What designers do in their spare time… Limited by costs, legislation, specifications, component commonality, customer focus groups and a host of other constraints, industrial designers are seldom given free rein to indulge their creativity. But when they are, as in Volvo Construction Equipment’s Gryphin wheel loader design study, the results can be dramatic.

Industrial designers are tortured souls. Far from being able to indulge their natural creativity, much of their work is predetermined. Almost regardless of the product in question, by far the biggest limiting design factor is legislation. On a national level, there are literally hundreds of legal requirements that need to be adhered to (safety, emissions, recyclability etc) - increasing to thousands of laws for global products. In fact as much as 70% of research and design budgets are spent simply complying with regulations, rather than adding specific customer value to the equipment.

Add to this cost pressures ("Product X must cost less than Y dollars) and insert a dose of company policy (it must have our 'corporate look' and be in our brand colours). And just when designers think it can't get any more restricting, they are then informed about the results of 'user focus groups' and reminded of the company's procurement policy ("Make sure it's got Z% parts commonality to the rest of the range).

With such a creative straightjacket to work in, it's no wonder designers are such as serious lot. But when they are let off the leash the results can be truly mouthwatering. When it doesn't matter how much it would cost to build the machine - or even that the necessary materials to realise the design don't yet exist, the potential for creativeness is enormous.

Design study with a difference

To emphasise Volvo Construction Equipment's market leading position in new product development, its charismatic Italian head of research and technology, Lorenzo Terreno, decided to give his team of designers a completely free reign when he gave them the task of creating a wheel loader for the year 2020. The project also had the additional guiding hand of master designer Hans Philip Zachau, the leading light (if you'll excuse the pun) of Lighthaus Industrial Design. Hans has been involved in the design of almost every machine produced by Volvo CE for well over a decade.

The scale model of the futuristic wheel loader was unveiled at the recent Bauma exhibition in Germany to an enthusiastic audience. Its name? Gryphin.Gryphin is an extreme concept wheel loader - the wheel loaders of the 2020s. Being innovative in this sector is nothing new; Volvo's designers in the 1950s came up with the design for the very first wheel loader.

Although featuring fundamental differences over existing loaders in every respect, perhaps one of the most surprising elements of the Gryphin is that although undoubtedly futuristic, it is not complete fantasy. Gryphin is still obviously a wheel loader and its clean lines and simple format look completely reasonable. Even black polo-necked designers in dark glasses understand that the idea was to come up with something that may be possible in the not too distant future.

The future in detail

Industrial Design. Certain products, even when seen from a distance, are easy to identify with a particular brand. For example, you don't need to see the prancing horse badge to know that the blood red sports car in front of you is a Ferrari. That is what is known as having a strong 'brand character'. Volvo CE machines have a similar (if admittedly not quite as exciting) brand character. You simply know a Volvo machine when you see one - even if you can't always quite put your finger on why you know it is.

Volvo's designers haven't forgotten the importance of this vision identity in sketching the Gryphin. While undoubtedly futuristic - Gryphin remains recognizably a Volvo. Its signature design embodies the very definition of what it means to be a Volvo : modern pleasant and innovative . Even at standstill the Gryphin defines Safety, Efficiency and Strength - the core values of every Volvo. Gryphin has the twin themes of 'the Environment' and 'the Operator' at its heart.

Power Source: Not surprisingly the diesel engine doesn't feature largely in the wheel loader of the future. If it still exists in machinery of the 2020s it will be in hybrid format, using a much smaller and lighter diesel engine. But who knows - by then a fuel cell arrangement may have become commercially feasible. Either way, Gryphin would emit almost no harmful emissions. And not just exhaust emission, vibrations and noise will also be almost eradicated. Not only is the Gryphin cleaner and quieter - it boasts better performance too. Unlike diesel engines, electrical motors have maximum torque from the instant they are turned on, and a regenerative power system means the batteries are recharged whenever the wheel loader brakes. It has been estimated that this system could lead to energy savings of over 50%. Both power units are more compact than the combustion engines they replace; allowing for a much smaller and more streamlined engine compartment. This, in turn, gives Volvo CE's designers the freedom to sketch a cleaner, tighter design - one that gives operators vastly improved rear vision.

