Conceptual Design

Design Makes a Difference for Hardworking Trucks

8 Sep, 2010 By: Marie Vassiliadis

Even the most prosaic vehicles benefit from thoughtful conceptualization and extensive clay and CAD modeling.

The polar opposite of sports cars, commercial trucks are common, unglamorous vehicles. In light of this, one might expect truck buyers' purchasing decisions to be based entirely on rational factors, such as fuel consumption, payload, service costs, and transport miles per dollar. Think again: truck design is more important that you may imagine.

At Volvo's design studio, close to 60 people design products for various Volvo companies: Volvo Trucks, Volvo Buses, Volvo Construction Equipment, and Volvo Penta. Senior Designer Patrik Palovaara specializes in truck design. His latest creation is Volvo Trucks' new construction truck, the Volvo FMX.

"It's true that truck design is largely about rational factors like aerodynamics and ergonomics," Palovaara said. "But there's also an emotional dimension. The truck's appearance is strongly linked to both its function and its identity and, by extension, to its brand."

Interpretation, Vision, and Form

A truck designer's first challenge in a new project is to interpret the client's requirements and preferences, as well as the results of user studies, to create his or her own vision of the new truck. The designer may draw inspiration from sources such as the animal kingdom, film, fashion, or extreme sports.

During this phase, countless sketches are produced. The designer can give free rein to his or her imagination and challenge traditional concepts of how a truck should look, while remaining realistic.

"When making strategic sketches, I often work with three themes," said Palovaara. "An extreme visionary theme [left], a basic theme [center], and a theme that falls somewhere in between the two [right]."

From drawing to full-scale model.
After this initial period of sketching, the team chooses a design theme to develop further. They begin producing CAD models to verify factors such as ergonomics, aerodynamics, and functionality for the new truck.

"Air resistance is of strategic importance because it is critical to fuel consumption," explained Palovaara.

The team includes surface modelers and studio engineers who are responsible for regularly reviewing the design process with Volvo Trucks' production technicians and ergonomics, aerodynamics, and technical design experts. Modelers at the design studio build a full-scale clay model of the new truck that allows everyone involved to follow the verifications made with the CAD model.

A full-scale clay model takes up to a year to build. The frame is made of steel, wood, and expanded polystyrene, and is covered with a 50-mm layer of plastic clay. The surface is covered with a layer of stretch film that produces a varnished appearance.

"Many people only fully realize what the new truck will look like when they see the full-scale model," said Palovaara. "The model provides a reference point for everybody, from Volvo's CEO to tool makers and subcontractors. And many people have their say before the shape, color, and surface of the design are finalized."

Creatively Competitive

So everybody has an opinion about design. But is it possible to define what makes a good truck design? And how important is the design from a larger perspective?

The Umeå Institute of Design at Umeå University in Sweden has collaborated closely with Volvo Trucks for many years, and is one of the world's leading study institutes in this field. Tapio Alakörkkö, Department Head at the Umeå Institute of Design, commented: "Design is a creative discipline that improves a company's competitiveness. In Scandinavia, we have a tradition of creating functional designs. For us, a good truck design is about focusing on the driver and finding out how we can make his working day easier and develop his work routines — not least so that more women will choose to become truck drivers."

Arousing the desire to buy. Even if a design is primarily functional, its success also depends on arousing consumers' desire to have it. Purchasing decisions are not only made by the logical left-brain.

"Good design is to do with the dreams a product evokes in people, what they hope to get out of it," explained Alakörkkö. "Design is what makes people tick."

Another factor that drives development forward is the link between concrete product design and visionary concept design.

"Concept design is important in getting people's brains to think outside the box," said Alakörkkö. "By discussing the design on the basis of a common vision, we can move the goal posts forward. Concept design also serves as a sounding board for our views — do we like this vision or not?"

Design details accentuate desirable characteristics.
For example, Palovaara and his team based the Volvo FMX design on its predecessor, the Volvo FM, but accentuated its robust, rugged characteristics by introducing external changes to express certain qualities.

Functionality was also added in several key areas, including a new central towing device on the front with a stronger fastening point. This resulted in a new front with a powerful lower section that distinguishes the FMX from the FM.

"Volvo Trucks commissioned us to design a product that would appeal to construction customers," said Palovaara. "The market's response proves that we succeeded."

Transport of the Future

Needless to say, designers who work for a leading truck manufacturer must always remain at the forefront of development. They keep abreast by reading the industrial press and attending trade fairs, but it takes more than this to know how trucks will develop by the year 2020.

"Trends in truck design are driven by technical development," explained Palovaara. "New fuels, new materials, and logistics solutions influence the commercial vehicles of the future."

He should know. In the design studio, concealed behind long curtains, are models of future Volvo trucks that few human eyes have yet seen.

About the Author: Marie Vassiliadis

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