Editor's Comment: What is the next focus for R&D?

29 January 2014

International Construction editor Chris Sleight.

International Construction editor Chris Sleight.

At the start of March I will be packing my bags and heading to Las Vegas along with about 130,000 other people from around the world. This may sound like the preamble to some sort of huge international Blackjack tournament, but the trip is actually for the ConExpo-Con/Agg exhibition, which kicks off on March 4.

As has been the case for 15 years or so, many of the new machines at the show are being launched in response to new exhaust emission laws for off-highway diesel engines in the US, Europe and Japan. This time around it is the US Tier 4 Final laws and their equivalents around the world that are the driver.

They start to come into force this year, and the laws mean new construction machines in these parts of the world must be fitted with engines that are so clean that the exhaust gasses contain the same levels of pollutants as the air in many cities. A few engine manufacturers say that at Tier 4 Final levels their engines act as air cleaners in some places, and they are not joking.

Achieving such standards has been a long road for the industry. It has cost billions of Dollars for engine manufacturers to develop pollution control technologies – many of which have come from the on-highway sector – and adapt them to this industry. Then it has been the task of construction equipment manufacturers to keep redesigning their machines to accommodate these new engines with their additional bulk, different cooling requirements and ever more complex sub-systems.

But the key word in the current round of legislation is ‘Final’. For the moment at least it is the last piece of legislation on the horizon for engine emissions. The future may see further laws come into force. In Europe for example, a Stage V is mooted. More generally there is a talk around the world of new systems to limit the number of very small particles emitted by exhaust streams, as these are the most damaging to health. There may also be legislation on CO2 emissions for the industry to get to grips with at some point in the future. But none of these issues are imminent.

So what will engine and equipment manufacturers do now their R&D departments are not so burdened with wave after wave of emissions laws? The first answer is that many will cut their R&D spend – it has been a long and expensive journey.

The second answer is that they will start to look at other areas. Fuel economy is an issue that is not likely to go away and there may now be more resources available in the industry to start tackling this issue. More efficient engines could be the result, as could alternative approaches like hybrids and even machines with different power sources.

New more efficient powertrain and hydraulic systems may also be an area of research. Another angle is to find ways of integrating all the systems on a machine much more closely, which may also deliver better overall economy.

These are just a few of the areas the industry could start to head in now it is freed from the burden of exhaust emissions legislation.

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