No compromises

What will Volvo's construction machines look like in the 2020s? A team of designers has come back from the future to show us what to expect. Brian O'Sullivan reports from Gothenburg.

Industrial designers are a troubled bunch. They constantly have to balance the Possible with the Practical when creating the products that come to market. The outcome is ultimately a compromise between the two factors. And it can be very frustrating for designers, poor things - that's why they always wear black. But their serious faces break into wide smiles when they are given free rein to indulge their creativity to the full - and the outcomes can be truly startling.

Such is the case at Volvo Construction Equipment, whose designers, in partnership with Perspectives Design, have been charged with the task of looking 15 years into the future and hypothesising what Volvo equipment might look like in the 2020s. Managed by Robert Bourghardt and overseen by chief designer Hans Zachau, the team has looked closely at excavators and come up with some radical solutions. Some of these innovations probably won't make it off the drawing board, but others could become reality in the near future.

The team talked to operators to find out what they would like to see in future machines; to the engineers in the product divisions at Volvo and also to the company's Advanced Engineering unit. The latter of these was important because the designers wanted to know what the potential engineering reality looked like - so they could design an excavator that really could happen. "It's very important that we tie it back to Volvo," believes Hans. "It's important that we demonstrate it's a Volvo machine, one that reflects Volvo's core values. Otherwise it doesn't connect to the present product range - and that's key in concept vehicles: people must be able to make the connection."

The study was used to create a 'wow' factor at the Bauma  trade show - but if it were left just as a marketing tool it would be an opportunity missed. Happily though, the intention is to incorporate the study into Design Lab, a virtual discussion room for design thinking within Volvo CE. But what was the main learning of this study? "We learned not to be scared of new technology and radical concepts," says Hans. "Construction equipment is quite a conservative business - but there are lots of possibilities. We can't promise that in 15 years time all our ideas will have come true. We had to guess sometimes - that's the whole idea, to imagine possible outcomes. But if only 10% of what we have thought about ends up in future machines then we will really have achieved something!"

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Appearance: The final design of the excavator is a mixture between space age and primordial, like a prehistoric moon buggy. "The animalistic look is intentional," says chief designer, Hans Zachau. "It should be efficient, lean and hungry to dig. Purposeful and a little mean looking. But we have to remember that it's a Volvo machine and therefore it still has to reflect its core values of Quality, Safety and Environmental Care." The machine is still recognizably an excavator, and the design updates current concepts of boom, cab, tracks and superstructure - but in an innovative way. The familiar Volvo logo and colour scheme ties the design back to the current machines. The omission of hydraulics makes for a cleaner looking machine that means business.

Engine: The future machines may no longer use diesel engines. The designers toyed with the idea of using gas turbine engines but settled on the idea of fuel cells. Fuel cells convert a hydrogene's energy into usable electricity and heat - without combustion. Because hydrogen reacts with oxygen to produce electricity, it is the optimal fuel to use, as its only emissions are water vapour and heat. They are like batteries that don't run down as long as you keep feeding them hydrogen. They are currently in the development stage but it has been calculated that to power an excavator a fuel cell the size of two normal suitcases would be needed. This frees up a lot of space on the superstructure where the diesel engine would normally sit - hence the machine's ability to have such a large cutaway section. The engine acts as the machine counter weight, which moves all the time to compensate for the forces on the boom. By moving it towards the centre of the excavator, it could be made small for transport, moving it right out would give maximum stability. (Zero swing or large swing.)

Hydraulics: The introduction of electricity could also do away with some of the hydraulics. Some systems that are currently hydraulic could be converted to electric motors. Notice how hydraulic cylinders have been removed as much as possible and hydraulic piping abandoned. This would obviate the need to circulate oil all over the machine.

Boom: The central concept was to make a light boom - because everything in weight on the boom is lost in capacity for lifting or digging. The see-through lattice allows visibility through the boom, aiding safety by reducing the operator's blind spot caused by solid metal booms. While current steels would struggle to cope with the large forces imposed on the boom the designers are expecting a new generation of high strength steels to be available that could make this a design possibility. Hydraulics have been removed from the boom as much as possible to reduce clutter and keep the look of the machine as clean as possible. The main cylinder has been hidden within the boom. Not much room for contractors' name stickers on that boom though!

Undercarriage: The adoption of four tracks is to make them more wheel-like. When driving on rough ground traditional tracks 'tiptoe' and the contact area is quite small. Four tracks have a much higher contact area with the ground, aided by independent suspension to each track, suspended via a swing arm from a central pivot. Each track has a separate wheel motor, which can brake, accelerate and even turn. On traditional tracks you either brake or accelerate, left or right. Tracks will also use a non-metal rubber-like material that can cope with high abrasion surfaces. The four tracks can be moved to form a traditional two-track appearance to distribute the weight better when on soft ground. This system (powered by electric motors) can also be used to extend the tracks for working or contract them for transportation.

Main bearing: the juncture between the undercarriage and superstructure would eschew the current arrangement of a large roller bearing. Instead the concept excavator hovers on an electro-magnetic field. The advantages of this are that there would be zero friction and high-speed turning of the superstructure. (The boom forces could be compensated by varying the magnetic field.) While a clever idea, one area of concern is that by having so many electrical motors in a small area, a too-large electro-magnetic field would be created.

Cab: The cab on the concept excavator is cantilevered to improve all round visibility. But it can also tilt the cab, move it away from the machine to improve visibility (as some waste handling machines already do) - or be left on the ground entirely. This latter attribute is for operating the excavator remotely, such as where there is a high level of radioactivity - or if the machine is working underwater. "In the morning the cab comes down to meet the operator," says chief designer Hans Zachau. "It then opens the door and says 'hello, how are you today?'!"