Xploration Forum: Volvo CE delivers the future
Volvo Construction equipment showcases the astonishing array of future technology concepts that it has under development but nearing fruition
Volvo Construction Equipment (CE) is well known for the production values of its viral content, but while videos of Van Damme might seem gimmicky, there is nothing gimmicky about the real innovation on display at the Volvo CE event entitled ‘Xploration Forum’ in Eskilstuna, Sweden.
Over the course of a day of presentations and live demonstrations outside, Volvo CE showcased three radical future vehicle concepts for delivering greater productivity and lower fuel consumption across a range of sectors, including construction, the aggregates industry and waste management.
The machines, vehicles and industry solutions on display were all products of the Volvo Concept Lab — an arm of Volvo CE’s research and development that is specifically aimed towards testing more radical ideas.
On the day, Martin Weissburg, president of Volvo CE, begins the proceedings by saying: “We are developing technologies connected to electromobility, intelligent machines and total site solutions that will benefit our customers and the environment and play an important part in building a sustainable society.”
Laying out the philosophy that guides the entire Volvo Group, he states that innovation and the development of sustainable technology is not a luxury, but an endeavour that is good both for business and society at large.
Construction machinery, he says, is “part of a cross-sectoral ecosystem” and that that entire eco-system, the manufacturer and its customers, needs to work together in order to drive a more sustainable future for society.
He expands: “It is predicted that by 2025, 10% of all cars in the US will be driverless. You can already see the exponential rate of change. Look at the congestion in our cities: the lack of parking, the traffic jams and the inefficiency of the passenger car fleets — they are only utilised about 4% of the time; sitting idle 96% of the time, according to the US average. You can see that this is an important shift in technological and societal focus.”
Now, he explains, that explosion in autonomous technology for passenger cars is having a knock-on effect in our industries: infrastructure, construction, highway trucks and buses — all the products and services produced and sold by the Volvo Group.
“Autonomous vehicles are actually easier to launch first in an infrastructure setting, like a quarry or a mine, or even roadworks, because it is contained,” he explains. “The technology required for autonomous passenger vehicles is already further ahead, and so our industry can easily benefit from the technological gains because of this macro phenomenon.
“To have a safe autonomous vehicle, you have to calibrate for the unknown — a driver not stopping at a red light, a child on a bicycle, tree limbs falling — things that are hard to write a computer algorithm for. But in a controlled setting, like a construction site, there are fewer distractions.”
That Volvo Group is rising to this challenge should come as no surprise, he notes, as it has re-invested a large amount of its earnings into producing innovation for over 180 years.
Its resulting innovation falls broadly into three themes. The first is alternative drivelines and fuels and the whole concept of electrification and electromobility, the second is automation, and the third is connectivity.
Weissburg noted: “The Volvo Group has 500,000 connected vehicles and machines, and that number is growing every day.”
What this has revealed to Volvo is that many commercial fleets are also idle for a significant amount of the time. He highlights: “In the trucking industry, a good operator utilises its fleet 25% of the time, which means 75% of the time that equipment is not working.
“In construction equipment there is quite a wide variety: from the single digits up to maybe 60% on a good day in a mine.
“As an OEM, we are looking not just at the technology, but how we put all of it together into business models that drive customer value, and at the same time reduce emissions.”
The concepts that Volvo CE currently has under development look to tackle such examples of waste hidden in plain site within existing production cycles, questioning whether the level of scheduled downtime, fuel consumption and productivity are acceptable, or whether they can be improved upon.
Weissburg ends: “We have these aspirational goals that we call the triple zeros: we want to drive towards zero unplanned stops — so ensuring reliability and better asset utilisation; we want to drive towards zero emissions — imagine a world where there’s nothing bad coming out of the tail pipe; and we want zero accidents. This is an internal set of aspirational goals; it is our philosophy and we take pride in the fact that we pressure ourselves.”
Outside the Volvo customer centre in Eskilstuna, the first reveal is two prototype machines, a modified L120 wheel loader and A25F articulated hauler, that demonstrate the strides Volvo has already taken towards driverless autonomous solutions.
