What does innovation look like? Leaders in the commercial trucking industry are rapidly defining innovation in terms of performance: An innovative truck is fuel-efficient. It’s energy-efficient, it’s connected, it’s electric. And after a tough 2019 for the industry, with more than 600 trucking companies shutting down their operations in the first half of the year, it’s more critical than ever to invest in innovative products that help companies become more efficient.
Trucks with innovative technologies are trending this year, along with promises of boosting bottom lines through improved uptime and productivity. But what about the designs that draw them in? The designs that enhance the driver experience as well as the company image?
What does this innovation look like?
“It should look a little unexpected and somewhat of a pleasant surprise,” said Brian Balicki, Head of Design for Volvo Trucks North America. It should also look, and be, purposeful. “One of the things we always talk about here in the Design Studio – and it’s part of our design philosophy – is passion for purpose. We really want to make sure that whatever we bring into the product has a purpose to it or some kind of function.”
For the 15-person Product Design team under Balicki at Volvo Trucks, the vision is to go beyond the norm. The chiefs and designers, along with Balicki, are expected to deliver new and unexpected products with each project deadline.
There’s an art to that.
“It’s like being a conductor in a symphony,” said Balicki, who sits on a mezzanine level in the Design Studio of Volvo Trucks’ Greensboro campus. Across the open floor plan, he can see his full team, as well as view the full-size clay models of the truck properties they’re working on down below on the Studio floor. “It’s all about everyone playing their instruments in harmony, and they can make really beautiful music. Just like making a very powerful and exciting product.”
Like a musician on stage, each team member has a different discipline. That includes industrial design, graphic design, digitaluser experience, interior and exterior design, and human-machine interface, as well as color, material and finish.
As a whole, the Product Design team is responsible for delivering the ideal user experience and the visuals that characterize the brand of Volvo Trucks, both interior and exterior. External departments work hand in hand with Product Design like Cab Engineering, Chassis and Electrical.
Occasionally, the Product Design team steps in to help develop under-the-surface features if a branding element is involved. Think a cap on a fuel tank or a diesel exhaust fluid tank, or a valve cover on an engine.
With every project, the team is provided a list of constraints and criteria that they have to implement into the product.
“For instance,” said Balicki, who has been with Volvo Trucks for over 17 years, “one of the big requests from our Marketing and Sales team was to bring the VHD up to a modern look and feel, and also have that family look to the product so that it can now sit side-by-side with the new VNL and the new VNR.”
Modernizing the new Volvo VHD
While the Product Design team helped deliver the latest VNL and VNR models back in 2017, the Volvo VHD is their most recently completed project. It just launched in the North American market on March 10.
As his team works toward these launches, Balicki’s performance-art background starts to intertwine with his leadership methods.
A decade-long member of the improvisational comedy troupe in North Carolina called The Idiot Box, Balicki is devoted to the concept of “Yes, and…” It’s what he’s practiced year after year in comedy: accepting what the other improv members in a skit have just said or done, and adding to it. And just like that, the performance flows onward.
The same applies to the launch of a new truck design, like the VHD. It’s his job to make sure the innovation flows onward through the design. Looking at the newly designed elements of the Volvo family members – like the VNR and the VNL – saying “yes” to incorporating them into the new VHD, and improving even more. For the designers, the VHD mostly required a front-end update, as well as bringing the new interior from the VNL and VNR into Volvo’s newest vocational truck.
“One of the main goals was to really bring this back to this family look,” Balicki said, “and also to bring the qualities of the family. So anything that reflects what we’ve done on the VNL or the VNR, we’ve made sure that we’ve brought into the VHD. Even down to the headlights. Looking at the headlight design, we introduced a daylight running lamp on the VHD and we spent time creating a very technical look and feel to the all-LED projector beams.”
Every weekend he brings “Yes, and…” to the stage with his troupe. And every weekday he brings it to the Design Studio.
“Improv allows me to open up and be open-minded and not feel so confined,” Balicki said. “It allows me to explore different ideas.”
Knowing that Volvo Trucks aimed to position this off-highway truck as “the most rugged vocational vehicle in the industry,” featuring Volvo’s most innovative engineering technologies, the Product Design team was tasked with making it look the part.
