DESIGN: Volvo CE designers spearhead the company’s constant search for innovative solutions
by James Gibbons
Volvo Construction Equipment’s Director of Design Sidney Levy regards himself as a facilitator. For him, the best course of action is to bring together the thoughts and ideas of as wide a variety as possible of people who have knowledge of the industry – from designers to technicians to engineers and end-users – and pool that expertise, directing it towards coming up with innovative products.
“If we do a good job in Product Design we will obviously achieve our goal of making people more efficient,” says Levy, adding: “But we also want them to be a little bit delighted.” That’s the other thing Sidney Levy does: provide solutions for customers, including customers who weren’t even aware they had problems they needed solving.
Spirit caught up with Levy at the Mölndal offices of CPAC Systems, just outside Gothenburg, Sweden’s second largest city. CPAC is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Volvo dedicated to resolving problems through technology and making it work better for the customer.
“Technology is really fun, it’s great,” says Greger Landén, CPAC’s Technical Director for the Construction Segment. “But technology in itself does not have value unless it actually produces something for the customer.” One of CPAC’s maxims is that they don’t mind re-inventing the wheel, which may be why they and Levy’s Product Design team work so well together.
“I think the collaboration between CPAC and Volvo – not only Product Design but also Volvo product owners and Volvo Engineering – has been extremely important in order to mitigate all the risks in creating such a solution,” Levy says.
In one room, banked seats are provided that could be for serious talks, although the drum kit, electric guitars, amplifiers and a scattering of toy bears witness to its occasional use as a place in which to entertain the children that staff members occasionally bring with them. Also in the room is a virtual reality kit, for which the view in the headset is matched by 3D images on a large screen while the headset wearer uses twin controls to manipulate a virtual excavator. It looks entertaining, and the sort of thing tech-minded teenagers would love to play with, but as with most of the equipment here it has a serious purpose.
All over the premises, experts and technicians are hard at work writing computer code and testing out ideas not only on each other but also on a surprisingly realistic excavator simulator. It comes complete with a view of a virtual quarry from the open cab and – most importantly – a working Volvo Co-Pilot equipped with the Dig Assist function. Specialists may spend hours sitting in the driving seat, laptop on knee, putting the excavator through its paces and making copious notes while, it seems, also writing computer code. The version of Dig Assist in use is already being re-examined to see if it can be improved.
Co-Pilot, of course, is the tablet-sized Android-based screen interface that keeps an operator and management team informed of progress, while also setting things such as the angle of a bucket, trench profile and depth of a dig. Set up in advance, it makes the operator’s job easier while keeping an accurate record of the work done for staff in the back office. Getting to this stage has been a collaborative effort.
“Together with some of our colleagues, we went to various work sites and really tried to understand the essence of problems facing our customers,” says Levy. “We were able to iterate many solutions and really find a way for people to work together in a more efficient way, and also in a more pleasant way.”
Quite often, these site visits reveal quicker ways to achieve better results, using technology that had never crossed the customers’ minds.
“Exactly,” agrees Magnus Andersson, Chief Designer on Volvo CE’s Use and Experience design team. “It is also about finding the unrealised need of the customer, really, to be creative, to be close to the customer and basically find new ways to solve their problems.”
Andersson demonstrates how Dig Assist works using the Co-Pilot mounted on the simulator, which another technician is putting through its paces while trying to identify possible improvements. Elsewhere, two other members of the team are already looking into the next generation of the app.
The evolution of Co-Pilot hasn’t always been smooth going, with occasional disagreement among the various collaborators involved, mainly Volvo CE, Product Design and CPAC. This is what Richard Berkling, CEO of CPAC, refers to as ‘creative friction’. He acknowledges that his company and Levy’s Production Design team came to realise through their joint creative efforts that they could work together productively.
“Looking back, I’m quite convinced that they [Levy and his team] are very important contributors to the fact that we managed to launch something that is creating a whole new business opportunity for Volvo CE in only two-and-a-half years,” he says. “The fact that they came in and addressed the customer perspective even better than Volvo CE and CAPAC do, managing to iterate the feedback from customers in visual design in a very clear way, I’m now convinced contributed to saving a lot of time and a lot of development costs.”
What matters at the end of the day is better value for customers, a point upon which the ever modest Levy would agree. “Product Design on its own does not really add that much value,” he concedes. “We’re adding value when we’re working with some other departments, so together we’re able to input our new ideas and new processes and from there Product Design is able to quickly create some new prototypes, iterate them together with this cross-functional team and really come up with solutions that are best suited to our customers.”
Co-Pilot already encompasses Dig Assist, Load Assist (see article p.36) and Compact Assist, while Pave Assist is close to launch. All are subject to constant updating to remain ahead of the game.
“It’s not only our work, really,” Levy points out. “It’s the responsibility of everybody being able to judge and make the right decision on what is important and what we want to solve as a company.”