Most equipment people, including owners as well as manufacturers, will agree that Voice of the Customer programs are a good idea, in principle.
The question that always remains, though, is this: How much do manufacturers really hear when the customer speaks?
As a contributor to the Voice of the Customer program conducted by Volvo motorgraders during development of the new G900 family of graders, Ken Autry is one equipment customer who has actually seen machines change as a result of his own comments. In Fayetteville, N.C., Autry Grading is working flat out to keep up with the town’s rapid expansion.
As the American military consolidates its various Special Forces branches at neighboring Fort Bragg, Fayetteville is building to accommodate an expected 12,000 new families. A longtime mainstay of the area’s contracting industry, Autry Grading maintains more than 90 pieces of construction equipment in its fleet, with more than 100 employees undertaking complete infrastructure projects “from stumps to curbs.”
“Equipment owner/operators can make a real contribution to machine development if they are mechanically inclined and experienced as operators,” Autry said.
He was one of several experienced contractors who traveled to Goderich, Ontario, to critique prototypes of the early G900 graders, then returned to evaluate changes made by Volvo engineering.
“I wouldn’t say I could point to any one thing and say, ’Yeah, that was me!’ We really worked as a team to comment on the design and suggest improvements. We paid a lot of attention to the front axle design, the visibility and the controls.”
Soon after Volvo launched its new graders, Autry purchased four of the G930 models, the smallest of the G900 family from his local Volvo dealer, ASC.
“The G930 is very well adapted to the needs of the fine-grade contractor,” Autry said. “It has a very tight turning radius and it’s a good size for the cul-de-sacs and parking lots we do. It has better clearance under the front axle, and it has very good visibility for the operator; the grader and blade control displays are all at eye level. Everything you need to see is right in front of you at a glance: gears, speeds, the contronics display right up top.”
In Autry’s case, the control display includes his Topcon 3D blade control system.
“I know Topcon worked with Volvo to determine the best position for the mounting brackets, etc. They arrived at a clean, very neat arrangement.”
The Voice of the Customer operators also suggested a number of serviceability features during the test phase, which Autry recognizes in the G930.
“You can get to the filters easily,” he said, “and standing on the ground to fuel is a good thing to have. Using site glasses for fill levels are good for maintenance, too, because they make operators more willing to do the checks. If the check point is hard to get to, it’s easy to say ’I’ll get to it tomorrow.’”
Autry’s fleet service technician, Larry McPherson, said,“Volvo’s got a lot of people beat on the design” with the G930. He noted that while the groundlevel fueling is convenient, the fuel port also stays safely out of harm’s way under the locked cowling of the grader.
“Even with a locking fuel cap, we see a lot of machines get dirt thrown into the tank. This design gives far better protection from vandalism.”
One Volvo feature that McPherson especially likes on the G930 is the easy access to all engine and hydraulic filters.
The policy at Autry Grading is to change every filter on every machine at 225 hours, so McPherson appreciates that he can get to all the filters from one side of the machine and “doesn’t have to struggle” to reach them. Autry calls his filter policy the “cheapest insurance policy going.”
McPherson said, “ASC has been interested in how we’re getting along, but we’ve not had anything for them to do.”
Now that four G930 production models are in his fleet, Autry and his operators have had a chance to see and realize the benefits of the grader’s features on the job.
“Personally, I like the 11/6 transmission,” he said. “I got the 11-speed for the extra low speed at the bottom; it works really well for curves and gutters; it gives you more choice to get the right speed and ultimately more control. The autoshift always shifts where it’s supposed to; people don’t always do that.”
The new autoshift feature is provided as standard with the Volvo HTE1160 transmission, optional on the eight-speed HTE840.
As well as improving speed control for fine-grading, Autry noted, the 11-speed transmission gives him more flexibility in his fleet.
“With the extra low speed, I didn’t need to buy a larger all-wheel-drive machine to get the creep mode. We’re not generally hogging a lot of material or moving very heavy material in poor conditions.”
What a Creep
Autry has larger equipment for heavy cutting and pushing jobs but he does appreciate the benefits and recommends Volvo all-wheel-drive for other applications.
“If you only have one grader, you should get AWD. Volvo’s creep mode has lots of power and it allows the operator to slow it down enough for fine-grade control.”
Originally introduced to the industry in 1999, AWD creep mode is a Volvo innovation designed for ultra-fine grading. It gives the operator infinitely adjustable speeds from zero to 2.5 mph (zero to 4 kmh) via a hydraulic drive system that lets the machine operate at speeds as low as .1 mph (.2 kmh) without stalling or lugging. The benefits of Volvo’s G900 creep mode include softer starts and the total absence of shifts, eliminating two main sources of ripples in a finished grade and full power at a lower rpm for enhanced fuel economy.
The low noise level generated by the G930 is a benefit for both the operators and the customers of Autry Grading.
Autry said, “The hydraulic fan helps in a tight lot where there’s lots of people around; you don’t have that big fan running the whole time.”
The variable speed cooling fan used by G900 graders draws power only when cooling is actually needed. The fan also offers a reversing feature that allows the operator to blow debris clear from the cooling unit throughout the working day, so the grader continuously runs more efficiently.
While the G930 is visibly smaller than any other Volvo grader, Autry finds no difference in its “feel” compared to larger machines.
“Regardless if using one or multiple-levers, you have to be able to feel the movement in response to what you do; it’s a learned thing. The G930 has the hydraulic capability to respond to the operator input; equal to any previous Volvo or any other grader I’ve operated. You can work through a turn and still keep the windrow just where you want it.”
While the G930 is a bit smaller in size compared to most graders, operators have said it’s full size in power. Operator Billy McFayden said his grader responds readily to every task he asks from it. With the dual drives powering the circle, McFayden can place the material where he needs it the first time, “so we just Cadillac along!”
Volvo Product Manager Brian Lowe said that the new G900 family owes much to people like Autry.
“The industry is well served by Ken and the others who took part in our clinics,” he said. “They took time away from their work and families to come to Goderich, without pay and contribute their expertise and for this we are very grateful. The reward they get is when we deliver a better piece of equipment that helps make their business more successful.”
Apart from enjoying the opportunity to influence the design of his equipment, Autry said that the Voice of the Customer program gave him a new appreciation of equipment engineering.
“Now I understand the cost of this kind of equipment, from the amount of research that goes into it. I also understand the machine better. If the operators have a problem, I can look at it knowing how it’s supposed to be, and why.”
At Volvo, response to the new G900 graders by people like Autry means the Voice of the Customer will continue to have an important role in product engineering.
(This story also can be found on Construction Equipment Guide’s Web site at www.cegltd.com.)