Volvo CE’s newly-appointed Design Director, Brazilian-born Gustavo Guerra, is a veteran of the heavy machinery field, with a great deal of experience including Mack trucks and positions in many of Volvo’s global locations. His recent projects have included autonomous vehicles and even a drone-equipped concept AV which was recently immortalised as a rather brilliant Lego set. We asked him to explain how you go about designing the toughest, strongest vehicles there are.
“Construction equipment is very specialised,” explained Gustavo. “When you talk about productivity, you have to be in the right size of machine, the right torque, the right size of engine, the right weight to really get the most out of it. You can go to a quarry, a mining environment, and take any excavator in there and get work done. But if it’s not made to the size and the type of material that you’re actually going to dig, you’re just going to burn fuel in there and you’re not going to be efficient.
“We have a lot of different products in our range. We’re talking about 240 machines. Out of that, maybe you have 12 different types of products. Then out of those 12, you have many different sizes and many different configurations. Some of them are unique. Even though they’re still an excavator, they’re completely different than the one alongside them because they serve a different purpose.
“You also have a difference with ones that are off road only. You just put them on a secluded site where there is less regulation. Then you have the ones that you use in a city environment, which is a completely different setup. You have to obey road rules and other kinds of regulations, so you have segmentation in that sense.
“For us it makes it a lot of fun because we very rarely – I would say never – have a dip in projects because there is always a machine to be designed. Out of these 240, we can’t do all of them at the same time. We need to balance on how we evolve the design because it’s a large range, but there is always something ongoing.
“Delivering the project is divided into interiors and exteriors, similar to car design. We have an interior delivery, an exterior delivery and a CMF delivery. We have a large team for this industry of UX designers as well. It’s a very important part of it. But because the machines are so specialised, the designers really need to know what they’re designing. For a machine, you need to know what it does and how it works to be able to design in a meaningful way. Otherwise, it just becomes decoration.
“People absolutely care what one of our products looks like. It needs to be authentic. If you have two machines that perform well, they have similar features and maybe the price segmentation is similar, design is one big differentiator that people are going to buy the machine for because it represents the company. It represents their image.
“But you can only have that dialogue if quality is at a high level. If you have a machine that doesn’t have quality, it’s going to break all the time. You can’t even talk about design because it hasn’t come up to a standard that the industry believes in. Sometimes, if you don’t have the right machine, you don’t even get into the bidding for a project because it is very important that people believe their machines are going to be the most efficient and they’re not going to break down, because that affects the project timing.
“Having a product like Volvo and being able to communicate that very clearly, ‘Look at my new Volvo machines.’ They mean something. They represent a certain technology. It makes the client believable as well. The design changes that we do, at the end of the day, are for the benefit of the customer.
“One thing that we’re discussing a lot today is electrification. How long it will take? Nobody knows that. How long it will take until electrification is in the same percentage in the market as the conventional diesel applications? The reality is that because the applications are so segmented, we don’t feel that there is going to be a place that we only have one type of technology. It’s going to be a mix. It’s going to be a mix of hybrids, electrics, autonomous and diesel because it depends on the environment that they perform in.
The question for us is how much it is worth it to invest to make a signifier that says, ‘Hey, I’m electric.’ But five years from now, that’ll just be commonplace – everything else will be electric as well. Did it make a difference or are we just trying to create marketing? We’re really trying to go to the core now of what do we see that is going to be the marketing in 5, 10, 15 years to see how much identity we need to build to simply communicate the new technology. The design identities are going to continue to evolve and they’re going to be new. But do people need to look at a product and say, ‘That’s a diesel and that’s an electric?’ That’s a question that we’re trying to figure out.
“If you have a machine that is fully driven by an electrical powertrain, maybe you don’t need a grille anymore. Then you can cover it up. In other situations, you may have a machine that has a diesel engine to move the machine. It drives on its own power but once it gets there the diesel shuts off and it’s on electric. It’s still an electrically-operating machine but it has a diesel engine, so that might need a grille for a very short application. How do you balance that out?