"You typically find the VHD on a construction site or in a quarry,” Balicki said, “and it’s working hand-in-hand with a lot of construction equipment. So this can’t look like a little toy. A lot of the elements have to be beefed up. It all needs to relate very much to what it’s hauling."
Brian Balicki, Head of Design
On the exterior, the designers and Chief Designer Alex Henriques incorporated similar, sleek lines to what’s found on the VNR and VNL, guiding the eye around and through the vehicle. This offers the impression that the truck is constantly in motion. Then they improvised with a more robust design for the bumper, refining and simplifying components for a bolder look.
The bumper was tricky, Henriques said, since the VHD offers an axle-forward and an axle-back variant. Because the bumper has to translate between two different positions, they designed it to appear robust yet agile without feeling heavy, with lines flowing in a certain direction to avoid a sense of sagging and therefore slowness.
But the more noticeable improvisation to the VHD front end is the grille. “The grille design on the front of the vehicle has almost a chainmail look and feel to it,” Henriques pointed out, “which is obviously found on knights. That’s a strong, visual, protective element.
"The VHD is kind of the guard of the family, a very bold and assertive product that you would find doing the tougher jobs."
Alex Henriques, Chief Exterior Designer
For this truck, jobs include dump, mixer, roll-off, snow plow and other specialty applications.
Imagining an interior update
The updates to the VHD driving environment strongly reflect the Product Design team’s approach to the other trucks in the family. With the launch of the latest VNR, Balicki had described how the dashboard design was heavily inspired by rock climbing. “Just as in that kind of field, we know it’s important to have intuitive handholds and it could mean life or death in that situation,” he said when the truck launched. “And we wanted to do that for the trucking industry, where the driver knew exactly where the features and functions were.”
The same cockpit feel and intuitive handholds are prominent in the new VHD interior.
“We wanted to make sure that all of the features and functions that the user would interact with were really quick to get to,” Balicki said.
As for additional features, the Product Design team selected materials for the seating, door panels and rubber mat inserts that were rugged, robust and able to be cleaned out once the job site has been left behind.
The truck design process
Every update and improvement flows through a finely tuned process.
“We start typically with some sketches or inspiration, looking at different imagery of what we want to implement in the new product,” Balick said of the design process, which typically unfolds over the span of two to three years. “And then once we get past the sketching and rendering phase, we start to build some preliminary digital models.”
Courtesy of Adam Schumacher
The team takes those models and prototypes them to a certain scale (like a 40% scale model) or builds them up to a full scale. Then they start to mock up the different vehicle components, such as the headlights or the bumper.
To validate the design, they’ll use an actual vehicle to prototype the parts and bring in the Project team to review the final results. With the validation phase complete, they finally get to deliver the design to Cab Engineering, and then to the Manufacturing group.
The customer also has an opportunity to provide input, with customization options to suit the application their trucks will serve. In terms of the VHD, the Product Design team optimized the truck with a more limited variance while ensuring it accommodated multiple builds.
“The Project team built it smarter,” Balicki said.
The inspiration behind the design
Just like any new work of art, no part of this process starts without inspiration. When tasked with designing a new truck, the designers always begin by considering what their competitors have on the market, noting how they’re executing the finish and aesthetic on different types of products. They also factor in the details drivers and users might appreciate, and look at different trends when it comes to technology, lighting, color, material and finish.
Then comes the customer interaction.
With the VHD, Balicki said, “The project went to a customer base, and we wanted to know from their viewpoint what was missing or needed to be updated on the current product.”
That’s how they knew vocational truck owners and operators wanted an improved center tow-pin, the functional showpiece the designers highlighted for the front end of the VHD. In the new design, the large, cast beam sits at the front of the vehicle, tucked between the grille and the bumper.
“This is almost like flexing its muscles,” Balicki said of the truck. “We needed to optimize the product to the extent of almost rethinking how we deliver the front end.”
Test driving the final design
With the design finalized and in the process of being validated, there’s just one more step for the Product Design team to take before premiering their work on the North American stage: taking the truck to the test track.
As with the presentation of any art form, this moment brings a surge of excitement tinged with anxiety. “You want to hold onto that design until the very bitter end,” Balicki said. “This is our moment, really, to show the company and the industry why we’re here.”
He preceded the launch of the new Volvo VHD with a trial run on the Greensboro test track. And Balicki had only one word to describe that drive: “Exhilarating.”
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