Tracking trends in riding-mower design

In the last 15 years, riding mowers have undergone a tremendous change. What many considered a commercial unit at that time, we now regard as a consumer model. Consider the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute's (OPEI's) definition of a riding mower at that time:

Riding mower: Self-propelled riding vehicles designed for general-purpose lawn and garden work and for cutting grass. They are usually not capable of pulling a plow. They have air-cooled, 4-cycle engines, usually with a rating of 12 hp or less. The engines have either pull-cord (rewind) or electric (battery) starters. Cutting units feature rotary blades that are linked to the engine shaft by a belt or chain. Some contain a power transmission shaft (PTO) for attachment of other maintenance implements, but most do not.

It's doubtful you could find many today who would define the commercial riding mower in the same way. Today, in fact, OPEI uses several, very specific definitions to identify riding mowers: rear-engine riding mowers, riding garden tractors and front-engine lawn tractors. And each of these has its own specifications so that the industry properly categorizes riding mowers for the purposes of reporting shipments, sales, etc.

Steve Wells, a representative of Woods Equipment Co. (Oregon, Ill.), pointed out these discrepancies immediately when Grounds Maintenance asked him to describe how today's riding-mower definition would be different from that of 15 years ago. "The most significant change in riding mowers is the segmentation of the market into consumer and commercial product designs," he explained. "The increase in contract, commercial mowing--rather than the homeowner performing his own lawn maintenance--has spurred this change."

To further describe how riding mowers have changed, GM asked some of the leading manufacturers of riding mowers to give us their views on the subject. Their answers varied from issues-oriented topics to specific design aspects. But an overall attitude seemed to prevail among them all. Riding mowers, they all seemed to agree, had changed for the better.

Today's riding mower When asked to define today's riding mower vs. the definition of 15 years ago, most manufacturers focused on horsepower. "Most commercial riding mowers are now in the 18- to 25-hp range," said John Crowson, national sales and marketing manager for Scag Power Equipment (Mayville, Wis.). "Air-cooled engines are still prevalent, but liquid-cooled gasoline engines and diesel engines are gaining popularity [see related article, "Appraising air-cooled and liquid-cooled engines," page 14]. Nearly all commercial riders are electric start, and many accept attachments like snow throwers, brooms, blades and debris blowers. Some cutter decks are now shaft-driven." Crowson added that today's commercial riding mower also was more powerful, faster, more versatile and more productive than units of yesterday.

Dick Tegtmeier, president/CEO of Encore Manufacturing (Beatrice, Neb.) would undoubtedly agree with Crowson. "The horsepower certainly has changed," Tegtmeier said. "Our riding mowers go up to 25 hp [now]."

Kurt Oehlrich, sales and marketing manager for Steiner Turf Equipment Inc. (Dalton, Ohio), mirrored Crowson's and Tegtmeier's opinions. "One of the main changes in riding mowers is that the horsepower of the engines [has] been increased," Oehlrich explained. "We are seeing more riding lawn mowers now with engines of 12 hp or more. Diesel engines are being used, and liquid-cooled engines in both diesel and gas are being used." He also noted that most of today's units had electric start. "Pull-start is very rarely used anymore. Some mowing decks are still being run by a belt. However, there are some that are hydraulically run and some that are run by a drive shaft," he said.

Similarly, Tom Prall, manager of market development for the Lawn & Garden Products Group of John Deere Worldwide Commercial & Consumer Equipment Division (Horicon, Wis.), said performance was the key today. "Perhaps the most obvious difference between the riding mowers of today and their predecessors is the tremendously improved performance. Today," he explained, "engines are all-electric start with horsepower exceeding 13 hp. Unlike 15 years ago, customers now have a choice between hydrostatic and gear transmissions, and mower decks are powered by a belt or shaft drive.

"Features have been added to increase the versatility of the vehicles as well. While lawn mowing is still the primary function of riding lawn equipment, today's models can also be used for projects such as snow removal and tilling. With more mower deck options, customers can mulch, bag or use the traditional side discharge."

Peter Whurr, director of marketing for Ransomes America Corp. (Lincoln, Neb.), pointed out that the weight of today's units has decreased, in addition to the increases in horsepower. "The engines weigh less and are more powerful," he said. "Fuel economy is an issue as well as the reduction in noise level." And, he added, "People want their mowers to have more creature comforts."

Other significant design changes When GM polled riding-mower manufacturers, they mentioned one design trend even more often than increased horsepower: zero-turn-radius capability. Out of 18 manufacturers who responded to the survey, nearly half cited zero-turn, compared to seven who mentioned larger engines. Scag's Crowson said this development was "spurred by the need for more productive mowers that are capable of handling a variety of terrains."