In the demonstration, the wheel loader autonomously fills the prototype articulated hauler which then completes a lap around a circuit, navigating up and down slopes and weaving around obstacles. In tests already conducted at an asphalt plant in Sweden, the autonomous wheel loader achieved 70% of the productivity of a benchmarked skilled operator while loading and unloading.
Jenny Elfsberg, director for emerging technologies, Volvo CE, notes: “The machines can perform the same task over and over again, along a fixed route. Now we are working on a solution with the required levels of safety and performance for the market to accept it.”
In a clear demonstration that safety is being prioritised from the outset, a member of the Volvo team even steps in front of the moving wheel loader, causing it to automatically stop dead and honk its horn in warning.
“There is still a long way to go so there are no plans for industrialisation at this stage,” Elfsberg continues. “Currently these prototype machines don’t communicate with each other, but machine-to-machine communication technology — where machines ‘talk’ to one another and to a central control point — is crucial when it comes to avoiding collisions and facilitating an efficient flow of equipment.”
The technology will potentially facilitate a range of quasi-autonomous applications, such as giving drivers who operate in hazardous environments the option to leave the cab and operate the machine remotely for a time.
Autonomous machines will increase safety and eliminate the possibility of accidents caused by human error,” adds Elfsberg.
“They will perform repetitive tasks more efficiently and precisely than a human operator and customers will benefit from improved performance, productivity, fuel efficiency and durability. In the future we could potentially see one operator manning for three or four machines — further decreasing costs.”
Both of the prototype machines are the result of a three-year research project, and while they are not ready for production today, the day when they are is fast approaching.
Volvo has also automated an excavator in an eight-year collaborative research project with academics in Germany. That machine has achieved a productivity level of around 80% on a common dig and dump work cycle.
Asked if this is the end of the worker, the Elfsberg adds: “The operators will need to do more supervising, like in the manufacturing industry. Whereas in the past you could go straight from school to work in a factory, today you need an education to operate equipment. Our industry is facing the same changes, and it will eliminate dangerous repetitive tasks.”
Volvo CE’s second reveal of the day is the LX1 wheel loader, a prototype hybrid-electric wheel loader that can deliver an improvement in fuel efficiency of up to 50%.
This has been achieved through the complete overall of the machine’s powertrain — with four individual electric drive motors mounted directly on the wheels, electrically powered hydraulics, an energy storage system, and a significantly smaller, 3.6-litre diesel engine purely for recharging the battery.
The changes make it a fundamentally new machine design, and indeed, 98% of the parts used in it are original. At the same time, the reinvented loader is capable of doing the work of a wheel loader one size larger than itself, while offering a significant reduction in both emissions and noise pollution compared to its conventional counterparts.
Scott Young, programme manager for electromobility at Volvo CE, notes: “With the LX1 wheel loader we took the electric motors and put them in the wheel hubs.
“That’s not new. But, because they’re not linked, we were able to change the frame and remove the axles from the machine.”
Once Volvo had removed the axles, it was able to move the loading unit and bucket back closer to the centre of the machine, allowing it to actually lift more with a smaller machine.
Volvo then added energy storage, reduced the engine size and electrified the hydraulic system — so that small electric motors now propel the hydraulics fluid round the system.
Young continues: “The combination of all this allowed us to improve the fuel efficiency compared to similarly productive conventional machines by 50% — and that’s a big number.
“Some previous concepts only yielded 10% improvements, so we’ve really changed the way that we can design a machine — and this is just one example. You can only imagine the potential this has across other products.”
While not quite on the market yet, the LX1 is remarkably close to being tested for the first time in a real-world application.
Volvo already has customers lining up for the LX1 machine. John Meese is the senior director of heavy equipment at Waste Management Inc. — one of the largest environmental services providers in North America, and a company with a fleet of 17,000 trucks collecting refuse every day.
The company already has green credentials, running over 5,000 of these trucks on CNG, and another 1,200 on LNG produced from methane extracted from its own 270 landfills.
It also processes 95 million tonnes of waste a year and 140 of its landfills make electricity from landfill gas, by burning it in 86-litre engines, before delivering the energy to the grid.
Waste Management Inc. also has a fleet of 4,800 material handling machines, including 1,000 pieces of Volvo equipment, and since 2002 has purchased over 2,000 Volvo units.
