Heart of the matter

Does whether machines have a Volvo engine really matter? And if so - why? Brian O'Sullivan discovers the importance the brand of engine plays in customer buying decisions.

Are you the sort of person that unscrews your computer just to look at how all the bits inside are fitted together? Or do you just switch it on and not care less whether it has an IBM or an Intel processor as long as it works? Customers of construction equipment can be a bit like both parties; some regarding the type of engine as an irrelevance (they're all the same aren't they?) while for others it is the crucial factor when deciding which brand of new equipment to buy.

The basic engine that Rudolf Diesel invented in 1892 was a marvel of strength and simplicity. Able to run on almost anything from peanut oil to coal dust, it was virtually unstoppable. Unfortunately, it also had some bad habits of being noisy, smoky and churned out too many emissions. To that end modern manufacturers - often encouraged by new legislation - have tried to keep the good bits of diesel engines and design out the less desirable ones. And in this respect they have been spectacularly successful - modern turbo-charged diesels are almost unrecognisable from their predecessors of 30 years ago. They produce much more power and torque per litre of engine displacement and emit only a tiny (and reducing) fraction of the emissions.

This improvement in performance has come at a cost. Creating a diesel engine that is more powerful while at the same time uses less fuel and produces fewer emissions is not easy. And not only must it achieve all of these things, it must be utterly reliable day in, day out - often in some of the most challenging applications of any industrial product. Because of this the number of construction equipment manufacturers that can devote the billions of dollars necessary to create these new marvels has dwindled, leaving only a handful of players that can not only create construction equipment - but the engines that power them too.

Volvo Construction Equipment (Volvo CE) is in the lucky position of being among the fortunate few. Being part of the $30 billion Volvo Group, Volvo CE can capitalise on the investment that allows the Group to produce over 160,000 heavy duty diesel engines annually, making it the largest producer of such units.  (The Volvo D12 is the world's most manufactured 12 litre engine). It has advanced engine research and test centres and high-tech engine plants spread from Brazil and USA in the Americas to France, Germany and Sweden in Europe. But this is not really a numbers game: what is really important is how engines perform - and how long they perform for.

Benefit of experience

Opinions are divided as to the importance the brand of engine has on the decision making process of construction equipment. But it is generally agreed that it carries greater impact with repeat customers than with prospective ones. The longevity of the engine is also gaining legend status, with units running 30,000, 40,000 or even more hours not unheard of. While Volvo hasn't aggressively marketed its strength in engine design and manufacture, the folklore surrounding it has had unforced success. When in the past Volvo CE would acquire a company that previously fitted a Cummins or other brand of engine, when it was later fitted with a Volvo engine it was considered by many to be of distinct added value. Butch Taylor of Rockford Blacktop in the US has three Volvo graders, two with Cummins engines and one with a Volvo engine. The difference the brand of engine makes is sharply exposed in this example, with the non-Volvo units coming a weak second in Butch's view.

Since the first Volvo internal combustion engine was created in 1893, the performance, fuel saving, reliability and reassurance of the Volvo name - as well as the support that comes with it, have helped form the positive view in the marketplace about the engine. In fact Volvo is not just good at engines - they are its core competence, as Robert Mullins  explains: "I was trying to figure out what Volvo was all about. And then it occurred to me that Volvo was all about engines: the engine is the one common thread that binds all the Volvo Group companies together - construction, trucks, buses, aero etc. The engines are the foundation of the company."

Keeping it simple

With the arrival of tough Tier 3/Stage IIIA emission legislation in the US and Europe diesel engines have had to step up a gear. While some manufacturers have gone for complex systems, Volvo has opted for simplicity with its Volvo Advanced Combustion Technology (V-ACT). Using a well known and tested engine, the company has added an ingenious system whereby NOx emissions are reduced by allowing a small amount of exhaust gases back into the combustion chamber during the inlet stroke. This reduces the peak combustion temperature and also reduces NOx emissions. The basic idea is very simple, with a double rocker lifting the exhaust valve by a fraction, powered by the engine's own oil pressure system. And because there is no additional equipment or after treatment of the exhaust gases, Volvo's V-ACT solution has very little to go wrong - increasing the system's reliability and durability.

The increasing use of electronics has not always been welcomed by customers, fearing that they bring with them unnecessary complexity. But the reality is that systems such as Contronics and Matris help to monitor the performance of the machines and help identify failings before they become failures, reducing downtime and collateral damage to other components in the process. Performance data is also registered and the electronic system continually optimizes engine and machine functions. This optimization process is playing a big part in reducing fuel consumption - and who doesn't think about the cost of fuel in today's marketplace? Fuel efficiency was a harder sell when off-road fuel was $0.80 a gallon. Now customers are leading the conversations and have generally done their homework on our fuel savings." When some machines are never turned off, only idled, a small hourly saving soon leads to considerable yearly savings.

While it is harder to convince customers of smaller compact equipment of the benefits of fuel efficient engines, customers of larger general purpose machines need no such convincing. But regardless of big or small, the benefit of having an engine and machine made by the same company and designed specifically for that purpose is readily evident.

It isn't what you do; it's the way that you do it…

But as good as Volvo engines are, it is what they add to the total machine package that is really important. It is a constant struggle for those manufacturers who buy in engines from third parties to convince the market that their product is high quality when its major component - the engine - is not only made by someone else but supported by them as well.

A matched driveline between engine, transmission and hydraulics brings with it performance and efficiency benefits. Because they have been tailored to work with one another, there is none of the conflict that components with competing needs create. This is a major factor in Volvo equipment's famed fuel economy: less energy is wasted when the whole machine is designed as a holistic unit: rather than designing a machine and fitting an engine from another supplier. For example the same capacity engine may need to produce power in vastly differing ways depending on the machine to which it is fitted. A wheel loader, for example, needs high torque at low engine speeds for good engine response. A grader, meanwhile, needs sustained power over a wide range of engine speeds and a hauler needs both high power and torque for acceleration and high average speeds. All from the same engine. Only an engine and equipment manufacturer can produce a complete package so effectively. There is also no question of who is responsible - the complete machine will be supported by the local Volvo dealer, no arguments. This advantage, combined with the commonality of parts across the range, increases the more products from the Volvo range are in a customer's fleet.

The burden of leadership

With crude oil's rising costs, depleting reserves and supply risks through political instability, the pressure is on equipment manufacturer to come up with ideas that reduce fuel as well as look for new power sources. The Volvo Group is at the forefront of this debate and has in recent months promoted Dimethylether (DME) as a potential replacement for the three billion tonnes of crude oil that are consumed each year. CO2 neutral, with low exhaust emissions as well as being biodegradable, DME is a promising contender as a fuel of the future.

The Volvo Group is also looking at hybrid solutions that capture the energy created when machines brake, store it in on-board batteries and then reusing this energy via electric motors to help accelerate the machine, ceding to the traditional engine when the machine is at an optimal speed for the engine to be most efficient. Volvo's calculations are that a 35% fuel saving could be offered in this way.
While not the only factor that wins the sale, the importance engines play in the decision making process is set to increase. It is a key piece of the puzzle, and whether the brand of engine is a leading player in the customer's decision to buy Volvo or a strong supporting cast member is open to debate. But what is certain is that engines provide the heartbeat of the machines and need to be powerful, reliable, efficient and easy to fix, service and maintain. The Volvo engines are all of these things, and are good enough that people tend to get rather carried away. There are those that think that Volvo CE is a world class engine manufacturer that just happens to make world class products to fit around them!