New Challenges in Off-Highway Equipment Design

April 16, 2020 Rachel Pilgren-Kane


en Outside of the cab, designers are using stronger, heavy-duty compression latches to secure tool cabinets and hoods covering engines and other equipment that offer ergonomic benefits as well as vibration resistance. 

By Bob Straka, General Manager, Transportation, Southco, Inc.

The move toward more autonomous operation and the allied push for machine optimization and efficiency are leading to changes in off-highway equipment design. How soon the off-highway industry becomes fully autonomous and “eliminates the cab” however, remains an open question.

Equipment today can be programmed in order to perform certain functions, like digging a trench or spraying a field with herbicides. However, that may still require an operator to be inside the cab to move the vehicle from point to point and supervise the machine’s work function. Even if that operator has nothing to do with the physical digging of the trench, the operator may be focused on other tasks.

This means the cab will be more like what many cabs already are: mobile work offices where an operator may have other responsibilities, such as work site supervision they can perform while keeping an eye on the equipment and the job being completed. With an operator no longer needed to control all the equipment’s functions, they can instead use in-cab equipment like computers to do planning, communicate with other work crews and complete other tasks that can’t be automated.

Across the industry, new technological advances are offering benefits for owners and operators of this equipment. They are designed to improve safety and visibility, enhance security, cut downtime, reduce theft and vandalism and improve operator comfort and ergonomics.

Improving Safety and Visibility

The applications where autonomous operation has the potential for the quickest growth will be where the travel path doesn't change – in areas where there are very few people moving about and the traffic patterns are basic and routine. However, increases in the use of vision and proximity sensors will improve safety and visibility in autonomous equipment regardless of operating location, both visually and virtually.

With traditional visibility, designers maximize the glass in the cab and add mirrors to try to provide operator visibility around the vehicle so that they can maneuver it safely. With the evolution of mechanically operator-driven equipment to autonomous vehicles, designers are beginning to use vision cameras and sensors to help the operator understand what's going on around the machinery.

Rather than having a very large mirror off the side door — which allows the operator to see behind the vehicle, but also obstructs their vision of what's in the mirror’s direct path — designers are adding a small camera on the side of the mirror or on the door. It gives the operator a much broader view of the surrounding area. At the same time, incorporating this technology allows OEMs to move one step closer to the evolutionary path of purely autonomous driving, because an autonomous vehicle needs to sense everything that's going on around it. These sensors and cameras can feed the necessary data for autonomous equipment. In addition this technology can also be tied into the vehicle monitoring system to enhance equipment security.

Addressing Security Challenges with Electronic Access

As increases in technological advancements add to safety and efficient operation, they also greatly increase the cost of the equipment and the temptation for theft and vandalism.

Providing electronic access solutions (EAS) can elevate both the intelligent access to and control of off-highway equipment. As off-highway equipment becomes more autonomous and incorporates more sophisticated technology, it’s easier to include electronic access latching solutions.

Just as consumers are purchasing video doorbells with motion sensor technology that allows for remote video monitoring of their front doors from their smartphones, EAS technology can supply a similar level of protection and tracking.

Electronic access solutions (EAS), such as electronic locking and access control devices, offer a smart, proven and easily integrated way to improve the physical security of off-highway equipment. These electronic access solutions can be connected to an existing network to track equipment access.

Major component suppliers are now offering electronic access solutions that integrate Bluetooth technology with electronic locks to simplify equipment access and key management. These systems allow an operator’s smart device — typically a smartphone — to act as a “key.”

Time-based, virtual keys can be sent wirelessly to a smartphone application via a cloud-based web portal, simplifying the assignment of keys to multiple users and equipment. Operation is intuitive, as the operator or site manager simply opens the app to see their virtual keys, along with the associated locked equipment location, description and period of access time.

This can simplify operations at the equipment yard or work site. Without EAS, equipment stored in a dedicated location needs an attendant who handles documenting and handing over mechanical keys; if a piece of equipment is on-site for multiple days, someone from the construction crew must handle collecting and distributing keys daily.

One of the most important advantages is the real-time aspect of this information: Electronic access systems identify who is using what equipment and where, in real or near-real time. This data can then be integrated with other data streams within the equipment for more comprehensive utilization information, aiding in planning, cost analysis and distribution and other management areas.

Ultimately, more efficient security impacts the bottom line for equipment owners, rental companies and end-users. Preventing theft or vandalism reduces repair costs and insurance headaches. More importantly, it helps reduce machine downtime and increase availability, which improves profitability by ensuring that projects are completed on time.

Enhancing Operator Comfort and Ergonomics

Applying advanced technology to the challenges of operator ergonomics and equipment access can help off-highway equipment manufacturers and end-users make sure their equipment is better utilized, safer and more productive.

Incorporating the latest positioning and latching technologies both within the operator cab and on other access points in the vehicle help to improve the end-user experience by delivering maximum performance and efficiency at every job site.

Ergonomics within the cab are changing due to evolving cab technology. The number of screens within the cab interior has increased so operators can better monitor the status of a piece of equipment. Many sites have different operators working in these cabs from day to day. Just like seat and steering wheel adjustments, from an ergonomic standpoint, these screens also need to be positioned to account for the height differences of each operator.

Position control products, such as torque hinges and display arms, can be used to adjust screens to operator preferences to prevent strain, adjust for glare and maximize operator visibility. For instance, there are hinges with integrated constant torque that allow single-handed adjustment of connected monitors and are engineered for the higher levels of vibration found in the rougher operating environments of off-highway applications.

Hinges with integrated constant torque allow screens throughout the cab to be adjusted to operator preferences to prevent strain, adjust for glare and maximize operator visibility. 

The same position control technology can also be valuable for use in smartphone and tablet mounts that may need to be added to the cab. Since many operators now use both kinds of devices as daily work tools, equipment OEMs seeking to maximize the appeal and ergonomics of their cab furnishings should consider using these types of hinges.

Outside of the cab, off-highway equipment has a variety of access points that need to be addressed. Tool cabinets and hoods covering engines and other equipment must be tightly secured, yet easily accessible during any workday. Intuitive access control and the ability to easily open and close heavy equipment panels are, in many ways, dependent on the types of hinges used.

It’s common for these heavy hoods to incorporate gas struts to help raise and hold them in place. However, there is a range of position control hinges, including torque hinges and counterbalance technology that provide easier, safer ways to lift heavy hoods and hold them in place while the interiors are accessed to retrieve tools or perform maintenance tasks.

One recent area that has been a major focus is improving operator cab air quality by refining heating, ventilating and air conditioning (HVAC) systems in the vehicles. This includes sealing the cabs better to control cool air leakage as well as to keep dust out.

To do this, designers are using stronger, heavy-duty compression latches to close doors and windows as well as access latches that secure doors covering HVAC air filters. Since they are used in high-dust construction site environments, the filter access panels must be tightly secured yet easily accessible since they are changed out more often.

Advancing Off-Highway Innovation

As off-highway vehicles and equipment incorporate autonomous operating technologies into their systems, equipment OEMs and end-users will want to be assured that, as the next generation of vehicles is introduced, investments are also being made to introduce advances in safety, security, operating efficiencies and machine optimization.

Technologies like electronic access solutions, ergonomic latches and intuitive positioning systems can contribute to these optimization efforts. They give off-highway equipment designers proven solutions for improving the productivity of equipment operators when the equipment is in use, as well as protect this valuable equipment from the risks of vandalism, theft or damage and accidents related to unauthorized use.

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