EXPLORATION FORUM: Volvo CE customers help shape tomorrow’s construction machines
by Jim Gibbons
n order to produce what customers will buy, it is crucial to listen to what they say they want. That may sound obvious, but it is the guiding principle behind Volvo Construction Equipment’s research into electrification and autonomous vehicles. Volvo CE really wants to hear from its core customers – what they say may determine the next steps in the process.
Much insight and input comes from discussions with customers, according to Johan Sjöberg, a specialist in site automation. “We often talk to customers, especially key account customers, and get a lot of inspiration from them, from any problems they’re facing. We bring these issues home and discuss them together in order to come up with new ideas on how to solve them.”
The objective of September’s Exploration Forum in Eskilstuna, Sweden was to bring Volvo CE key account customers and the media face-to-face with new solutions that could soon be doing their hard work with little or no human help.
WORKING ON IT
“This is a good opportunity for us to connect on the subject and talk about it,” says Jenny Elfsberg, Director of Emerging Technologies at Volvo CE, talking about the ongoing research program into tomorrow’s construction machines and how they will benefit customers.
“We are doing it because we believe in it, believe in electrification, and believe in automation. We believe it will make their work better, eventually helping the whole industry perform better and treating the planet better,” she explains.
Elfsberg was speaking at the Eskilstuna test ground where Volvo CE’s driverless wheel loader and cab-less hauler were being put through their paces. These are still experimental concept vehicles, not quite ready for the market or the workplace, although the next generation is just a hair’s breadth away.
Presenting research material to participants in the Exploration Forum is expected to lead to further work being carried out in closer collaboration with customers.
“The reason we need to do this is that it all requires new competencies, partnerships and new processes,” says Scott Young, program manager for electromobility. “And this is where we have to work together to find the most efficient and best way to bring the right solutions to the market for the customer.”
Some of those solutions are close to completion – the technology is highly advanced but there remain a few wrinkles to be ironed out. Volvo CE seeks its customers’ views on what they want, and what they think will work best and responds to their particular needs in the working environment.
“The products on show are not yet on the market,” says Elisabet Altin, Director for Communications Technology. “Some of them may never reach the market,” she admits. “By definition, innovation is something which is actually on the market, which is why we refer to ‘exploration’ rather than ‘innovation’. We’re exploring different concepts, conducting research along the lines supported by customers – productivity of course, but safety, too.”
CLEANER, CHEAPER, SAFER
“We have talked to customers and the key demand is that the solution must be safe,” says Uwe Müller, chief project manager for the electric site. “They have stated quite clearly: ‘our people need to be safe and to feel safe’. That is really, really important to them.” It is an aim that has underpinned the drive for greater efficiency and environmental protection. “People want to go on site, feel safe and work in that environment, so our target is to make it even safer than it is today.”
Safety can be secured in different ways. Since a construction site or quarry can be a dangerous working environment, what better approach could there be than removing the need to work there at all? And that is where autonomous machines come to the fore. That does not mean worksites will be void of people, but according to research engineer Torbjörn Martinsson, they can stay safely out of harm’s way with electrification and automation bearing the burden.
“With Volvo’s advanced engineering we can do that now,” he says. “And to some extent we’re doing that with the electric site project – we go in, electrify but also automate production; not just single machine operation, but the complete process.”
Jobs in the quarries and on the construction sites of the future are likely to be different and more pleasant, says Martinsson. “Instead of sitting in a machine for eight hours and bumping around, you’ll sit in an office and deal with several machines, so your work will be more skilled,” he says reassuringly.
Another advantage is that the technology is cleaner, which makes machines cheaper to operate. “Our experiments show that we can reduce the amount of CO2 by 95% on a site using electrified machines and autonomous machines,” says Dave Ross, Vice-President for Advanced Technology and Verification, “while at the same time raising the profitability by 25%. Or you could say reducing the total cost of ownership by 25%.”
And all without sacrificing the work rate: the new machines on the demonstration site can still shift around 900 tonnes each hour, according to Müller.
Electrification is a great enabler from both an operational and design perspective, according to Young. “As one of the technical solutions it allows us a lot more flexibility in terms of product design and the way it works within the system – so, thanks to the way the product works in a customer’s system, we gain more flexibility in its usage and greater efficiencies.”
Of course, there is still a lot of work to do, but Volvo CE is paving the way to the worksite of the future. Martinsson explains: “First, we have the functionalities which are already in the machines – and are becoming smarter. Next we introduce the so-called automation, so the machine can do simple iterative operations. Then it will become independent: it will think, it will reason, things like that. So we could say that when we come to the third step we’ll probably see a big change in how the machine will look.”