Transmissions, drivelines and axles, steering pivot. The traditional format simply no longer exists. All those heavy metal components are no longer needed, as Gryphin uses intelligent electrical motors inside each wheel, allowing maximum torque all throughout its speed range. The pivot point of the wheel loader has also moved on, or rather back, as it is no longer in front of the operator - but almost at the centre point of the machine. This reduces the overall length of the machine and allows for a tighter turning circle.

Suspension. Because there are no low hanging axles or drivelines, there is much higher underbody ground clearance. And as the wheels no longer have to be paired up by differentials and drive shafts, the intelligent suspension is truly independent. This gives the possibility for large amounts of individual wheel movement that keep the Gryphin firmly grounded whatever the terrain. (The mudguards follow their travels up and down.) In practical terms, the independent nature of the suspension means that Gryphin can work on uneven ground, both on piles and in holes, without unsettling the machine, the operator - or the load.

This suspension arrangement also allows the loader to be 'jacked up', increasing both ride height over rough terrain and maximum dump height. It can also be lowered for additional stability in high speed haul cycles, reducing the centre of gravity and allowing much higher speeds than currently possible with no lost of comfort or stability. Speeds of up to 50 km/hr are being claimed for Gryphin.

Boom. Volvo wheel loaders have long been admired for their high breakout forces and excellent parallel lift. Gryphin brings these skills to a new level by introducing a solid, yet light, centre boom. Not only do its designers claim that this would improve lifting performance and reduce torsional stresses, the absence of traditional front boom linkages allow a much better view of the work area. The two part set-up also allows for an additional dump height over current twin loader arms that have a fixed pivot point. Interestingly, the loader of the 2020s is still expected to use hydraulic cylinders, presumably still driven by electric power.

Extendible counterweight. The basic concept is that the weight of the load at the front of the machine has to be offset - generally at the rear with counterweights. The Gryphin uses a neat extendible counterweight. By pushing the counterweight further out its offsetting effect become proportionally greater, allowing larger loads to be carried (or a smaller counterweight to be used), especially when working at maximum articulation. In fact, its designers are claiming that the extendible counterweight idea can increase stability by up to 20%.

Operator environment. Always a strength of Volvo CE machines - it enters a new dimension with Gryphin. Views from the driver's seat are commanding in every direction; made possible by all-round glazing and lattice see-through pillars. The glass in the cab is intelligent: heating up in cold weather to prevent frost or condensation and becoming darker in bright sunlight to act as giant sunglasses!

The level of comfort that Volvo cabs have long been famous for is maintained with the Extreme Care Cab, with its light and airy environment and the latest seating and ergonomic controls. Interestingly, the traditional steering wheel is dispensed with, replaced instead by a multifunction joystick and all electric controls. Getting in and out of the Gryphin is also made easier and safer by the large swing-away doors - super car style. And when the door swings up the steps fold out automatically. Very James Bond.

Bucket filling, lifting and dumping duties can all be automatically managed, leaving the operator to focus on safely maneuvering the loader. Not only does this relieve the operator's workload, the fact that the process is utterly smooth and controllable reduces operator stress and fatigue, all improving productivity. Electro-hydraulic actuators - part of Volvo's advanced Hy-Tronic system, maintains lifting power, and energy recovery occurs on the down cycle of the boom.

Is Gryphin really the future?

The great thing about design studies is that they don't have to prove themselves. The alternatives that are presented may not actually be better than what we have now. But that doesn't matter. The whole point is that they allow us to consider that there is an alternative, and this acceptance may in turn lead us in other directions that may be better solutions to the problem.

There is no question that construction equipment is set to undergo radical changes in the coming decade. That said, the Gryphin is grounded on solid design philosophy, and much of what you see here may well find itself onto wheel loaders of the future. And if it does, remember where you saw it first…