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Playing the right hand in the load and haul game

For 55 years, clients of Volvo Construction Equipment have visited its customer centre in Eskilstuna, Sweden for its annual Volvo Days event. In 2013, nine customer groups over three weeks visited the centre, with up to 220 people passing through its doors daily. They learnt about Volvo?s history, products and services and were treated to a large-scale demonstration of Volvo?s construction fleet.
As part of Volvo Days, Volvo CE also brought international journalists to the Eskilstuna customer centre and production plant for an inaugural Innovation Forum. The medium enabled Volvo CE to illustrate its culture of innovation and creativity and highlight new developments in engine technology, drivelines and alternative technologies in the company?s product range.
Anders P Larsson, Volvo CE?s executive vice president of technology function, linked the company?s quest for innovation back to its three core values: quality, safety and environmental care.
?Innovation goes into how we can improve the uptime of the equipment and measure and monitor the machines so we don?t have unplanned stoppages,? Larsson explained. ?How can our innovations protect the operator? How do we protect humans on the worksite? We are developing innovations for capacity, for maximum safety. With environmental care, it pays to do the efficiency, to introduce more tonnes per hour. It means you are decreasing the effects on the environment.?
Larsson cited how Volvo CE has been at the forefront of innovation in the earthmoving and construction equipment sector since 1932. The company introduced one of the world?s first wheel loaders (based on a reversed tractor) in 1954 and in 1966 launched the first articulated dump truck (based on a tractor-driven dump trailer). In the 1970s it was one of the first companies to introduce a cab with ROPS/FOPS protection and in the early 1980s it introduced automatic gear shifting in its wheel loaders. More recently, it has introduced parallel linkage in its L250G wheel loader (that allows for high breakout force for digging in hard materials), Opti-Shift (which is designed for faster loading cycles while reducing fuel consumption) and a new line of Tier 4 Final/Stage IV-compliant diesel engines (which aim to improve fuel efficiency by five per cent over previous models and reduce overall running costs). Volvo CE?s L220G wheel loader and A40F articulated hauler have also received European iF Red Dot Product Design Awards for design efficiency.
Today, Volvo CE in sales terms ranks amongst the top four earthmoving equipment manufacturers worldwide. According to KHL?s Yellow Table 2013, Volvo CE?s net construction equipment sales in 2012 were in the order of $US9394 million and accounted for five per cent of the global construction equipment market (about a third of these net sales – $US3398 million ? were in the Asia-Pacific region). 
As part of its environmental care values, the entire Volvo Group is part of the Climate Savers program of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). As a member of this program (membership is by invitation only), Volvo has committed to reducing its lifetime emissions of carbon dioxide from products manufactured from 2009 to 2014 by 30 million tonnes, to reduce emissions from its production plants by 12 per cent and to develop a methane-fuelled on-road truck. The company has also pledged to make all of its manufacturing facilities carbon-neutral. Volvo CE?s articulated hauler manufacturing plant in Bra?s, in southern Sweden, in late 2013 became only the second Volvo manufacturing plant to be powered by renewable wind, biomass and hydropower sources.
Volvo CE has for many years promoted a long-term vision for earthmoving equipment ? ?The Plan?. This reflects an ambition to produce a world that is, to quote the corporate video, ?beyond today?s limitations? and work sites with a ?completely integrated business solution?. It foresees a time when the construction industry will run its operations day and night without breakdowns. Wheel loaders, articulated haulers and excavators will predict and plan their own maintenance, instinctively avoid accidents and operate autonomously. Fully electrified machines with site optimisation and zero emissions will reduce energy consumption to a fraction of today?s requirements and businesses will be environmentally sustainable.
Volvo CE has developed concept machines to support ?The Plan?, each one named after mythical animals. The Centaur articulated hauler would feature a hybrid drive system, regenerative braking systems, solar-powered auxiliary controls, minimal water-driven hydraulics and a two-piece haul body that can decouple for different applications. The Gryphin wheel loader would be equipped with a hydrogen fuel cell engine, electric motors in each wheel hub (dispensing with heavy drivelines), independent suspension for smoother or uneven ground and electro-hydraulic actuators and an extended counterweight for increased lifting capacity. 