With the advantages offered by electrification and autonomous machines, in terms of meeting environmental concerns, lowering CO2 emissions and noise pollution, reducing operator costs, improving safety and providing a more pleasant working environment, this is one revolution that is unlikely to meet much opposition. As the American journalist Lincoln Steffens wrote of another, rather different revolution: “I have seen the future; and it works” – or it will very soon.
It is a sight that takes some getting used to: a fully-loaded hauler without a cab, and therefore without a driver, trundling off to its next destination on its own. No human effort required: the machine does the thinking.
Volvo Construction Equipment’s Joachim Unnebäck sees the cab-less, driverless hauler as the dump truck of the future. “It’s not even hugely complicated,” he says. “It’s autonomous, but it’s also an electric vehicle and when we go with electrification and automation we see that we can take away many of the machine’s pieces and parts and simplify the base. We only keep the bare necessities, such as the big bucket, the simplified frame and the electric drivetrain. But it’s totally different – it’s a very simplified base loader with a simple drivetrain.”
The machine uses artificial intelligence and is designed to work on fairly level sites, unlike the bigger articulated haulers, and on repetitive jobs.
“We have batteries on the machine which we recharge very often but very quickly,” says Unnebäck, a specialist in autonomous vehicle systems. “We can refill the battery storage within one minute.” In fact, the vehicle runs on a cycle of about six minutes, five of those spent on loading, travelling and dumping its load, and one on being recharged – an operation it does on its own. It is fast, efficient and requires no human agent.
The new autonomous machines will prove safer for people working on the job site of the future. Torbjörn Martinsson, a research engineer, demonstrates another prototype, this time a wheel loader, a specially adapted L120E which requires no driver at all. Still diesel-powered at present, it thrusts forward, lifting a bucketful of rocks and gravel and tipping it nearby. As it goes forward a second time, Martinsson steps in front of it. The vehicle halts, remains still and sounds its horn repeatedly to warn him. As soon as he steps out of the way it continues its maneuver. With sensors such as these, the new-generation vehicles are able to avoid accidents more effectively than a human driver can.
The hybrid wheel loader under development at Volvo Construction Equipment is powered by batteries and a diesel engine can be operated in virtual silence. While the diesel engine is very small, the combined peak output of engine and batteries is much higher than that provided by the diesel engine in a conventional wheel loader of comparable size.
“The system is completely decoupled,” explains Andreas Hjertström, chief project manager for the hybrid wheel loader. “The machine’s batteries can provide full power to the loading unit and the propulsion system at the same time.”
Not only do the batteries provide high power, but they also enable energy recuperation. “During braking, the electric motors work as generators and charge the batteries”, Hjertström continues, “and when we lower the bucket it also generates power.” This reduces the power needed from the diesel engine, lowers fuel consumption significantly and limits the environmental impact. “We are testing the hybrid, comparing it to bigger machines and can see that we beat them in productivity and, of course, fuel efficiency,” says test engineer Mike Skantz.
Skantz has been working with this hybrid loader over the last few years and highlights another striking aspect of the machine’s power delivery: “At full throttle the hybrid machine can be completely silent but you still have all the power you need”.
When the hybrid loader runs with the diesel engine switched off, it still has higher power capacity than a conventional machine. In this almost silent mode the machine can operate at full productivity for 20 to 30 minutes.
Even when the diesel engine is on, the hybrid machine is quieter than a conventional machine which needs a much bigger engine. This is an advance likely to make construction machines more welcome on urban sites where noise and pollution can be an issue. In addition to saving fuel and reducing noise, the downsizing of the diesel engine results in a more compact machine installation which gives much better visibility from the cab.
Meanwhile, an adapted A25F articulated hauler demonstrates how it can be maneuvered around a complicated course without an operator. It moves quickly and confidently without the man in the cab touching the controls. Jimmie Wiklander is a specialist in embedded software, but it is the bank of special computers that do the work. “They need to be able to do image processing,” says Wiklander, “and to calculate and track objects, for safety reasons, so the computational power is much higher in this machine.”
It certainly has to be for such a large vehicle moving through what could be a hazardous site, using GPS and LiDAR which performs 3D laser scanning. “We have different kinds of sensors,” Wiklander explains. “The GPS system can actually locate the machine, with centimeter accuracy – if anyone is standing in front of it then it will stop automatically because we have to ensure it is safe.”