Volvo Construction Equipment: Construction Goes Electric……Shhhhh

Ever been awoken by construction sounds? In our latest podcast, we met with the team at Volvo Construction Equipment working to solve this problem, amongst other challenges that the construction industry faces.


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Podcast Transcript

Introduction

Imagine hearing the birds sing, even while construction is going on right outside your window. Or imagine a building being demolished in near-complete silence. These are just a few of the promises of electric vehicles for the construction industry. Not only is this industry a noise polluter, it has a big impact on the climate too. But it is essential. It plays a vital role in the development of every country around the world. That’s why it needs to go green – and Volvo construction equipment is at the forefront of the revolution.

Customer Testing and Demonstrations

We have 40 acres of developed area here at the customer center on the Shippensburg campus so we can bring customers in and test various machines in applications similar to what they’re actually going to be doing. We have the machines staged in our demonstration area, where customers can do different activities with the machines. We periodically do shows with the machines and have a little fun with it with a choreography display so we can demonstrate all the different machines so everybody can get a good idea of what the machines do. Here at Shippensburg, we’ve been making compaction machines for compacting soil and asphalt since the 1970s. We also manufacture wheel loaders. We’re focusing more and more on electric machines, so we have the electric loader, electric excavator, and we’re working on other electric products as well.

The Advantages of Electric

Compact equipment is mainly used in utility jobs for small trench work such as water lines and electrical conduit lines. They’re also used inside buildings for building construction work as well as in landscaping and general municipal work. The ECR25 6,000lb-rated compact excavator is the first mini-excavator we’re coming out with in North America. This machine is very similar to the diesel machines, so we have the same boom, arm structure, undercarriage, and cabin – 80% of the parts are the same. The main difference is that the diesel engine and fuel tank has been replaced by a set of lithium-ion batteries, which feed an electric motor, driving the hydraulic pump. I push a button, and the machine is up and running. It’s very quiet. It’s good because a quiet machine enables you to talk with bystanders. With a diesel machine, I would need to idle down or turn off the engine. In this machine, it’s very easy to communicate with people.

Adapting the Machines

One of the things we took into account when designing these new electric machines is that a lot of the components didn’t have to change. The boom and arm, for instance, if it worked fine on the diesel machine, then we left it alone. We only changed what we had to, to incorporate the electric drives and take advantage of the special features they have. So, if their torque curves are different, we redesigned the hydraulic systems to take advantage of the new torque characteristics of an electric drive versus a diesel drive.

Diesel and Electric – How They Compare

In comparing the diesel machine versus the electric machine, operators tell us that the electric machines feel better. It’s more reactive. This makes sense, because with a diesel engine, the RPM needs to go up to get more flow, and this has a lag. Electric motors are on instantly, providing instant torque, so the machine feels more active – in fact, some customers tell us that the electric machines feel stronger than the diesel machines. We can compare them to cordless power tools. More and more consumers are going for electric yard equipment like a string trimmer, blower, lawn mower. It’s amazing how much easier it is to operate it instead of starting, pulling, mixing two-stroke fuel, taking care about fuel filters, priming, the air filters on equipment – you simply pop in two batteries, push a button and it starts. It’s also amazing how comfortable the machines are by taking vibration and noise away.

Overcoming Unique Challenges

One of the unique applications that we ran into early on in our demo in electric equipment was with Toronto Zoo in Canada, where they brought the electric equipment inside the pens where the animals were free ranging. One of the things that they found was, because of the low noise, low emissions, and low vibrations, the animals didn’t get agitated nearly as quickly as they did with the diesel equipment. They were able to work with diesel equipment for about half an hour, 45 minutes before the animals would start getting agitated. With the electric equipment, they were able to work much longer periods of time and the animals weren’t bothered at all by it. It was unique to see our equipment working around bison and giraffes and other animals in a zoo environment, which is not an application that we would have picked out or designed for, but which happened to be an application that the electric machines were perfect for.

Working in Different Environments

Our customers are bringing applications to us that of course we could have never foreseen. But because of the features of the electric machines – the quietness, low vibration, and low emissions – they’re coming up with applications where they couldn’t use a diesel machine before, but the electric machine worked fine. It’s replacing manual labor on some jobs, and it’s less intrusive on some jobs. It’s less bothersome in a lot of applications. They’re forwarding the applications to us now, rather than us having to try to think of new applications for these machines.

Overcoming Practical Considerations

We’ve seen them used quite a bit in indoor applications, so working around sensitive areas where it’s either noise sensitive or emission sensitive. These machines are perfect for that. We’ve seen them work in a lot of municipal areas where the municipalities are very concerned with keeping the noise down and keeping disturbance down for the residents around, and especially when you come to off-hours work, so if something happens and the middle of the night – a water main break or something like that – and you need to get it fixed, these machines are perfect because they have much less noise and disturbance than traditional machine would have. Solar, wind, portable batteries, hot-swapping batteries, whatever method we can use, are all alternatives to make sure the customer always has ready access to the fuel source, which in this case is electricity. And, just like an electric car, you can plug it into outlet to charge it overnight.

