As Vice President of Product Platforms for Volvo Construction Equipment, Alan Berger (SAE member, 2013) is responsible for the life-cycle management of the product line, its profitability, commercial performance, evolution, and strategy. Also overseeing the engineering of the product at the vehicle system level, Berger is consistently looking eight to 10 years into the future in terms of product development and in the 20- to 30-year time frame for advanced technologies. SOHE Assistant Editor Matthew Monaghan recently spoke with Berger about the state of the industry and challenges moving forward.
Will the machines of tomorrow be drastically different from what we see today?
When you look very far out, while the steps may be evolutionary from here to there, I think they do look tremendously different. The drive for efficiency almost never ends as fuel sources become more and more scarce, so we think that there’s quite a bit of change in that area. We focus a lot on safety, and we think there’s potential in improving safety systems. We see what’s happened in the automotive and the on-highway world, and there are equivalent systems that may be more complex to implement in the highly unstructured environment of construction equipment but potentially those kinds of things would come along. In the big picture of efficiency, and also ease of use and productivity, making the products continually easier and easier to use takes down demand and the years of training that some products might take today for someone to become really good at.
What do you see as the potential for autonomous technology in the construction space?
That’s one of the big questions for the industry. It’s very interesting to see the automotive world with little bits showing up now. I think you could potentially see extensions of simple functions become more and more automated. Today on a lot of products you have a return to dig, that’s extremely low-tech automation. Maybe there’s potential for more things.
What are some of the main areas of improvement in terms of safety?
Since people get hurt both operating machines and around machines today, there’s desired room for improvement in both areas. The technologies that you look at in those areas are different. With operators, the biggest risk area is actually getting in and out of the machine, typically. That doesn’t take a lot of technology to address, but maybe you need to rearchitect the machine a bit to make that easier. Whereas people working around the machine you get into the questions of guarding against machines going into the spaces, running into people, and things like that while still being realistic about the need for people to be nearby on the work site.
Volvo’s EU Stage IV/Tier 4 Final solutions rely on an SCR system in addition to DPF and EGR; what are the challenges related to getting those systems to perform in conjunction with one another?
If anyone’s being honest they know that it’s a bit complex to get that whole system done and integrated well into the machine and end up with a very well integrated machine that runs and performs. We, being part of the Volvo Group, have an advantage of the tremendous amount of experience we already have on the on-road trucks in this area. In reality, I’d say this has been a somewhat easier step for us than the Tier 4 Interim step.
How often are you able to work across business units to find solutions?
It’s one of the logics of the Volvo Group, we look for these synergies. The heavy-duty engine range is very much shared. The core of these engines are the same and a lot of the technologies are the same, and we do look at each other’s advanced technology developments and share as much as we can with learning experiences at the minimum and components wherever we can. That also includes the bus business and the Penta range systems business as well.
What are the main target areas for fuel-economy improvement on your equipment?
The challenge on fuel efficiency is extreme; there certainly is a lot of competition on this, so you’ve got to go after each lever that you can find. It depends a lot on the product. Reducing friction is a good area to go after on machines where a lot of the energy goes to the driveline. On machines with a lot of energy going to the hydraulic system, hydraulic system architecture improvements are good. There are some machines where lower weight in the machine will help you with increasing capacity of the machine, where you don’t need the weight for the performance of the machine. So you’ll find places where we’ve lowered the weight of the machine while holding the strength.
What is your strategy for designing equipment for the emerging markets?
In most cases the price points are lower, and then obviously you need to do the right things there to have a good profitable product. So cost is important, but you will also see there a different mixture of customer requirements, maybe a little less focus on the higher-end automation features that might be highly valued in other parts of the world, but often there’s still a big push on fuel economy. The approach of just having an old machine and putting your old model in [that market] and letting them follow behind we don’t think is the right way to go now. For the most part, our emerging market models now are up-to-date product but targeted for those needs.