Building the Next Generation of Iron

Fri November 15, 2013 - National Edition
Giles Lambertson



Hats off to industrial designers of construction equipment. They engineer some of the most fascinating machinery on the planet. Just when you think they can’t possibly improve on a type of machine, they re-invent it.

Construction equipment design is serious stuff, too. It’s not like they are tweaking the body contours of a grande touring coupe. For that matter, speed has very little to do with construction machines, unless you think in terms of an articulated truck bouncing across a work site at 45 mph.

Function, not beauty, guides designers at places like John Deere, Bobcat … and Volvo. “Innovation is in our blood…” declared Volvo technology VP Anders P. Larsson in September at its inaugural “innovation forum.” In studios around the world, equipment designers are innovating, working to create machines that do a job better and easier—and gulp less fuel. Being awesome to look at is a bonus.

Because the industry is in a mature phase, most “new” equipment today is only incrementally different than a previous generation--equipped with more telematics, perhaps, or powered by a hybrid engine, but still an excavator or a wheel loader. Truly groundbreaking eras gave us the tracked bulldozer, the backhoe, the skid steer, to name obvious examples of game-changers.

Yet those legacy machines were terribly primitive compared to their 2013 counterparts. The technological distance from, say, the original dozer up to today’s models may be greater than the distance back from the original dozer to its antecedents. There is magnificent engineering being done today.

In small companies and global corporations, inventive souls are dreaming and tinkering. The dreams may be about... super-resilient plastic fittings that take the clank out of clanking tracks… or high-tensile lightweight booms that can reach laterally a quarter mile… engines needing no oil change… loader-trucks (Lo-ucks) that scoop and haul… driverless asphalt compactors.

Equipment designers get to invent the future! I admit it: I’m jealous.