These machines work every day, so Meese is always on the lookout for ways to reduce his costs. To this end, of the 600 bulldozers he has, 7% are already hybrid, and of the 600 units in his excavator fleet, 2.5% are hybrid.
He currently has 400 Volvo wheel loaders, many of them L150s equivalent to the LX1. He notes: “If we save 10% fuel on an annual basis on our block of wheel loaders, it would save us around 100,000 litres of diesel — so with a reduction of 50%, we will save 500,000 litres, and we are a ‘for profit’ company.”
He adds: “It is the hybrid they promised. One of the first things that you notice is the dramatic slope of the hood. You can get right up against the back of this machine and still see where the operator would be, and he would be able to see you — and that’s huge. From a safety standpoint that immediately caught our eye.”
The next step for Volvo is to test the LX1 at a waste management plant in California located in an urbanised area with noise restrictions. It should be a breeze, as the only noise the LX1 makes when running off its battery is a light whirring sound. This will allow it to run in twilight hours — doubling the productivity.
The third and final of Volvo’s reveals is an electrified site solution for quarry operations that incorporates both Volvo’s developments in autonomy and electromobility. Accompanying this conceptual development is the HX1 — a new machine that acts as a driverless autonomous, battery-electric, four-wheeled hauler.
Johan Sjöberg, technical specialist in site automation at Volvo CE, explains the project by first pointing to the disruptive effect that the advent of containerisation had on the operations of ports — resulting in a revolution in port technology and rapid automation.
Looking back to quarries, he notes that the current trend is for machinery to get bigger, faster and less polluting — and yet all the while, the fundamental format of quarry operation continues to remain the same.
However, in partnership with aggregates company Skanska and the Swedish Energy Agency, Volvo CE has been working on the ambitious “electric site project” with the aim of radically transform quarry operations — and in doing so reduce carbon emissions by up to 95% and total cost of ownership by up to 25%.
“This research project is a step towards transforming the quarry and aggregates industry,” says Sjöberg. “By using electricity instead of diesel to power construction equipment in a quarry, we have the potential to deliver significant reductions in fuel consumption, CO2 emissions, environmental impact and cost-per-tonne.”
The HX1 has been developed to maximise the efficiency of the machines not in the current quarry environment, but on a hypothetical future site run according to quite different principles of operation.
In essence, the electric site project addresses two key sources of inefficiency in the modern quarry environment: First, the problems associated with larger machines — such as downtime and the inefficient operation of the machines by drivers, causing wear to parts and tyres. Secondly, poor fuel consumption, and — as Volvo quickly discovered as it explored different solutions — the problems associated with powering large machines by battery.
On the first point, Sjöberg notes: “When the machines are very large, the changes in capacity are made in very large steps. So say you go from one machine to two machines — you may only have needed an extra 20%, but you have doubled the capacity, and therefore almost doubled your costs.”
At the same time, he adds, in a lot of rigid dump truck operations the drivers aim to be as efficient as possible by over-speeding when empty and on the way back to the loading point at the quarry face, only to end up in a queue — idling — both wasting fuel and causing unnecessary wear to the machine.
The HX1 aims to address these issues by removing the driver from the vehicle and having them instead as site operators handling coordination and planning. The 15t capacity of the HX1 meanwhile makes it a flexible unit with which to increase or decrease site capacity. It is also simpler to power by battery, and downtime caused by the unit, for instance recharging on site, would be less disruptive.
The inefficiencies in other areas are just as bad. Sjöberg notes: “A 50t-class wheel loader can carry about 15t in the bucket — so you end up moving 65t to move 15t of rock.”
Equally, whenever material is dumped on the ground by a wheel loader on a typical site, all of the potential energy the material gained by being lifted is immediately wasted, while the energy efficiency of regaining that potential energy is only a few percent.
A fleet of HX1s, however, could be fed directly from the crusher to avoid material falling on the ground, and in tests in uphill applications has been shown to achieve five times the energy efficiency of rigid dump trucks, in part to the recouping of energy from the brakes when going downhill.
The electric site project also anticipates the HX1 being assisted by machines like the LX1 loader. However, the true test for Volvo’s proposed solution will be a live demonstration for 10 weeks in one of Skanska’s quarries in western Sweden, at the end of 2018.