Bob Walker, president of Walker Manufacturing Co. (Fort Collins, Colo.), explained that the concept of zero-turn radius started some 25 years ago. "But," he said, "it has been refined and accepted by the market in the last 10 years."

Ruthanne Stucky, marketing director at the Grasshopper Co. (Moundridge, Kan.), also has watched the design of zero-turn mowers take hold in the industry. "While Grasshopper has employed this design for 28 years, we are now seeing the majority of manufacturers offering the design," she said. "The trend in this direction is spurred by the need for efficiency and productivity to meet the budget requirements of tax-exempt agencies and commercial applications....We are definitely aware of an urgency on the part of other manufacturers to produce a zero-turn model."

Rick Curlett, director of marketing for Exmark Manufacturing Co. (Beatrice, Neb.), addressed his views on the reasons zero-turn mowers have become so prevalent. He said, "The evolution of the zero-turn riding unit...was a result of the commercial demand for more productivity." Scag's Crowson answered similarly. Zero-turn-radius mowers were spurred, he said, "by the need for more productive mowers that are capable of handling a variety of terrains."

"In my lifetime," said Mark Meagher, marketing manager for Dixie Chopper (Coatesville, Ind.), "90 percent of all riding mowers will be zero-turn radius."

Despite the importance of zero-turn-radius capability, Deere's Prall feels strongly that other factors have had a greater influence on riding-mower design. "Without a doubt, the most significant changes...have been to the engines and transmissions," he explained. "Today's electric-start models can have options such as V-twin, liquid cooling or diesel power. Also, the inclusion of overhead valves in the engine design has led not only to better fuel economy and lower emissions but to more power and torque. The last 15 years also have brought about the advent of hydrostatic/automatic transmissions, which make operations much easier and more productive."

Larger horsepower engines have evolved because technological advances have reduced the cost of manufacturing higher horsepower engines, according to Daniel R. Kilgas, product manager/residential and commercial mowing products for Kubota Tractor Corp. (Compton, Calif.). He concurred that larger horsepower and hydrostatic transmissions have been significant design trends on riding units.

Oelrich, with Steiner, also cited the advent of hydrostatic drive. "[While] there have been many changes in the design of the riding mower, a couple really stand out," he explained. "One is [that] most of the riding mowers--or at least a lot of them--are hydrostatically run. There is no shifting of gears. All you do now is either push down on a foot pedal or use a hand control."

Operator comfort has obviously played an important role in influencing manufacturers' riding-mower designs. "The most significant change in riding-mower design has been the offering of more comfortable, easier-to-use units with larger horsepower engines," said Jan Peiffer, Simplicity's corporate communications specialist (Port Washington, Wis.). "This was spurred by consumer need for this type of product on smaller or heavily landscaped lots [on which users] previously had to purchase larger lawn tractors to get the features they desired."

Stan Kinkead, National Mower Co.'s general manager, was more opinionated when he commented on how operator comfort has influenced riding-mower design. "We are turning into a nation of wimps!" he said.

John Mielke, manager of communications and promotions, Jacobsen Division of Textron Inc. (Racine, Wis.), summed up the topic when he said, "In the last 10 years, the most significant changes in riding-mower design for commercial use have been the increased attention to operator comfort; the increased performance of hydraulics to power the cutting decks and traction systems; increased use of mulching decks; higher horsepower; and the introduction of zero-turn mowers. All of these enhance the total productivity of the mower."

While manufacturers have worked to accommodate users' needs and desires, they also had another force with which to contend: the government. Ransome's Whurr succinctly said, "The customer and legislation have changed the way we design mowers." This has been evidenced by changes in engine emissions and noise abatement.

Yesterday's options: Today's standard features While today's units may look sleeker and more attractive than their earlier counterparts, they are no less practical than yesterday's. In fact, "There are many features that have become standard that are not options today," said William L. Lowe, director of marketing for Snapper (McDonough, Ga.). For example, he cites electric start, the ability to catch clippings and conversion to a mulching deck.

Other options manufacturers mentioned as today's "absolutes"--those features that any riding mower must have to compete in the market--include:

* The price/productivity ratio! (Cost of operating equipment.)--Ken Raney, advertising manager, Excel Industries Inc. (Hesston, Kan.)