The SfinX excavator would incorporate a small hydrogen fuel cell engine, electric motors at the pivot points of the stick and boom (dispensing with hydraulic cylinders), independent, wheel-like tracks, ?drive-by-wire? electronic and electrical controls (omitting hydraulic and mechanical controls) and a more secure GPS system that would inform the operator how the blade or bucket should be positioned so that only the precise amount of aggregate is moved. The machines are conceptual but they reflect the high calibre of thinking within Volvo CE?s emerging market engineering, design, driveline systems and engine performance divisions.
So is the reality in the years ahead likely to live up to ?The Plan?? How likely is this vision of the future and what are the factors conspiring against it?
Some of the innovations that Volvo CE discussed at its Innovation Forum are already being explored, to limited degrees of success, in the broader earthmoving market. In recent years, a number of hybrid diesel-electric vehicles have entered the commercial market, including excavators from Komatsu (see page 16), Caterpillar and Hitachi and wheel loaders from John Deere, LeTourneau and Kawasaki.
Volvo CE even launched a prototype hybrid wheel loader to much fanfare at ConExpo-ConAgg in Las Vegas in 2008 but unlike its competitors has never developed a commercial model. The company, though, does not appear too fazed that its competitors may have potentially stolen the march on them as a manufacturer of hybrid technology. Perhaps this is because their own research has told them that the enthusiasm globally from customers to the early commercial hybrid models has, at best, been lukewarm (at least to the observations of this writer). The other manufacturers have in their own PR literature acknowledged that a hybrid machine is in dollar terms more expensive than an equivalent diesel model but should, in terms of emission and fuel savings, eventually recoup those additional costs. This will not necessarily appeal to customers that want a quick return on their investment.
At the Innovation Forum, Volvo CE personnel hinted that they are working on a prototype earthmoving vehicle with the energy saving potential of the methane-powered truck Volvo Trucks is developing for the WWF Climate Savers program. It was not confirmed if the prototype will be an articulated hauler, a wheel loader or an excavator. However, it is worth noting that Volvo Trucks is also investigating seven different alternative fuels for its vehicles: biodiesel, synthetic diesel, dimethyl ether (DME), methanol/ethanol, biogas, hydrogen and a combination of biodiesel and biogas. It is possible that if Volvo Trucks can run their vehicles on these renewable fuels, then spin-offs will be plausible within Volvo CE?s product range, particularly for its articulated haulers.
Volvo Trucks and Volvo CE have also collaborated on the development of the Tier 4/Final Stage IV-compliant diesel engine for their on-highway and off-highway fleets. Designed for EU and US emissions legislation, the engine has advanced fuel injection, an effective air handling system and enhanced engine management. It incorporates a selective catalytic reduction (SCR) technology that injects diesel exhaust fluid (DEF) into the exhaust gas flow to convert nitrogen oxide (NOx) to nitrogen and water. The SCR effectively reduces 95 per cent of the vehicle?s NOx emissions. The engine?s external exhaust gas recirculation system (E-EGR) also lowers NOx by reducing the amount of oxygen in the combustion chamber, which condenses combustion peak temperatures. An automatic diesel particulate filter (DPF) system reduces particulate emissions and in conjunction with the diesel oxidation catalyst (DOC) burns particulate matter at high temperatures via reset regeneration every 500 hours, all without operator intervention.
Experts at the Innovation Forum emphasised that some of the features mooted in ?The Plan? are already plausible or in development. Arvin Rinaldo, of Volvo CE?s global market communications, stated that safety has played a significant role in the development of the cab, handrails and anti-slip surfaces, visibility and ground level service and maintenance on earthmoving vehicles.
?We want to achieve zero accidents with all Volvo products,? Rinaldo said. ?You might only think about the hardware and the product but we want to think about the worksite, the machines, the people. It?s important to work on passive and active safety.?
