INSIDE TRACK: Volvo Construction Equipment’s Acting Design Director Sidney Levy is focused on user-friendly machines and creating value for customers
by Patricia Kelly
Sidney Levy’s boyhood dream was to be a car designer when he grew up. He says that from the age of 12 it is all he can remember wanting to do. In spite of not being able to draw – “At the age of 20 I was drawing like a four-year-old,” he says – Levy spent 10 years designing automobiles, before graduating to construction equipment two years ago upon joining Volvo as one of its chief designers. A recent promotion to acting design director now has him overseeing the entire design department.
Levy first ventured into the car industry with a six-month internship at Opel in Germany, working under Design Director Martin Smith (currently executive design director with Ford of Europe). His car design career took off in the now bankrupt car city of Detroit in the United States where Levy, as a consultant with a small design studio listing Ford, General Motors and Chrysler among its clients, worked on the design of GM’s new Cadillacs.
An offer came to work on the prize-winning EcoJet concept car built by GM in collaboration with US comedian and talk-show host Jay Leno, an avid car collector. Powered by a helicopter engine, the EcoJet was designed to run on biodiesel fuel. Levy says he received the call to move to California for the project on a Monday. “I was there on the Thursday,” he recalls. “It was a no-brainer.”
Born in the French city of Strasbourg, giving him dual Swiss/French nationality, Levy left home and moved to the US after high school to further his education. Apart from a four-month stint in New York at 18, he moved to California, attending college in Santa Monica and then the Art Center College of Design, Pasadena. At the age of 30, Levy was awarded an MBA from the leading IMD business school in Lausanne, Switzerland.
Always on the lookout for a challenge – his own words – this was followed by a brief change in career direction and involvement in the creation of two successful French companies that have nothing to do with cars: one supplies disposables such as batteries, electrodes and ultrasound gel to French cardiologists, and the other ophthalmic services for people with restricted mobility.
ON THE ROAD AGAIN
The car industry eventually lured Levy back into its fold, and had him living in Paris, Frankfurt, Munich and Berlin working for Opel then BMW, where he helped put the finishing touches to the i3 electric concept car. He then spent a year with Volkswagen before joining Volvo CE.
Based in Gothenburg, Sweden, which he thinks has “all the advantages of a small village with the opportunities of a big city”, Levy, 37, says he was attracted by Volvo’s huge range of machines, plus the fact that the company takes design seriously and respects the role of its designers.
“Volvo was designing machines that were more consistent and better looking than most of the other brands,” he says. “I saw an opportunity to not only come up with beautiful shapes but also design solutions for the future.
“One of my major achievements at Volvo so far is the creation of a line-up of road machinery that is extremely consistent, and that’s been done thanks to a really good collaboration established between the design team and our technology partners,” acknowledges Levy. Design effort on the new hauler, shown at ConExpo earlier this year, went into making operation of the machine “more intuitive and convenient” and making it “look more polished”, he says. A slicker design, too, for Volvo’s EC380E excavator, also unveiled at ConExpo, and the recent recipient of a prestigious Red Dot Design Award. The excavator, says Levy, has a new, more intuitive human-machine interface (HMI). “It has a really precise look and feel to it,” he adds.
IN THE GENES
“We really want to make sure that we are creating a group of machines that feel and look alike and have the Volvo DNA implanted in them,” he says. “Not only do we want the machines to look and perform better, but we also want them to look and feel like a Volvo machine so that someone could jump from one machine to another and feel that it’s a seamless experience.”
Neither is the work of Volvo’s designers limited to machines: a range of merchandise includes a reversible work jacket and a best-selling backpack, both of which also won Red Dot awards this year. As well as designing the computer software that comes with the machines, the design department is also involved in responding to customer needs and demands, and how best Volvo CE can incorporate them.
Levy’s department receives back up from numerous sources. “The core team has a lot of support – we are never alone on any project,” he says. “Our engineers advise us which technology we should have and how to use it; we also work with computer-aided design (CAD) experts,” he explains. “Our product experts have an excellent understanding of what the customer is looking for; we try to understand what the product platform does and what product is relevant to the market. By integrating the technology we can bring the most appropriate product to our target audience. We want to focus on creating value for customers.”
The machine Levy claims he is the proudest of so far is the GaiaX concept excavator, the fully electric compact excavator of the future that made its debut at ConExpo.
“It really is a design statement and also addresses all the issues of our business,” he says. “It is a simple construction which allows for limited servicing and easy troubleshooting and it adds a lot of value for the operator in terms of efficiency and safety.”
Although the structure of the GaiaX may be simple, the HMI is highly advanced. Most applications can be carried out remotely using an augmented reality tablet computer, the main benefit being that only one person is required to use the machine. The operator can dig while keeping an eye on the surrounding environment at the same time. Remote operation also allows the machine to be used in potentially dangerous situations, while the operator maintains a safe distance.
The machine may not yet be available, but tablet owners can get a glimpse of the future by downloading the GaiaX App to explore its features and operate its boom and arm.
“In the future, we expect to design a lot more machines that are looking ahead to maybe 20 or 30 years from now, integrating plenty of new technology and making operation a better experience for the user.”
Volvo’s core values – quality, safety and environmental care – will remain key components in the design process in the future, as they are today. “As far as the environment is concerned, we try to use material that is environmentally friendly, either biodegradable or made from recyclable material,” explains Levy. “We are creating solid and precise machines incorporating a lot of active safety features, as well as passive ones to avoid people putting themselves in dangerous situations.”
With GaiaX expected to be operational by 2030, Levy hints that more innovative HMI features are on the horizon and could be included in new Volvo machines much sooner.
“Volvo understands the added value of design and has respect for it,” says Levy. “The company takes us designers seriously and my colleagues and I are looking forward to coming up with more innovative products in the future, allowing Volvo to be the partner of choice for construction entrepreneurs.”