Technology’s advance guard

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As the company’s recent Tech Show demonstrated, the emerging technologies department at Volvo Construction Equipment is taking the long view. The very long view…

In our modern, hectic lives it’s not always easy to work out what is going to happen tomorrow, let alone a generation from now. But that is precisely the task given to the team of 20 engineers in the technology department at Volvo Construction Equipment. “It is our job to look as many as 30 years into the future and produce a roadmap of the technologies that are embryonic today – but which could make a difference in the future,” says Jenny Elfsberg, the department’s director.

For a company like Volvo with innovation at its core, the latest technology is not just nice to have, it is essential to keep ahead of the competition. But which technologies to pursue? “Take solar energy or hydrogen fuel cells, for example,” says Elfsberg. “Today they are not very efficient, and something radical has to happen for them to replace the traditional combustion engine as the primary power source of a machine. But just because they can’t replace them today – or even a decade from now – doesn’t mean they aren’t interesting technologies. There is every reason to suggest that solar and fuel cells will make that developmental leap – and so we should be prepared.”

Okay, so what do Elfsberg and her team think will be the hot technologies decades from now?

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Autonomous machines
Volvo is working with several universities, like Örebro University in Sweden and the University of Kaiserslautern in Germany, to develop construction equipment that does not require an operator to be onboard. At the moment, the project has devised a wheel loader and excavator that can handle simple digging and loading tasks. The software architecture cannot yet cope with a dynamically changing situation – but the progress made has been exciting. This technology may be decades away from production but has the potential to drastically reduce the cost of machine usage. It may also have advantages in hazardous environments.

The next stage of the project will be to improve the behaviour-based control network to allow complex tasks to be carried out in a permanently changing environment. The hope is that this will eventually lead to an autonomous machine that can reach the equivalent of 70% of a skilled operator’s productivity levels.

“We will still have operators in the cabs in 30 years’ time,” believes Elfsberg. “The entire process is so complicated that you have to feel it – but the future will include a lot more machine autonomy. It will also provide more interesting work for operators, with perhaps the machines being controlled remotely. In the meantime, thinking of operators as part of the system will make us focus on operability, operator support and autonomous functions.”

Hybrid and advanced driveline systems
There are two forms of hybrid (i.e. more than one power source) technologies that will be interesting in the future – hydraulic hybrids and electric hybrids. Traditionally, hydraulics are a bit like the blood supply in our bodies – it flows even when we are at rest. A more intelligent way is to have hydraulic flow only when needed and capture unspent energy via accumulators. This energy is then fed back into the system using smart electronic control, drastically reducing energy loss. Longer term, hydraulics themselves will be faced with more competition from electrical motors and actuators, eliminating leakages and a considerable amount of noise and weight from the system.

Electric hybrids are better known, and with battery technology developing rapidly, it’s not unthinkable that smaller construction machines could be entirely electrically powered. Systems that allow the very largest machines to be powered from the electricity grid will also continue to develop, while in between there is a lot of scope to refine the diesel-electric solution.

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Another trend goes towards continuously variable transmissions, or CVT. Volvo unveiled its work in this technology at the Tech Show and announced the building of its first CVT prototype. Getting rid of the torque converter is one of the main challenges with today’s driveline systems, and CVT offers an effective way of doing it.

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Humans in-the-loop
The recent Volvo Group Tech Show had a machine simulator on display. This wasn’t to demonstrate the clever virtual reality experience of the system; it was there to highlight the stress levels that operators find themselves under when using machines. By monitoring operators’ vital functions, designers can make smart machines that are aware of the operator’s workload. These machines can adapt themselves to be simpler to operate, produce less stress and require less effort – thereby reducing fatigue and allowing operators to concentrate their energies on the job at hand. “Measuring productivity or fuel consumption without regard to the operator’s workload is largely meaningless,” says Elfsberg. “We will see systems develop that are less dependent on operator skills, ones that support operators with guidance or even take over control of primary functions.” The cab of the future will also be more advanced – a welcome development for the next generation of operators, who have grown up with computer games. “We will not be so conservative in our cab design in the future, and information will be presented in heads-up displays and other innovative approaches. The operator will act more as a supervisor.”

Humans out of danger
An undoubted advantage of increased machine intelligence is the ability to introduce active safety. Volvo has set itself the target of reducing accidents relating to its equipment to zero – and future technology will play a major part in achieving this ambition. Systems that detect obstacles and humans in the vicinity of the machine will be introduced, as will others that warn if a machine finds itself in a hazardous situation (e.g. about to tip over). Longer term, machine-to-machine (M2M) communication will develop, where machines ‘talk’ to one another and to a central control point. This technology will not only help avoid collisions but also facilitate an efficient flow of equipment. (For example, a paver could inform an asphalt truck not to come too close if it is about to change direction.)

Focus on the future
But shouldn’t all good ideas be driven by customer demand – why introduce new technology if operators aren’t asking for it? “While feedback from the market is important,” says Anders Larsson, head of Technology at Volvo Construction Equipment, “our research shows that many ideas that are now thought commonplace would never have been developed if left to customers alone to imagine. It’s partly our job to show them a vision of the future that they can’t envisage for themselves. Customers want that too: we are already well known for our creativity, but we must continually reinforce that reputation by innovating every day.”

Ends.

Text: Brian O’Sullivan

Picture 1 – The Volvo Tech Show strengthened Volvo’s high-tech image and promoted the company as innovative, global and future orientated.

Picture 2 – Technologies that are in their infancy today have the potential to revolutionize machines of the future.

Picture 3 – Operators will still be needed in the future, but machines will incorporate increasing levels of autonomous functions.

Picture 4 – Simulators are proving invaluable in designing machines with lower stress and fatigue levels, supporting operators with easy-to-use controls, guidance and even taking over primary functions.

For further information, please visit: www.volvoce.com/press

Or contact:

Elisabet Altin     
Director, Communication Technology  
Volvo Construction Equipment    
Carl Lihnells väg    
SE-360 42 Braås, Sweden   
Tel: int +46 470 387809   
Email: elisabet.altin@volvo.com

Brian O’Sullivan
SE10
London
UK
Tel: int +44 207 107 2000
Email: osullivan@se10.com