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New concepts in construction machinery design: The rise of the machines

Volvo Construction Equipment is focusing on new materials and technologies to make its machines more fuel efficient.

Over the past few years, the major ­manufacturers that sell construction equipment in Europe and the United States have focused much of their research and development effort on complying with stringent engine emission legislation in both jurisdictions.

But with the final level of emission standards coming into force next year, construction equipment firms can turn their research and development attention to other technological and societal changes.

Last month, key staff involved in developing new solutions at Volvo Construction Equipment gave an indication of the direction the Sweden-based equipment manufacturer is taking. “There are three paradigm shifts coming, whether we have taken care of them or not,” predicted Volvo director of emerging technologies Jenny Elfsberg.

These shifts, which Elfsberg says will shape the future for all manufacturers, are system decoupling - separating the hydraulic and mechanical elements of the machines, machine intelligence, and what Elfsberg calls “total business solutions”.

Elfsberg heads a team of engineers whose role, she says, is to focus on defining new concepts that add value for customers.

“It is their responsibility to define how the future will look, and develop technologies that will make that happen.”

The first paradigm shift, system decoupling, is vital if machines are to become more fuel and energy efficient. It involves separating the engine that is used to power the drive train from the power required for operational activities, like digging and lifting.

But we also need to work on products that are a little bit risk taking - otherwise someone else will do it.

Jenny Elfsberg, Volvo

 “We want to go from having machines that are mechanically and hydraulically physically coupled, and disconnect them and make the elements talk to each other by electronics,” explains Elfsberg. “It will eliminate losses in our machines.”

She adds: “When you decouple, you create more disconnected subsystems, so you have building blocks to create the machines for customers.”

Elfsberg says this physical decoupling will make it easier to develop more sophisticated machine intelligence systems - the second on her list of paradigm shifts. “Machine intelligence” in this context means everything from simple driver assistance (like the parking assistance systems in modern cars) right through to fully automated, operator-free machines.

“We know if we move in that direction we will provide our customers with the values they would like to have,” says Elfsberg.

“We believe the industry wants this [operator assistance] for skilled and unskilled operators and to take care of the whole process on site - innovations that will help them to have higher productivity.”

This focus on improving productivity and fuel efficiency for machine owners and operators chimes with the third paradigm shift: total business solutions.

“We are going from selling a machine to selling complete solutions,” explains Elfsberg. “We can help with site planning and site management; we can have machines talking to each other.”

Elfsberg is adamant that Volvo, like all manufacturers, must be prepared for these three paradigm shifts, even if there are external forces that will dictate the speed at which they will happen.

“If we didn’t comply with these shifts we would be out of business,” she says. “We believe we can manage these paradigm shifts because we believe we are innovative.

“But it needs to add value to our customers to be innovative, so we need to understand our customers, and we need to understand what value is,” she adds.

However, in a department full of “people with huge imaginations and lots of skills and knowledge”, as Elfsberg describes her team, one of the biggest challenges is managing the innovation process. “It is very important to manage ideas,” she explains. “We have to make sure that they don’t just end up on a long list and nothing happens.”

The same is true of product selection, with a balance being struck between developing existing products and coming up with completely new concepts.

“We don’t get unlimited resources, so we need to choose the incremental developments that will make sense to customers. But we also need to work on products that are a little bit risk taking - otherwise someone else will do it,” says Elfsberg.

One of the big drivers for product development is reducing the amount of fossil fuel used by construction machines. “Crude oil is becoming a very scarce resource, and we have to use it with care and think about alternatives,” says Volvo global director of driveline systems Gunnar Stein. “We need to improve our customers’ businesses to improve our business - which means moving more material at the same time as using less fuel.”

The company is seriously looking at alternative fuels, including biogas, methanol and synthetic diesel, but it is also developing new driveline technologies to make the machines far more fuel efficient. One of these might be to replace the conventional gearbox with a continuously variable transmission, which would

enable the engine to run at a lower speed, resulting in a reduction in fuel consumption - around 25% less fuel for a wheel loader, according to Stein.

It is a technology that has been used in agricultural equipment for over 10 years, and is also being introduced by some leading car manufacturers.

Looking further into the future, Stein says that the next logical option is to look at hybrid technology.

“You can go hydraulic or electric, and with a totally disconnected system architecture, the engine simply acts as a generator,” he explains. “We can really optimise the engine to operate in the areas of the lowest possible fuel consumption.”

We need to improve our customers’ businesses to improve our business - which means moving more material at the same time as using less fuel.

Gunnar Stein, Volvo

Hybrid engine technology opens up the possibility of adding an energy storage device, with the stored energy being used as a “boost” when it is needed, rather than having to ramp up the main engine speed. So far, the response to hybrid construction machines has been muted, but Stein believes it may be the right solution for certain machines.

“What you need is a machine that has a lot of operating hours and a tough duty cycle, and that really burns fuel,” he explains. “There may be other factors as well - like tax incentives or legislation incentives - but what makes sense for a wheel loader doesn’t necessarily make sense from an excavator perspective.”

Looking even further ahead, Stein says the answer might be to do away with the conventional transmission and axles, and replace it with individual electrical motors on each wheel - total system decoupling. That would also pave the way for all sorts of different fuels to be used to power the engine (or generator) required for the machine’s operating activities.

But, says Stein, it is up to the market to decide when it is appropriate to bring these future technologies to the market.

“All these technologies come with a price tag, so the machines will be more expensive. You need to offset that with the

fuel savings.”

He adds: “There are factors that we can’t influence - like fuel prices. What if natural gas resources in the US really take off? That may significantly have an impact on the price of diesel. Our customers are business-driven, so there must be a return on investment over a certain period.

“We can work from the other end of the equation - engineering solutions that come with the best cost effectiveness - and we are positioning ourselves so that we can be quick to market if that equation comes.”

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