Smoother Tracks, Trucks and Tools
Machines that are smart, clean and easy to use on more congested sites are on the boards, but you'd never guess where designers look for inspiration

By Tudor Van Hampton
Volvo's concept of a loader in 2020 sports an independent suspension with auto leveling, a clear-view cab with climate-sensitive glass and electric-hybrid power.
Volvo Construction Equipment
Volvo's concept of a loader in 2020 sports an independent suspension with auto leveling, a clear-view cab with climate-sensitive glass and electric-hybrid power.

In order to get his arms around what construction equipment will look like in 10, 20, 30 years or more, Brian Rauch, who leads worldwide engineering for John Deere's construction and forestry division, takes a hard look at global demographic indicators.

Megatrends like worldwide population bear greatly on construction machines, trucks and tools, Rauch says. After all, the people using those capital-intensive assets are going to be building tomorrow's world, and they will have to do it with tomorrow's workforce. That means the industry's tools will need to adapt or fall behind. "It's a topic that I think about a lot," says Rauch, from Deere's Dubuque Works factory in Iowa. "It clearly affects how we design our products."

The U.S. Census Bureau predicts that in 2050 the global population will have grown by over 40%, to 9.4 billion people. In 2026, India will surpass China in sheer numbers. Perhaps more eye-grabbing is the concentration of people living in urban areas. Rauch cites an ongoing study performed by Washington, D.C.-based think tank The Center for Strategic and International Studies. It looks at seven key drivers of future world change and predicts urban populations rising at an annual rate of 1.8% through 2030, nearly double the total world's annual rate of growth.

Manufacturers like Case design in a virtual environment to speed prototyping and customer feedback.
CHN Global N.V.
Manufacturers like Case design in a virtual environment to speed prototyping and customer feedback.

"We continue to have urban sprawl, but that means the commute distance will get greater," says Rauch. "We think that will slow. There will be more urban renewal."

Changes in equipment are already happening based on population megatrends. In a more urban world, where today's developing nations are set to become tomorrow's megacities, the construction industry's arsenal of machines—large, compact and everything in between—is already becoming more nimble, more versatile and more user-friendly to all types of operators.

One way to look at the future of all construction machines—and their operators—is to think of them as a means to amplify a human being's ability to see, sense and react to situations in the field. "As labor costs increase, we are going to have to get better and better at amplifiers," explains Mike Vorster, a civil engineering professor at Blacksburg, Va.-based Virginia Tech. Airplanes are a classic example of how far construction has to go. "We cannot afford more than 20 bucks an hour to an unamplified person, but we can afford to pay $250,000 a year to a 747 captain because, look at the degree to which we amplify him," Vorster adds.

Perhaps the biggest enabler of change in recent years has been the advancement of electronics around heavy machinery. As engines and other components get more complex and wireless communication systems evolve globally, things like telematics, grade controls—now used by less than 5% of all machines—and remote diagnostic tools will become even more widespread than they are today. As fuel prices rise, designers will keep shaving weight with more items like high-strength steel, composites and flat-panel screens.

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  • Vehicle designers, too, have greatly integrated electronic prototyping over the past two decades. Inside Case New Holland's headquarters in Burr Ridge, Ill., Carl Hagele, CNH's styling manager, uses more three-dimensional models to validate prototypes than building actual hard iron. "We've really minimized the use of physical mock-ups and prototypes," he says. "By the time you build a full-scale prototype, you are already faced with production."

    GM first tried head-up displays in 1988. Designers say HUD may help equipment operators keep their eyes on task and save valuable weight.
    General Motors Corp.
    GM first tried head-up displays in 1988. Designers say HUD may help equipment operators keep their eyes on task and save valuable weight.

    Before plants start cranking out new machines, most manufacturers are proving vehicles in virtual-reality theaters, where engineers and clients can "fly through" digital mock-ups and operate them in a simulated environment using stereoscopic headsets and gloves that read head, hand and arm motions. The VR gear can cost over $1 million to get up and running, but manufacturers save "millions and millions" in tooling, notes Rick Hall, CNH's product planner in Burlington, Iowa.

    After the low-hanging fruit is picked over, the link between operator and machine will get even stronger. "I think we are going to see machines that make a poor operator a good operator, a good operator a great operator, but I don't think we want to take away the ability of a great operator to be a great operator," says Rauch. "It's very likely that the machines will track the operator" to ease training, he adds.

    Equipment also will be less stressful on the public. The Illinois Dept. of Transportation is wrapping up a $975-million rebuild of the Dan Ryan Expressway, which serves about 300,000 daily Chicago-area motorists. Since it went into service in 1963, traffic has doubled; the original design was outmoded 20 years ago.

    Hybrid drivetrains, like GM and Chrysler’s two-mode unit, will be packaged into future trucks.
    General Motors Corp.
    Hybrid drivetrains, like GM and Chryslerís two-mode unit, will be packaged into future trucks.

    Acting under a federal grant, the owner implemented a plan to limit emissions and noise on the site to keep nearby communities, made almost entirely of low-income minorities, less exposed. That meant newer machines running on cleaner grades of diesel fuel had to be placed on the job, while electronic sniffers placed strategically around target zones, such as schools, kept the crews honest. Little of this would have been possible 10 years ago, but engineers say contracts like the Dan Ryan model will soon become business as usual.

    Everything emitted from the work zone—down to the finest particle of dust—was analyzed. "In the past, they had zero watering trucks, or one," says Deborah M. Sawyer, president of Environmental Design International Inc., which IDOT hired to do the study. "During grading, big volumes of dirt were being moved and it absolutely created exposure. So from there on, boom, there was a change order, and there were five watering trucks."

    Eventually, increasing project controls will translate into real design changes, but the transformation will be slow. One reason is that designers all too often are obsessed with technology that may not pay back, warns Katia Facchetti, Westport, Conn.-based Terex Corp.'s chief marketing officer.

    Automatic grade controls, like on this Caterpillar compactor prototype, are ready to break out.
    Iowa State University
    Automatic grade controls, like on this Caterpillar compactor prototype, are ready to break out.

    "I used to do some consulting for Ford and Chrysler," Facchetti says. "They have the engineers go and live around with customers. I'm not talking about hours, I'm talking about months. I think there's a real opportunity in this industry to do ethnographic research—how do they really interact with their equipment?"

    Fleet owners can be just as conservative as designers are radical. Some argue that what makes construction different from aerospace, automotive or medical is the tendency of builders to celebrate sheer muscle power as a measure of productivity rather than baby steps like digital grading, asset monitoring and document control that make leaps of progress possible.

    "The challenge for construction firms, small and large, is introducing a culture of technology to people that don't perceive its need or embrace it," explains Gregg Schoppman, a senior consultant with FMI's Tampa office, in an FMI article he wrote last year called "Laptop Meets Bulldozer."

    Schoppman and others say real brawn and innovation is a balancing act of picking the right tools and training workers to use them effectively. Scientific innovation, according to General Motors Corp., will grow fortyfold by 2023. The last surge of that magnitude started in 1880. Equipment is changing, and opportunity lies ahead.

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