Volvo opens door to secret test
THERE are only a handful of truck brands that undertake development testing in Australia.
For Volvo, it has been a critical part of its truck development program, and the product is all the better for it. Some major brands rely on testing done overseas, with attempts made to duplicate conditions in any market in the world.
But everyday truck operations in Australia can't be duplicated easily, if at all, particularly when driver and operator habits often impact heavily on a truck's reliability.
Volvo deserves some big ticks for the huge commitment to product testing done locally. Savvy operators will note that and lean towards trucks that have a track record here before they even turn a wheel off the showroom floor.
Secret product development:
EVERY business has at its core something that defines everything it does.
In the case of Volvo Group, it could be a largely unknown (by the public anyway) business unit called Group Trucks Technology (GTT).
Malcolm Brown is its Australasian boss, and I've been given unprecedented access to his operation and activities.
In a meeting a year or so ago with Arne Knaben, president and chief executive of Volvo Group's Australian arm, I asked to be embedded with the Volvo engineering development team as it went through the process of testing a future product.
But although Volvo is a vast and very public global manufacturer, it's highly secretive when it comes to product and technology development. There's a point in that. It allows the engineering boffins in Gothenburg the independence and free reign to dream up and envisage wild, fabulous and no doubt sometimes hair-brained ideas and concepts that then are knocked into shape by commercial realists and those on the ground in the world markets who can see not only what is needed, but what will work and what won't - yet.
The GTT business unit is the largely unknown arm responsible for field testing throughout the world.
After nearly a year of what I'm told were "vigorous" debates at the very top of the Swedish management team, I got my invitation.
It's a first for the company, and the first-ever glimpse into the world of pre-production field testing, as well as the first drive ever taken by a journalist in a hand-built development truck. To top it off, readers of Big Rigs are the first in the world to read it.
GTT is responsible for making sure every technology, every piece of trim, paint, fastener, pane of glass, strip of rubber or chunk of steel or aluminium extrusion has been proven by the group to live up to the Volvo brand anywhere in the world, and in any conditions.
After several hours in a briefing room with key Volvo Australia engineers and testers, crawling over a couple of development trucks and buzzing off for a quick spurt down the freeway, I was back on the plane reflecting on a few Chinese light commercials and trucks. I wondered how much testing they have done in Australia. The answer wasn't hard - zip.
But a Volvo is a Volvo from bumper to the chassis end and the company's future rides on every nut, bolt, panel and piston that leaves the factory gate.
Simon Lambert is a 23-year Volvo man who up until recently, was the field test group leader.
His team gets to test the most exciting technology in the Volvo group. Data from these tests are all funnelled into the group research centres in Gothenburg Sweden, Greensboro North Carolina, and Lyon, near the Renault Truck facility.
Of course each of the various test areas have unique conditions, but the mantra is, "if we sell there, we test for there".
Field testing is considered a critical part of all rig/truck testing and is done in real conditions, on commercial routes, and by operators who have the
usual deadlines to meet.
The program tests complete vehicle systems, all components and diagnostic systems, including serviceability, for a minimum 12-month period and will then be ongoing.
Where there is a fault or failure, a fix or redesign has to then be retested from scratch in the same circumstances.
Simon was very clear about failures being part of testing: "With no failures, how do we measure success or endurance?"
The strength of the testing program is that it successfully keeps failures in the program and out of the retail environment.
Specialist systems are used in addition to Volvo's own Dynafleet program - they all send the data back through the Volvo Intranet.
I asked Simon what the rate of failure in Australia was: "I'll just say that we tend to break more things than the other areas".