“Bring into the context that an excavator and a wheel loader are by nature very different pieces. Then you have a hauler or a paver. They’re visually and proportionally very different products. They do different things. We need to bring the technological difference them and the machine itself into context. People identify what it is, identify the brand. Are they going to identify the technology as well? We need to put all of that in our regular design work to have the right vision.
“In construction equipment, identification of the product is really important. But in all fairness, most of them are secluded. You don’t see them operating. The big machines, the ones that are the most demanding in terms of productivity and so on, people hardly see them because they’re in a site where nobody gets to go. You can also question how much do you need to differentiate those if they’re not that visible?
“We think of all that complexity. We also bring into the context the different sizes of machines. The compact machines are the ones that you normally see on the road. We’re going through that journey with buses and trucks as well. How do we define that strategy for the whole group while making it simpler for the customer to understand too?
“On interior design, if you don’t have that care for the comfort and the wellbeing of the humans there that are operating them, it’s a very exhausting job. One of the benefits of Volvo machines are cabs that are very well thought out for the customer, so they can perform their job without being physically overwhelmed.
“It takes a long time to be a skilled operator. Anybody can jump in the machine and just get going but it takes a long time to be skilled. What we do with having a cab that is thought through for the human is really to minimise that learning curve and make it simpler for them. It’s a huge differentiator. You have a lot of vibration depending on the product that you are, so you have to have good seats. You have noise. We have to get a well-insulated cab. It’s something very trivial like temperature. You might be in the middle of Africa or Brazil with 45-degree heat. Those are the things that you think about comfort that influence the performance.
“Then you have very crucial parts. For example, safety. You are in a very hazardous environment. You have things falling over and machines tipping. Sometimes soil just gives in and it sucks in a whole machine or a whole fleet of machines. If you’re in a cab that is protected, you can feel that you’re safe. There are tons of stories of people that had their lives saved by the Volvo cabs and this is super important.
“One of the things that we look at in the future is, how do we start moving the operator outside the machines, so it makes an even safer environment? Autonomy is going to play a big role into that. Operator jobs might transition into a different setup. They’ll be more like a machine manager rather than a machine operator. They can do that from a safe location. That’s going to make a big, big difference.
“As autonomisation comes into play, UX will become a bigger part of it because you have the comfort, but you also have the techniques of how to perform with the machine. UX can really help with automating that and making it simpler. We’re already designing the whole interior, the cab and the UX of it, the digital UX that is, planning for that move to take place. When you’re no longer sitting in there operating, your interface is so easy to use and you’re so familiar with it that you can carry that out with you and operate from a distance, so the transition to a customer is all simpler.
“When you look at a truck, a truck is there to transport goods. It’s still going to transport goods having a person there or not. You can consider if you can take the cab away altogether, depending on the application.
“We have a good example. There is a concept truck that we have launched just last week, Vera. It’s a fully electric, fully autonomous truck. It has no cab. It’s like a skateboard and the trailer attaches to it. That is designed for applications where it’s A to B, a very predictable route, and the job is quite simple. You don’t even need to transform the cab into a different environment. You can just do it autonomously.
“If you think of the purpose of a construction machine, it’s still going to be the same. It’s moving dirt. It’s not moving people. The dirt is still going to need to be moved. Depending on the application, you might have, or not, someone there supervising.
“Another recent project is the Volvo Electric Site, a partnership with Skanska, which is one of the biggest contractors. It’s a site fully run by electric machines and we have some autonomous machines in there too. In there you have that example. You have the wheel loader that is fully electric, but you still have an operator. You have the hauler that just goes from the pile to the truck. That one is fully autonomous. It doesn’t have a cab.
“We’re going to have different solutions for different applications. But the purpose of a construction machine is going to remain the same. That is moving dirt. There is more advantage on taking away the cab altogether rather than making a multi-use environment in there.
“This will all happen quite soon – the design timeframe in our area is a lot quicker than for cars, because the manufacturing processes are different. We’re not talking about fit and finish of 0.1mm. We’re talking about 2cm. In terms of the demand on the actual manufacturing of it, it is less precise, than the car industry and there are less parts to be designed too. So you can shorten the lead time because of that.”
For more on Vera, the autonomous, electric truck see the video below