The inexorable switch from diesel to electric in the heavy construction equipment sector combined with automation will transform jobsites in unimagined and truly disruptive ways says a spokesperson for one of the leaders in the sector.
Ray Gallant, vice-president of sales support for Volvo Construction Equipment, spoke to members of the Hamilton-Halton Construction Association’s Young Leaders Group at an innovation workshop held in Hamilton recently.
He warned them that the electrification of loaders, excavators and other machines will disrupt everything from project costing, site layouts, workflows and workforce demands and training to supply chains and company partnerships.
The threat of tremendous change did not appear to alarm the HHCA members attending the Feb. 4 session, however. The final words of his presentation were greeted with loud applause and even whooping.
“We think the future is bright,” Gallant said, with the information age well underway and new collaborations emerging as one of the keys to finding solutions to industry challenges.
“We are in a networked world. We have to figure out how do we get together and promote something that is good for us all.”
Gallant, based at Volvo offices in Shippensburg, PA. but originally from New Brunswick, laid out details of a 10-week pilot study that Volvo had undertaken in August 2018 at a quarry near Gothenburg, Sweden. Volvo’s stated goal is to achieve electric worksites that are 10 times more efficient, with zero accidents, zero unplanned stops and zero emissions.
We had to change not only what the machines were but how they operated,
— Ray Gallant
Volvo Construction Equipment
The firm teamed up with Skanska Sweden on the project to test eight autonomous electric loaders and three other electric machines, with only one of them a hybrid using diesel — and as Gallant reported, the findings were spectacular.
The small electric haulers replaced three rigid traditional haulers, tasked with transporting material from the primary mobile crusher to the secondary static crusher.
“We had to change not only what the machines were but how they operated,” Gallant explained in an interview.
During the first two weeks there were significant efforts to iron out wrinkles, as with any new process, Gallant said, observing, “It was not pretty.”
The haulers required regular charging and typically six were operating while two were charging. The routines soon became more refined and a swarm concept was developed as the haulers linked together and the conveyor was put in continuous use.
“The trial and error of the first two weeks of the site was fine-tuning operations,” Gallant said. “If the haulers weren’t in synch then of course we had to shut down and make some adjustments. That is the process.
“We can do all the research and development you want on a machine and we get one or two per cent more efficient after millions of dollars spent. But you start looking at the site and you can get 20, 30 or 40 per cent more efficient on the site by changing how the operations are done, bringing the client mentality to it.”
In the end the tests showed a 98 per cent reduction in carbon emissions, a 70 per cent drop in energy costs and a 40 per cent reduction in workforce costs.
Together, the results support the potential for a 25 per cent reduction in total cost of operations, although at this stage that is just a prediction as the electric haulers are prototypes. Gallant noted they are currently much more expensive than traditional haulers although Volvo expects product costs to go down in the future.
The Skanska project required only three workers on site. Gallant said automated worksites like that represent a “massive shift” from a social point of view, and they will be a major benefit to a sector that is having trouble recruiting workers. Meanwhile, the workplace safety dividends are obvious.
Next, he noted, “It will require massive retraining.” For starters, traditional vehicle service technicians and diesel mechanics will be replaced by electrification and battery mechanics.
In addition, whole new supply chains will have to be cultivated by some firms, he said.
“For us, the change in the supply chain is huge,” he said. “You need somebody to produce electric motors and generators and converters now, instead of transmissions and diesel engines.
“And also, the industry will change. You see the industry get together and work with somebody like Verizon and AT&T to come up with protocols for these communications. That is not our business. A 5G network is not what we do, so we have to partner with people who understand that technology, as does Caterpillar, as does Komatsu, as does everybody else.”
The transition to 5G is essential, Gallant said.
“The biggest issue right now with communications is getting to that 5G so you have the bandwidth to transfer all the information you need, especially for control, and secondly is the security,” he explained. “And 5G is superior on both.”
Next up for Volvo’s construction equipment sector is refining the electric prototypes and commercializing them. The firm is working on a parallel program with the logging sector with machines close to commercialization. The autonomous Volvo Remote Log Loader works on 5G and can be operated from miles away.
Follow the author on Twitter @DonWall_DCN.