There has also been a strong focus by Volvo CE?s emerging market engineering, design, driveline systems and engine performance divisions on energy efficiency. Jenny Elfsberg, Volvo CE?s emerging technologies director, described three technology paradigm shifts that earthmoving equipment manufacturing is undergoing: system decoupling, machine to machine (M2M) intelligence and total business solutions.
?Machine intelligence is connected to the decoupling because when we take apart the subsystems and make them talk to each other through computers, we add more computer capability and the machines get smarter,? Elfsberg explained. ?An operator in a decoupled machine may not be able to listen to the engine revs to understand how much they are demanding from the machine. The machine will be optimised to work at the sweet spots for the M2M so you will not get the mechanical and hydraulic feedback you?ll get in a conventional machine. So we need that intelligence to make the right decisions for the complete machine when we are operating it.?
Elfsberg described the total solutions paradigm shift as providing the necessary insights, training and education for operators to adjust to 
the first two paradigm shifts. She added that is why Volvo CE today strives to gauge customer reaction to its vehicles and to incorporate that feedback into ongoing product development.
Customers? ?emotional capital?, as described by Volvo CE?s design director Stina Nilimaa Wickstr?m, also plays an enormous part in product innovation. At the forum, Wickstr?m discussed how new technologies are being influenced by customers? personal connection to different products. ?We believe one of Volvo?s competitive advantages in the future is our interaction with the machines,? she explained. ?There is now connectivity not only between people but people and machines, M2M, machine to components and components to material ? and this creates a mass of information that can create immense possibilities for us to improve business for our customers, productivity, the environment and safety.?
Wickstr?m added that Volvo CE?s goal in design innovation is to provide ?controlled feeling? for the operator ? or reassurance and comfort with the level of visibility, the size of the cab space, the standardisation and optimisation of the controls and the ergonomics of the operator chair, all elements which encourage trust in the product. The development of concept vehicles such as the Centaur and the SfinX are in turn aimed at energising discussion so that Volvo CE can better understand the ?core essence of customers? needs? and how to ?provide those ideas, services?.
Ultimately it will be total cost of ownership that determines how much Volvo CE?s innovations will make the transition from the conceptual to the practical. Gunnar Stein, Volvo CE?s global director for driveline systems, said that the reason new driveline innovations ? eg Opti-Shift, Continuously Variable Transmission (CVT, which provides stepless functionality and decouples wheel speed from engine speed), hybrid technology and energy storage devices (such as electrical capacitors) ? have been so incremental is that in the race to save total cost of ownership, new technologies have their own price.
?As we lower the total cost of ownership, all technologies come with a price tag,? Stein explained. ?The machine will be more expensive and we need to offset that additional cost with fuel savings. The cost for fuel needs to go down and the customers want to see a return in investment in a decent amount of time.?
Jenny Elfsberg also described launching emerging technologies as balancing ?the incremental with the radical? and that it is too easy to overwhelm customers with too many radical ideas. ?When it comes to innovations, the ideas we want to capture are the ones that make a positive difference to the customer,? she said.
Volvo CE is nevertheless cryptic about the final form its next generation of earthmoving products will take in the years ahead. However, there is an underlying confidence behind the company?s caution, as if it is holding back on a private joke that isn?t known by the trade media or its competitors.
?When are we going to launch our hybrid excavator or loader?? Anders P Larsson smiled rhetorically. ?When are we going to see these innovations for real at our customer sites? We can confirm that we are working with interesting stuff but not when we will go to market with these things.?
Will this enigmatic approach in the long run translate into timidness and lost opportunity? Will Volvo CE play its hand in time before it is trumped by another market competitor? Stay tuned but it appears Volvo CE is highly confident in its ability to raise innovation in the earthmoving market to new levels. ?
Damian Christie attended the Volvo CE Innovation Forum, held in Eskilstuna, Sweden, courtesy of Volvo CE, in 2013.

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