Innovative Charging Solutions

One of the limitations when it comes to charging solutions that customers are looking at is the infrastructure. It can sometimes be very expensive to put in conduits to bring in the right amperage, voltage, or electricity, so customers are looking for alternatives that they can put out on a job site and run for three or four months, or even three or four weeks in some cases, to charge their machines before picking it up to move it to the next job site. That’s becoming a big part of our offering. An off-grid solar charger requires no foundation, no wiring, connections, and no building permits. The only thing it needs is a firm, level ground and a nice position where no buildings or trees obstruct the sunshine to the solar array. It has electric motors, so the solar panels follow the sun, adjusting it to the perfect angle towards the sunshine. We also have units designed to provide emergency power in areas prone to hurricanes and flooding.

A New Approach to Design

We’re also looking more and more at doing things in a virtual world. So, instead of building prototypes, physical machines, out of steel, we can build them in a virtual world and even do virtual assembly prototyping. With a virtual factory, operators can put a headset on and see how the machines go together in a virtual world well before we have anything in steel, so it’s a lot easier to make changes. To make a change in a virtual environment takes minutes, depending on how big the change is, compared to days or weeks to make a change on a real machine. I don’t know if we’re going to the metaverse yet, but it’s definitely more virtual, and we can even give customers access to virtual machines so they can not only see what the machines look like, but also sit in a machine and operate it in a virtual world.

Our Expert Says… Orchestrating the Flow of Data

To design, manufacture, and service their vehicles, Volvo CE relies on a complex network of employees, external partners, and customers. They chose PTC’s Product Lifecycle Management Solution, Windchill, to manage the vehicle development process. Windchill helps companies, typically discrete manufacturing companies like Volvo CE, manage their products throughout the entire lifecycle. It orchestrates the flow of product data between many different business systems and enables a seamless secure collaboration between the folks who create the information and the consumers of that product information both within the company and the extended enterprise.

From R&D to Supply Chain – a Complete Solution

When you consider all of the business processes, it starts off with managing product and process requirements. Then you get into typical R&D engineering processes like product design, engineering, building material management, product, product line, variability, and complexity. We hear the Volvo construction product managers talk a lot about that. Then you get into managing suppliers, the supply chain, and into a streamlined collaboration with downstream stakeholders in manufacturing, shop floor, and quality engineering service teams. So, while this product information is being shared and augmented at every stage, there’s full traceability with robust, powerful configuration and change management processes in Windchill that wraps around all of these steps.

Getting the Volvo CE House in Order

For Volvo Construction Equipment, or Volvo CE, it’s a great example of a customer who has truly matured on their PLM, or digital thread journey as we like to call it and is benefiting from the synergies between product size and projects. For many companies, it’s about getting your digital house in order, so we started with Windchill, an end-to-end product development process based on a single source of product data, to create more efficient ways of working – resulting in an optimized user experience and toolchain integration which transformed the organization.

Transformation Led by Smart Software

With five product lines, 270 models, and 18,000+ options and choices, built around 11 factories, one thing that was critical for Volvo CE was their common product architecture. Product managers talked a lot about moving to hybrid and electrical machines – autonomous, connected solutions – and this common architecture with the shared technology is critical for the fast delivery of these new versions and products at the lowest cost. They established a program to facilitate this transformation and move the company towards a state-of-the-art architecture approach. The electric version of a single hauler has 4,000 different software modules – any of which could have an exponential increase in specification from one product update to the next. Electronics software and connectivity played a central role across all of these product lines, and these features are no longer delivered through mechanical components. Instead, they are enabled by smart software.

Getting Teams on Board

Organizational change management, or OCM, is key to the success of this kind of transformation. When you’re dealing with a huge company like Volvo CE, it’s crucial to harmonize the teams when trying to establish governance and process. This doesn’t always work. Volvo took a slightly different approach, which was to focus on early adopters on the ground floor who then acted as change agents throughout the organization. This resulted in a bottom-up approach where each community helped to define the vision and value in making those changes. Once these frontline workers were trained, they then drove the change management by helping other team members learn and adopt the Windchill solution across the company. This created a viral approach to training and adoption and was one of the key initiatives in driving organizational change and transformation, with change spread naturally throughout the organization.

Credits

Thanks to Mark, and to Dave, Ray and Lars for taking us behind the scenes at Volvo Construction Equipment headquarters.

Please rate, review and subscribe to our bi-weekly Third Angle episodes wherever you listen to your podcasts and follow PTC on LinkedIn and Twitter for future episodes.

This is an 18Sixty production for PTC. Executive producer is Jacqui Cook. Sound design and editing by Ollie Guillou. Location recording by Jess Schmidt. And music by Rowan Bishop.

Episode Guests

Dave Vandersleen – Sub-Portfolio Manager for CAD and PDM Applications at Volvo CE

Lars Arnold – Product Manager for Sustainability at Volvo CE

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Ray Gallant – VP Product Management at Volvo CE

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Mark Lobo, General Manager PLM at PTC

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