Satellite navigation, 'video game' electronics and environmental friendliness are just a few of the technological imperatives driving Caterpillar's product development. How this technology will be harnessed in the service of an ambitious expansion programme was outlined in Tucson, Arizona last week by group president Glen Barton.
Speaking at a press preview of seven new wheel loaders, Barton said Caterpillar is anticipating 5% to 7% annual growth over the next 10 years, with most growth coming from new products. 'We expect to be a $30bn company before the end of the next decade, more than double our current size in real terms,' he added.
Results for 1997 to be announced this week will be comfortably in excess of 1996's $1.3bn (£800M) profit on sales of £10.1bn, Barton said.
At April's Bauma plant exhibition in Munich, Caterpillar will have the largest indoor exhibit, and its total space will be 35% larger than at Bauma '95. The new G-series wheel loaders will be on show there, although some models will not be available until the end of the year.
Also making their first public appearance at Munich will be no less than 10 machines in a range of compact construction plant, including, mini-excavators, compact wheel loaders and skid steer loaders, much of it manufactured in Britain.
'Compact construction equipment is a £2.2bn global industry - one that has been growing at a rate of 11% a year,' Barton points out.
The range was not displayed at Caterpillar's Tinaja Hills training ground in the desert near Tucson last Friday, but the new wheel loaders that were on show did illustrate the company's current thinking on product development. Design teams in America, Europe and Japan worked on the new range together via electronic data exchange. The objectives were not just to beef up horsepower and torque figures over the current F series, although this has been accomplished and Caterpillar claims significantly higher performance levels as a result.
These days, however, plant designers have to take account of other parameters, ranging from a chronic shortage of skilled operatives to pressure from environmental activists. One answer is high technology, especially the application of advanced electronics to the basic hydraulic systems of the machines.
All G-series wheel loaders will be offered with Caterpillar's Command Control Steering as an alternative to the conventional steering wheel. With this system, turning the articulated machine from lock to lock involves moving the half-wheel only through 70, an economy of movement which Caterpillar says will cut wheel movement in practice by 90%.
Also available will be 'electric over hydraulic' controls. These will allow control response to be customised to individual operatives' requirements and for an increasing number of operations to be automated.
Caterpillar is almost ready to offer an 'Aggregates Auto-Dig' option on the G-series. The digging techniques of experienced operatives have been analysed and an optimised routine is stored on an on-board computer. All the operative has to do is drive the bucket into the aggregate pile, whereupon the computer program takes over to ensure consistently filled buckets. An 'Auto-Tip' programme is under consideration.
Increasing control sophistication is matched by greater cab comfort. Cabs are bigger, with greater glass area, and control location is more ergonomically efficient. As one Caterpillar engineer put it: 'The operatives of the future will have been brought up on video games. They will be familiar with joysticks and digital readouts, they will expect armchair comfort and a smooth ride.'
Environmental pressures are seen mainly in lower emissions and noise levels, especially in European-spec models. Europe is also where biodegradable lubricants will first appear. And G-series machines will be more recyclable than their predecessors.
As might be expected, Caterpillar claims the new machines are simpler to maintain, with improved access to components and grouped service points. Computer diagnostics are standard, and Barton looked forward to a day when computer diagnostics and global positioning satellite technology will be combined to allow machines to report their state of health back to service centres.
'Imagine having a technician show up on a job site before the operator even knows there might be a problem,' Baxter says. 'After all, the best way to reduce or eliminate machine downtime and repair costs is to anticipate and correct problems in advance.'
Baxter also sees opportunities for expansion in the articulated truck business, where machines for Europe and the Asia/Pacific market will be built at a recently-acquired facility in Peterlee, County Durham. And there will be a marketing offensive in the paving machine sector as well.
Although construction, mining and forestry equipment will continue to be Caterpillar's core business, Baxter predicts massive expansion in the electric power generation field. With the recent acquisition of Perkins Engines - supplier to JCB - Caterpillar can now provide generating sets with outputs ranging from 50kW to 20MW, burning a variety of fuels. And there will be significant moves into the agricultural field with the further development of the rubber-tracked Challenger tractor range and a joint venture in the combine harvester sector.
These days, 9M pairs of Caterpillar boots are sold every year throughout the world. More significant 'non-traditional' areas of activity include financial services and logistics, and, increasingly, short and long term rentals through Cat 'rental shops'. All this goes to make what Baxter described as a 'high velocity company', using information technology to deliver advanced products, to move into new markets and new geographical areas.
Full details of the new G-series machines are embargoed until February, but those who saw them in action and tried them out last week were impressed. Time will tell if Caterpillar has got the numbers right this time round. If the company is to double in size in the foreseeable future it has to keep on launching market-leading products on a regular basis, with little room for error.
Those potential customers flocking to the Cat stand at Bauma will provide the first feedback for the company on its current strategy. It promises to be an interesting week for all concerned.