• John Deere’s Fixstern backhoe: A point on the horizon

    by Colleen Suo

    CONEXPO 2017s main focus was on technology — both currently applied and looking into the future. Most, if not all the exhibitors demonstrated some type of new or recent technology being integrated into their product, service or equipment. The Tech Experience lot was front and center at the Las Vegas Convention Center’s outdoor area, where expo-goers could see and experience everything from the world’s first 3-D printed excavator to examples of “smart roadway” technology.

    John Deere’s demonstration in the Tech Experience focused on the future of equipment innovation — 10 to 15 years in the future by their estimation. The project was a collaboration between John Deere and their long standing industrial design collaborator, Designworks, a BMW group company.

    During a brief impromptu demonstration/explanation of their concept vision, called the Fixstern Backhoe, Hard Hat News learned that John Deere has taken operator, fleet manager and job site needs into account, created a set of criteria and broke down “what we traditionally know as a backhoe and built it from scratch in the most optimum way,” virtually speaking.

    Using AR (augmented reality) technology, John Deere’s Tech Experience presented participants with an opportunity to look into the future of backhoe design.

    By holding the provided tablets in front of a display showing a very radically shaped backhoe graphic imbedded with codes that activated the AR, one could investigate a specific area of the backhoe and see what changes may occur in the future.

    One such area highlighted the hybrid powertrain (diesel electric) which allows the design team to “optimize the size of the diesel engine to more accurately match the demands of the powertrain.” Power control methodology enables the “allocation of power to utilize the maximum available power in each of the machine’s operational modes.” It also shifts the powertrain components lower in the vehicle and out to the wheel assemblies themselves, bringing the center of gravity down, which “allows us to reshape the front of the machine to give better forward visibility.”

    The overall architecture of the machine will be different as well, due to new materials. The design team evaluated various substrate and resin combinations, settling on a composite approach, “which reduces the weight of the machine by 20 percent, which is significant for a backhoe.” The architecture also allows for new areas of storage to be integrated into the design of the machine.

    One noteworthy change is the addition of airless radial tires creating “retaining the ride dampening characteristics of a pneumatic tire.” These airless radials are structured of solid rubber in a honeycomb-like design. Although they may contain more rubber than traditional tires, the overall savings comes by way of a longer life cycle and virtually zero downtime, as they can’t be punctured or blown.

    The Fixstern boasts four wheel electric steering as well “so it is much more maneuverable. The rear wheel has also been diminished in size allowing for better visibility at the rear of the machine.” They’ve also brought the rear stabilizers forward of the rear wheel.

    The resulting extended wheelbase allowed the design team to enlarge the cab space by about 15 percent “which, for an operator is the number one request.” A larger cab means larger doors allowing for easier ingress/egress for the operator.

    When asked if after all these changes in design if the structure was still “safe and had the power to support” operations, our guide remarked, “Absolutely, we’re still looking to get the same productivity — lift capacity, payload — still maximizing that in each dig depth class. It’s all about finding the right composite formula to be able to do that. It’s not always about weight, it’s about the efficiency, sectional stiffness, impact resistance and overall durability of the material.”

    The machines of the future could potentially include built-in AR display capabilities. The operator, using a helmet with an attached visor, will have access to an added layer of information about their site. For instance, as the operator looks around the dig site, they would see trench depth and width overlays, grade targets, etc. and will also be able to activate a rear view camera screen for added safety.

    Point number five on the display talked about the dig structures. As a result of using the composite materials, the boom will be lighter, benefiting lift capacity and productivity, without losing durability — openings in the boom will allow for better visibility. The backhoe features a side shift so the operator has the option of a centered or off centered boom. This also allows for the backhoe to be “tucked” in for improved on-road ride quality, comfort for the operator and a smaller parking footprint.

    We were told that the idea behind this project is to take the features that resonate with operators and owners and bring them into production vehicles.

    They may look a little different but they will be more productive and efficient.

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