It Takes Two to Act Sustainably: Zero-Emission Heavy Machines and Digital Transformation

Hit ambitious technological, environmental and financial targets

by Eric Kam
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Electrification of existing product lines while undergoing digital transformation is a challenge facing OEMs on their ‘zero-emission journeys’ today. What is the overlap between these separate challenges? Many have engineered, produced, and maintained multiple generations of internal combustion (IC) products, but few have deep or broad experience with electric variants. Whether for heavy “off-highway”, consumer light vehicular, or airborne mobility, digital transformation and electrification affect how we conduct business today while setting a course toward the future. Current designs blend a century of practical experience with insights gained in recent years using digital analysis. Design requirements and engineering criteria reflect our cumulative knowledge, but because we are still in our first or second generation of electric product variants, the right way to engineer, produce, operate, and maintain our electric product lines might still reside in the “undiscovered country”, the future.

What most “know” about design-for-manufacturing-assembly and design-for-service is knowledge collected over several decades; engineering, assembling, operating, and maintaining internal combustion products. Some design requirements originate from digital engineering, while many others may have arrived after years of hardship, design iterations, process alternatives, and trial-and-error during production as worker populations struggle to make do with the way things were designed then trying to make them better.

  • We may already know the top 10 service issues for ICE products, what about the electric variants?
  • We have production data for existing products—which tasks risk injury or introduce errors or defects—does that knowledge translate when there are no more spark plugs, or fuel pumps or oil filters?
  • What risks emerge when we introduce new components to install during assembly or remove/replace during service and maintenance?

There are no Pareto charts available with past years of production data yet. We lack distributed experience in maintaining products that may not arrive on the market for several years. When we envision our electric future, we cannot plan to simply exchange internal combustion powertrains for batteries and electric motors. Institutional technical memory lags in planning, engineering, and implementation of human-centric processes for these new products—procedures where people are required to interact with the proposed products during activities like assembly, maintenance, or operative use. In this post, we will consider how electrification impacts our digital engineering methodologies and how we prepare for human interaction with novel products.

The shape of things to come

The power systems of industrial heavy machinery and off-highway vehicles can determine the potential layout of a product itself where electric updates could widely influence its architecture or topology. We see that in automotive EVs with the emergence of Frunks—front trunks or cargo spaces occupying the compartments previously dedicated to IC engines—or how batteries play larger roles within the safety structure of cars. However, while the configuration of passenger cars is more about aesthetics or style, off-highway heavy industrial machines can be more functional in their layout. Conventionally, a large single ICE is connected to a transmission that converts engine rpm into rolling motion at the wheels,  spins pumps for hydraulic and pneumatic systems and kinetic generators to power electrical systems; but when we electrify heavy machines will the same layout be necessary or even desirable. In a recent webinar, a colleague postulated if electric loader design could benefit from distributed hydraulic power sources rather than a single centralized supply with hoses transferring the pressurized fluid throughout the design. After all, once we remove the ICE as the source of work, we can broaden design flexibility.

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Using ESI’s System Simulation solution, they found arguments for and against engineering a decentralized hydraulic system coming down to cost vs. energy efficiency, analogous to the range for EV automotive engineering. Shifting to a decentralized hydraulic system creates new challenges/opportunities when it comes to the layout of the product, its manufacturing requirements, and service maintenance procedures. If this new generation of Electric Powertrain loaders was to be produced, could we produce, operate, or maintain it the way we do now?

Human-Centric Process Validation: Interact with your product before production

New risks emerge for heavy machinery manufacturers traversing digital transformation, the lack of physical product availability and pre-production environments makes commissioning the next assembly line or cells difficult. We don’t have a century of experience producing electric product variants; therefore we need to consider that new products, assembly processes, and service requirements might yet exhibit sub-optimal design for safe operation, efficient maintenance, and sustainable production once people gain experience with new product variants in assembly or service processes. To accelerate discovery of and to mitigate risks, our customers perform reviews in Virtual Reality (VR) where teams experience future products within the processes where humans interact with them—what we dubbed Human-Centric Product & Process Validation.

Human-Centric Process reviews allow users to integrate new product CAD data in an immersive virtual environment with proposed tooling, production assist devices, and assembly line hardware. While in VR, the user can visualize design variants to evaluate assumptions regarding the packaging and space claim within their design envelope. Will technicians be able to see what they need to assemble or service the proposed electric product? They can analyze the clearance required and propose new installation paths or packaging requirements. They can synthesize the performance of assembly tasks in a virtual version of the future plant and evaluate assembly order to validate production processes; they can conduct trials to remove or replace components to validate proposed service methods.

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When we consider the ways that process plans and tooling for new products affect human workers; we recognize value toward enterprise outcomes (illustrated above):

  • Packaging and space claim of solid components and elastic hoses/cables in the design
  • Clearances and installation or removal/replacement paths of components
  • Physical interactions of complex mechanisms with themselves, adjacent components, or human operators
  • Definition, evaluation, and validation of procedures involving new products
  • Evaluation, validation, and optimization of assembly tooling, assembly cells, production lines and maintenance environments
  • Design for effective human factors and safe ergonomics conditions
  • Collaborate with stakeholders cross functionally and around the world

Each decision regarding the Systems Design for new machines—alternative layout of systems, variant topology, addition, or elimination of componentry—potentially affects the ability of people to effectively operate, assemble, and service. A conclusive answer to the initial thesis from the systems team presented in this post, “should we decentralize the hydraulics system or rely on same topology as the ICE version”, requires not only the validation in Systems Engineering outputs but also a verification that the decision will not invalidate other aspects of process plans. In future posts, we will delve deeper into these different aspects of design validation of Human-Centric Product and Process design concerns that emerge from the consideration of electrification of a conventionally ICE product.

Don’t miss the next ESI Live! Register for our upcoming ESI Live 2021 where we will delve deeper into how you can navigate the expectations of digital transformation, vision zero, and sustainability through real world examples from leaders in the industry. Plus, there will be a live interactive demo where you will see how to validate product integration and manufacturing & maintenance processes early in a human-centric way.


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