* Maneuverability and a great cut--their No. 1 purpose. Ease of use and accessibility to key components for routine maintenance are also important.--Simplicity's Peiffer

* Combination mower decks, open discharges, grass collection [systems] and mulching options.--Mike Kadel, advertising manager, Dixon Industries Inc. (Coffeyville, Kan.)

* Quick height adjustments, floating decks, [increased] ground speed and quality-of-cut improvements (not speed at the expense of poor performance).--Exmark's Curlett

* Comfort and reliability. Also the ease of use is important. More and more women are doing this job now, so the ease of use becomes a big factor.--Kubota's Kilgas

* Ability to cover the area quickly (productivity) by tight and quick maneuverability; operator comfort (getting and keeping workers); and to provide a high-quality mowing job (in the maintenance of landscaped/improved areas).--Walker's Walker

* The first priority is more of a standard than a trend: To produce highly reliable and durable products. Beyond that, customers tell us these days they are looking for an easily operated vehicle with sufficient power that is also environmentally friendly. This means automatic drive/hydro transmissions, more powerful engines (perhaps V-twins) and mower decks that mulch well and, in turn, reduce or eliminate the volume of grass clippings sent to local landfills.--Deere's Prall

Other trends in riding mowers Variety seems to be the key to successful mower sales today. And manufacturers are going out of their way to offer a medley of options and specialized accessories and services. For example, Power Trac (Tazewell, Va.) has focused on designing and manufacturing slope mowers over the last few years. "This change has been brought on by both injury with other mowers as well as landscapers contracting out work with the government," said Power Trac's Marketing Manager Kristie Asbury. "Landscapers are mowing more hills and medians, and they want the right machine."

Quality is another key--especially for those mowers that straddle the line between consumer and commercial. Snapper's Lowe said, "Those who manufacture exclusively for the large national retailers will always deal on the price issue. They will make lots of product at a less than desirable profit for getting a good return on investment."

Encore's Tegtmeier admitted that, with the many riders currently on the market, buyers were in a much better position than they had ever been before. "The pricing--because of heavy competition--remains quite favorable to the buyer," he explained.

Environmental issues also have taken a forefront in design trends over the last few years. Ransome's Whurr noted that environmentally friendly design aspects, such as biodegradable hydraulic oils, low noise levels and lower pollution levels, have been important. And Kubota's Kilgas agreed. "Noise abatement is becoming more of an issue. Hearing damage in the future will be a problem if this is not addressed," he admonished all manufacturers.

Even with the advances made over the last 15 years, riding-mower design has become stagnant--at least according to one manufacturer. "There does not seem to be anything new under the sun--witness all the 'copycat' mowers!" bemoaned Excel's Raney.

Nevertheless, as long as manufacturers continue to meet customers' needs, all is not lost. Ransome's Whurr predicted, "Those manufacturers that are responsive to the needs of the customer will ultimately prevail."

* Mowers are becoming more powerful and productive and, at the same time, lighter in weight. This is being achieved in part by the increased use of hydraulics, durable plastics, polymers and light-weight metal components. The mowers are also easier to operate because manufacturers are devoting more attention to ergonomics.--John Mielke, Jacobsen Division of Textron Inc. (Racine, Wis.)

* The trend for more productivity has led to faster mowing speeds, wider decks and higher horsepower requirements.--Steve Wells, Woods Equipment Co. (Oregon, Ill.)

* Bottom line is get the best production of grass mowing in most adverse terrain and maintaining a quality cut. This causes the design to include operator comfort, user friendly, heavy duty, eye appealing and all of a dozen other considerations.--Dick Tegtmeier, Encore Manufacturing (Beatrice, Neb.)

* I believe that any riding mower should be friendly to the operator. The more levers and gears and things you have to use and do just to run the machine, the less the appeal to the retail public. It has to be durable to last a long time. People want to get value for their money.--Kurt Oehlrich, Steiner Turf Equipment Inc. (Dalton, Ohio)

* We feel the commercial segment and primarily the riding-mower segment will continue to grow at a very rapid pace. This puts more focus on the commercial opportunities and, unfortunately, some manufacturers and dealers will begin a downward spiral and erode their profits by trying to undercut everyone rather than focus on quality products and services. The commercial contractor will pay a fair amount and demand--and deserves--excellent service. If the profit is not there, the service will not be there, and we will see the same thing that happened to the consumer market.--Rick Curlett, Exmark Manufacturing Co. Inc. (Beatrice, Neb.)

* Lots of power and performance in a compact package will continue to grow in this market because of the productivity and versatility offered.--Bob Walker, Walker Manufacturing Co. (Fort Collins, Colo.)

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