Volvo Construction Equipment has unveiled its latest concept design machine – this time imagining the compact excavator of the future. Following in the tradition of Volvo CE’s previous concept machines – the SfinX (excavator), Centaur (hauler), Gryphin (wheel loader) and Fenix (paver) – the GaiaX also draws from Greek mythology and is inspired by the primordial deity, Gaia – the creator and mother of Earth and the universe.
“The Mother Earth figure embodies many characteristics of the concept compact excavator – its innate affinity with the ground, its power, strength, and all-seeing control, as well as its protective qualities. This is a machine, designed to work in harmony with nature, with minimal environmental impact, and that cares for the user and site staff, keeping them safe from harm. Like Gaia, the excavator is also the first of a generation – and of exceptional beauty,” says Stina NilimaaWickström, design director at Volvo CE.
“The GaiaX places the user right at the heart of the machine,” continues NilimaaWickström. “It should be easy, almost effortless to operate, providing the ultimate in comfort, efficiency, productivity – and safety.”
“It’s relatively easy to come up with billion-dollar high-tech solutions,” she says. “The real test of a designer’s ability is to create a machine that’s both optimized for its usage and is beautiful.”
The user-centric GaiaX is thoroughly minimalistic with plenty of ‘air’ in the design and no more structural features than are required to carry out the job. The traditional cab is replaced by a lightweight steel guard rail, while the battery alone acts as counterweight to the arm and boom. Volvo CE turns the usual disadvantage of a heavy battery into an advantage. Four electrically-powered tracks provide good ground surface contact and ensure stability and maneuverability, even on steep inclines.
Plug and play
The rechargeable batteries are designed to see the operator through a whole working day – but the GaiaX can also be used while plugged into an external electrical power source.
“We envisage the GaiaX being used in city environments, such as in the street or even inside buildings, where it would be easy to plug into a power source,” says Sidney Levy, chief designer at Volvo Product Design.
The GaiaX’s zero emissions and silent movement are also advantages when operating in built-up areas. “We have learnt a lot in trying to make the GaiaX as simple and efficient as possible – some elements of which will be able to be applied to our machines in the future,” says Levy.
Passers-by are protected by warning sensors that alert the operator to their presence while an airbag – inspired by the side airbags used in Volvo cars – inflates from the seat to shield the operator in case of collisions, roll-over or falling objects. The machine is also equipped with an integrated first aid kit, fulfilling Volvo’s core value of safety and duty of care towards the operator.
The orange guard rails command the attention of those around the job site for a high degree of safety but they also embody Volvo’s commitment to the environment. They are covered with leather, a natural material that is pleasant to the touch. The wooden seat likewise encourages a symbiotic relationship between the operator and machine, while the wood’s natural flexibility helps to absorb any bumps or vibrations.
Though the structure of the GaiaX may be simple, the human-machine interface (HMI) is highly advanced – with half of the six-strong design team dedicating their time to developing a revolutionary operator experience.
“The GaiaX project has been an incredible opportunity for us to experiment with the way construction equipment is used – we feel as if we are paving the way to the future of Volvo and perhaps the industry too,” says Levy.
Indeed, some innovative features had to be removed from the GaiaX as these elements may be included in Volvo machines much sooner than 2030. (This is the date the design team chose to envisage their future machine working.)
Operators can still sit on the excavator in a traditional way – required for precise movements and transport – but most applications can be carried out remotely using an augmented reality tablet computer. The main benefit of this transparent iPad-like device is that only one person is required to use the machine – the operator can dig and keep an eye on the surrounding environment at the same time. Remote operation also allows the machine to be used in potentially dangerous situations, while the operator maintains a safe distance.
The augmented reality tablet will be mapped with the city’s utility systems, showing the exact location of water pipes and electrical cables on screen and allowing the operator to visualize the work before it is carried out using segmented reality. A ground scanner provides precise information on obstacles to guarantee the effectiveness of auto-dig modes and projects images onto the ground to show the worksite and mark safe zones for the operator and passersby. The tablet will also connect to other machines in the fleet to provide a more effective way of working.
The HMI will always suggest the most economical and ecologically friendly way to complete the work but will give the user the option of entering new requirements that are related to the task. For example, material may need removing from a certain area to allow for safe passage of other vehicles, or a larger excavation area may be required to provide better visibility.
The future – with a bit of Swedishness thrown in
One inspiration behind Volvo CE’s latest concept machine, the GaiaX electric compact excavator, springs from another of Sweden’s national specialties – furniture design.
Award-winning Swedish furniture designer Monica Förster has been involved in the top-secret GaiaX project from its inception. Förster designed the operator’s seat, formed from three-dimensional molded wood – a first in the construction equipment industry – that exudes Swedish beauty and simplicity.
“Our design team attended a conference with Monica Förster last year and we were so excited by her design process that we wanted to apply it to one of our machines,” says Levy.
Förster’s process involves creating mock-ups of her projects using simply paper and straws – a refreshingly low-tech approach that appealed to Volvo CE’s designers.
“Usually we start work on a new concept by jumping on the 3D computer-aided design package. We had never worked with physical objects at this stage before – but it’s really helped to unleash our creativity,” says Levy.
This counter-intuitive back-to-basics approach for something as advanced as the GaiaX excavator also allowed the Volvo design team to stay focused on its goal of simplicity and sustainability throughout the entire design process.
Bringing GaiaX to life at ConExpo
A life-size model of the GaiaX will be shown at ConExpo, Las Vegas in March and while the tracks, arm and boom will be static, visitors will be invited to test the concept HMI for themselves via a tablet computer. Apple and Android apps – available to download during and after the show – will also allow a 360° walk-around with zoom, and include augmented reality functions so that anyone can interact with the machine. A YouTube movie will show an animation of the machine in operation and the computer ecosystem around it.
“Many people have been involved in bringing the GaiaX to life and we are all proud of what we have managed to achieve. By drawing from the furniture industry – another sector where Swedish design excels – and incorporating Monica’s aesthetic expertise, we have created a practical and elegant machine that perfectly encapsulates Swedish simplicity and innovation,” Levy concludes.