Opinion formers

Asking customers what they think of new equipment designs is a great idea but do manufacturers actually listen to the feedback? Brian O'Sullivan investigates by looking at the development of the new G900 series of motor graders.

'The only opinion that matters is that of the buying public'. Given that this is largely true, why then do so many companies ask customers what they think only after their products have been fully developed? Not so at Volvo Construction Equipment, whose Voice of the Customer programme has been running for over 10 years. Getting experienced operators and technicians to explain what they like and dislike is hardly rocket science - but the potential benefits that can accrue in designing equipment that gets it right first time are impressive...

…but only if the operators' suggestions form an integral part of the design process itself - otherwise the benefits can be easily lost. Because of this when Volvo CE began to design its G900 motor graders five years ago, customer clinics became central to the engineering process. A select group of operators with a diverse background of company size, type of company and grader application were invited from around the world to visit Volvo CE's grader facility in Goderich, Canada. A special breed in the construction business, these operators' machines perform among the most complex tasks of all earthmoving equipment; combining great power with the most delicate of touches.  The best operators work with a close sense of the individual 'feel' of their graders.

When the first prototypes of what would eventually become the G900 Series were assembled at the company's test track, Volvo CE also gathered models from its current range as well as the latest graders from its competitors. A schedule was set out that let the operators test each grader's performance in a range of tasks, from fine finishing to heavy earthmoving. Each machine did the same tasks on the same day under the same working conditions. There was nowhere for the new model to hide…

Asking experienced operators to get onto a new machine and start working it is not as straightforward as it sounds. Because graders last so long some operators may be using machines that are several generations behind the latest technology. The key in designing new graders therefore, according to operators, is not to change the machines too radically or too fast. Keeping the basic format the same, including the industry standard control pattern, means that operators become familiarized to the new machine reasonably quickly.

What do you think of this then?

The group began the trials with a long list of performance factors to consider. First they were asked to rate the importance of each element to their needs as an operator. Then, after each run, they sat down with the Volvo engineering team to give the grader a score under each criterion. Often the operator would be joined in the cab by a Volvo engineer, who would record any general personal comments or suggestions the operator had. As with the best TV talent competitions, the scores were finally counted, the comments compiled and the results given to the design team to take back to the drawing board for continued improvement. Over the course of many clinics, operators were repeatedly asked their views of the changes that had been made - and to suggest further refinements.

One of the customers who attended the design clinics is Ken Autry, who not only is an experienced grader operator but also runs Autry Grading, a specialist grading company with 90 pieces of equipment and 100 employees based in the US town of Fayetteville, New Carolina. "I can't point to any one thing and say: 'Yeah, that was me!'," says Mr. Autry. "We really worked as a team to comment on the design and suggest improvements. We paid a lot of attention to the front axle design, the visibility and the controls." The process must have had a positive effect, as soon after Volvo launched its new graders at the beginning of 2006, Mr. Autry bought four of the G930 models, the smallest of the G900 family from his local Volvo dealer, ASC.

"The G930 is well suited to the needs of the fine-grade contractor," believes Mr. Autry. "It has a very tight turning radius and it's a good size for the cul-de-sacs and parking lots we do. It has better clearance under the front axle, has good operator visibility and the grader and blade control displays are all at eye level. Everything that you need to see is right in front of you at a glance: gears, speeds, Contronics." In Mr. Autry's case, the control display includes his Topcon 3D blade control system. "I know Topcon worked with Volvo to determine the best position for the mounting brackets, etc. They have arrived at a clean, neat arrangement."

Customer clinics are not all about the operator either: a number of service improvements were also exposed during the test phase, which Mr. Autry recognises in his finished G930s. "You can get to the filters easily," he reports, "and standing on the ground to refuel is a good thing. Using site glasses for fill levels also helps maintenance too, because they encourage operators to do the checks. If they are difficult to get to, important checks often gets put off 'until tomorrow'."

The low noise level of the G930 is another aspect highlighted in the customer clinics that has delivered site benefits in the finished model. "The hydraulic fan helps in tight spaces where there are lots of people around," says Ken Autry. "You don't have that big fan running the whole time." The variable-speed cooling fan used by G900 graders draws power only when cooling is needed. It is therefore silent when not needed. The fan also offers a reversing feature that allows the operator to blow debris clear from the cooling unit throughout the working day, so the engine continuously runs cooler and therefore more efficiently.

While the G930 is visibly smaller than any other Volvo Grader, Ken Autry finds no difference in that all-important 'feel' compared to larger machines; one of the areas important to experienced operators. "Regardless if you are using one or multiple-levers, you have to be able to feel the movement in response to what you do," he says. "Feel is a hard to define but important element nonetheless. The G930 has the hydraulic capability to respond to the operator input; equal to any previous Volvo or any other grader I've operated. You can work through a turn and still keep the windrow just where you want it."

Apart from enjoying the opportunity to influence the design of his equipment, Mr. Autry says that the Voice of the Customer programme gave him a new appreciation of equipment engineering. "Now I understand the cost of this kind of equipment and the amount of research that goes into it," he says. "I also understand the machine better. If the operators have a problem, I can look at it knowing how it's supposed to be, and why."

Having been so involved in the process, Ken Autry would be expected to think favourably towards the final machines - but what did his team of grader operators make of their G930s? "Overall, they were pleased and impressed with the way the graders handle," he says. "They thought that everything was where it was supposed to be. Even our most experienced operators thought the new equipment gave them a chance to learn new techniques to get the most out of the features.

Volvo product manager Brian Lowe says that the new G900 Series owes much to people like Ken Autry and his colleagues. "The industry is well served by Ken and the others like him who took part in our clinics," he said. "We appreciate that they took time away from their work and contributed their expertise in the machines' development. We hope that their reward is that they get a better piece of equipment that helps make their business more successful."