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The impact of design on construction equipment demand

David Wilkie, director, CNH Industrial Design Centre, speaks to PMV Middle East about the impact of design on the appeal of construction equipment and vehicles

David Wilkie, director, CNH Industrial Design Centre.
David Wilkie, director, CNH Industrial Design Centre.

Often overlooked for the sake of functionality alone, design can take a backseat when it comes to the product development of construction equipment and vehicles. But style does matter to customers, and construction equipment and vehicles, like other products, can be as appealing to the eye as they are functional, according to David Wilkie, director of CNH Industrial Design Centre.

“When people ask me why they need a good looking wheel loader, I ask them, why not? If it can be designed to be functional, I can’t find any reason why it shouldn’t also be designed to look good,” says Wilkie with the enthusiasm of a young artist.

Only Wilkie is no ordinary artist. As the director of CHN Industrial Design Centre, Wilkie leads the design teams for the company’s different segments, including agricultural machinery, construction equipment and commercial vehicles.

Wilkie boasts an illustrious career in automotive and industrial design. Having graduated with honours from the Charles Rennie Mackintosh School of Art in Glasgow, Scotland, with a specialisation in industrial design, followed by a postgraduate master’s degree in automotive design from the Royal College of Art in London, UK, Wilkie held various design roles in the automotive industry before joining CNH Industrial in 2014.

Sharing his design philosophy, Wilkie lists attributes that are associated with well-designed construction equipment and vehicles. According to him, good design is about form meeting function, where functionality, ease of use, personality, charm and memorable experiences are intertwined.

“Functionality is critical to investment in construction equipment because they do very important jobs. Ergonomics, aesthetics and comfort are equally crucial because they affect the users of our construction equipment, the workers who spend a lot of time in and around such machines. It is important that they don’t face difficulties or suffer from fatigue while operating our machines. My responsibility as a designer is to work closely with our engineers to develop products that are equally robust, comfortable and enjoyable to use,” he explains.

This raises a very important question from the perspective of investors: to what extent do aesthetics matter to buyers of construction equipment, and could stylish features help sell more equipment and vehicles?

“Construction machines are impressive by their sizes, technologies and features, which help create their unique selling propositions. When design and style are added to the mix, they can complement and accentuate their features and functionality, which eventually translates into a better selling proposition. Stylish features provide intangible and psychological benefits that customers associate with the product experience,” he says.

Wilkie believes that creative freedom is necessary to expand the boundaries of design and product development. According to him, that’s the only way to start new conversations and present ideas that have not been thought about earlier.

“As designers we tend to go beyond where we need to go and question everything with the intention to make dramatic changes. We don’t want to design for the sake of style alone, but we also don’t want to be frivolous about style. While we work with engineers keeping in mind the boundaries of physics, we do not restrict ourselves when it comes to creativity and imagination. It’s important that all ideas are discussed whether they are conservative or extreme, which may result in anything from ordinary looking vehicles to futuristic, conceptual machines,” he says.

“We need to develop products that offer value for money to customers. They need to be functional and affordable in order to be competitive in the market. Nevertheless, we encourage our designers to work with full creative freedom and design what they like, provided it gets the job done as specified. Then we adapt it to market requirements,” he adds.

All the principles of industrial and automotive design can be applied to construction equipment and vehicles. However, designing a wheel loader or tractor demands an entirely different approach as compared to designing a car, and it comes with its own set of challenges, according to Wilkie.

“Based on my experience in industrial and automotive design, I would say that automotive design is relatively easy and often repetitive. Car designers specialise in style and ergonomics and that’s where their responsibility ends. Industrial designers go beyond that and get heavy involved in the functional aspects of their products,” says Wilkie.

“As an example, while designing a wheel loader, we need to understand the working environments of our customers and how we can engineer the wheel loader to solve their problems. It’s a different learning curve, because I’m not a regular user of our products. Everyone drives cars, and so they have opinions and feedback about user experience. I, too, drive a car, but I don’t drive a wheel loader every day, although we have access to our machines to drive them and form our own opinions about user experience. Therefore, we rely on our engineers and customer facing staff who tell us what we can do and what we must not do,” he says.

