop up rocks, stumps and materials.”
Part of the versatility of a tiltrotator is that ability to put it aside when it’s not the best choice for the task at hand, LaFata says. “If we’re picking up heavy, heavy loads or ripping out a huge boulder, something the tiltrotator wasn’t designed for, we can disconnect from it in a matter of seconds.”
Trevor Lott, LSL Alpine Enterpirse, a landscaping company out of Alpine, Utah equipped his Kubota KX121 with a Steelwrist X04 S40 early last year. “Right now I have three buckets, a MG grapple, a grading beam and a compaction wheel,” he says. “My arsenal is staring to grow because it’s an addiction. Once you start, you start putting more things on your wish list.”
Contractors can also opt to use an independent quick hitch, such as OilQuick’s automatic quick coupler system, which allows the tiltrotator to be connected and disconnected from the cab. “If you need all of your machine’s breakout force, you can take off the tiltrotator in seconds rather than minutes,” says Per Skaaret, CEO, OilQuick.
Skaaret’s comment brings up a ding against tiltrotators: the loss of breakout force.
“Whatever the excavator can handle as far as breakout force and lift capacity, the Rototilt was designed to handle,” Mallory argues. “People think it’s only for light-duty work, but it’s for every day standard excavator bucket work.”
And Stromgren says asking about breakout force is actually the wrong question. “Do you get paid for breakout force or do you get paid for doing the job?,” he asks.
“I think the perception of breakout force for some people is that they need all the power the machine can give you,” Lott says. “For me, it’s not how much breakout force I need, it’s how I can make the machine more efficient. I didn’t necessarily feel like it would be a factor in me buying one and it hasn’t been an issue at all.
Tiltrotators typically fit 1.5 to 33-ton excavators. (Excavators above 33-tons are generally used primarily for moving dirt and not considered the best candidates.) They also appear on backhoes, especially those retrofitted for railroad work.
Installation requires expertise. “It’s quite involved, and it typically takes a couple of days,” Mallory says. This includes electric-over-hydraulic controls on the attachment, which typically involves changing the excavator joystick controls, installing an auxiliary hydraulic control unit and running electrical cable connecting controls to the tiltrotator. “It’s not a plug-and-play, where you just hook up a couple of hydraulic hoses,” he says.
Added to that is the unfamiliarity of dealer personnel in installing tiltrotators. “They don’t know what they don’t know,” Stockhaus says, and tiltrotator manufacturers know they need to be involved in initial encounters with dealer installations. Now some excavator OEMs are offering factory-installed units. “That will speed up the market penetration big time,” Stockhaus says.
Tiltrotator manufacturers are also forming machine control alliances with technology providers; one example is Engcon’s partnership with Leica Geosystems and Kobelco. The three firms have developed a system to provide an automatic height and tilt function, a feature that will be available in this spring.
Where to now?
Prime markets for tiltrotator adoption are in the Northeast and Midwest U.S., says Mallory. And it’s the smaller contractors who are leading the way and tend to jump in first.
“Once we penetrate a market with an innovative excavating contractor, when their competitors start to lose business, it opens their eyes,” Mallory says.
But there’s another aspect to tiltrotator ownership that may be just as powerful.
“I like being part of this community,” says Lott, talking about the social media surrounding tiltrotators. “I love posting videos and getting feedback, and I’m meeting new people I wouldn’t necessary have met if I didn’t get a tiltrotator.”