At the CNH Industrial Design Centre, Wilkie applies his expertise in automotive and industrial design and through collaboration with the company’s engineering department. Depending on the complexity of his projects, it could take at least two years for a new product to go form the idea to launch stages.

“We work with our engineering and marketing departments, bouncing off ideas back and forth to understand product and brand requirements. Engineers appreciate ideas and feedback from designers because they get a fresh perspective about products. This collaborative approach can yield rather unexpected results. Sometimes, I go from a presentation about trucks or tractors into another meeting about construction equipment with a new idea, inspiration or solution that I hadn’t thought earlier. A healthy collaborative environment helps generate better ideas and solutions,” he says.

This result of this collaboration was highlighted recently when two designs from CNH Industrial brands Case IH and Case Construction Equipment won the 2017 Good Design Awards, the annual global awards programme for design excellence and design innovation presented by the Chicago Athenaeum Museum of Architecture and Design and Metropolitan Arts Press.

The winners were the Case IH autonomous concept tractor and the Case G series wheel loaders, both of which the CNH Industrial Design Centre developed together with the company’s innovation and engineering teams.

Case introduced the new G Series wheel loaders in November 2016. Its new standards in operating comfort, interface and safety, makes it the most intuitive and easy-to-operate wheel loader that Case has ever produced. The brand will mark 60 years of wheel loader production in 2018. This particular product series spans seven new models scaled for work ranging from supply yards, building construction and agriculture up to quarries and mass excavation. Every element of the cab has been designed to provide an automotive feel with industrial performance with its enhanced styling, comfort and ergonomics. The design also enhances visibility with a one-piece windshield that provides an unobstructed panoramic view to the front. Multiple rear view convex mirrors, rear view display and slim engine hood offer rear visibility, and the LED work light packages provide high visibility in low-light applications.

Case IH unveiled the world’s first high horsepower, cabless autonomous concept tractor in 2016, marking a revolutionary step forward in tractor design. The design department used the current Case IH Magnum CVX row crop tractor as the starting point for the brand’s autonomous concept. The concept’s design was focused on both form and function, reimagining the tractor for a future autonomous era by eliminating the traditional operator cab and crafting sleek and dynamic lines. Styling was also used to both enhance functionality and house the required technology, whilst following a coherent design language. The aggressive headlights, sculpted bonnet and distinctive silhouette are complemented by carbon fibre front fenders, two-tone black and red wheel rims and signature LED status running lights.

“A fully autonomous vehicle will change everything about our current design approach, because then the priorities will no longer remain the safety and comfort of the driver or operator. It also present new opportunities for industrial designers because they have the chance to make bigger advancements than their automotive design counterparts,” says Wilkie.

Wilkie finds inspiration for his design from travelling, meeting people, trying out new products and experiencing advanced technologies and ways of connectivity. He points to architecture as his biggest inspiration and one of the best examples of an industry that is witnessing the benefits of pushing design boundaries.

“Two decades ago, we couldn’t have imagined the architecture we see today, which in time has become the norm because architects chose to push their limits. I think industrial design also needs to be as forward thinking as building architecture. However, industrial designers face certain limitations that architects have overcome. In building construction, flashy architectural projects are greenlit because they are statements to the vision or prosperity of a company or country. That’s how many architects have been lucky to seek some of their best ideas come to life,” he says.

Commenting about the most fulfilling part of his current job, Wilkie says: “There’s always something new to do in industrial design. I am lucky to have a job that I enjoy and because of that I find it easy and rewarding. This industry offers bigger challenges and fulfilment than the automotive world. We have to convince people every day about the need and impact of design, which drives us to work harder. Also, constructive feedback and appreciation matter in our profession. I and my team get very involved in our work and spend a lot of time and effort in developing better products. For us, there’s no better feeling than when our customers and partners come to us and say “that was a great design.”

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