A few years ago I had the pleasure of interviewing the industrial designer who styled the cab and body of the first Challenger 65 belted ag tractors, which were then part of the Caterpillar brand before coming under AGCO ownership.
Before coming to Cat, the designer had spent several years working for General Motors and brought an automotive perspective to the tractor’s design team, making him a bit of an outsider. Looking at the Challenger 65 and other early models, you can see the influence he brought, most notably in the raked-back, car-like angle of the Challenger 65’s windshield.
It was something no other tractor of the time used, and, he admitted, it was an idea that had sparked considerable resistance among the engineers in the project. They believed windshields in off-road machines should be vertical or even have a negative rake to prevent dust buildup.
In the end, tests proved there was little difference with the dust problem regardless of the windshield angle, and his design made it into production.
That was also the first cab development project at Cat that focused strongly on creating a very comfortable environment for the operator, something that was standard practice in the auto sector but not at construction equipment companies like Cat.
In fact, Cat didn’t even have the facilities to create the molded plastic pieces required for the interior.
Comfort became a goal for the new Challenger tractor design because, compared to construction machines, ag tractors are much more likely to be operated by their owners, which is why ergonomics and comfort became crossover concepts brought to that project.
Recently another cab development project has also taken its cue from the automotive industry, but now instead of styling and comfort it’s digital technology that is crossing over between sectors. Bosch, the primary company behind the project, is bringing some of the technology cars and trucks have increasingly seen lately, specifically the widespread inclusion of several digital safety systems and enhancements to ease of operation.
Most readers probably associate Bosch with fluid systems. But the company has now branched out beyond that, and the off-road machine cab named Genius is the result of one of the firm’s newest R&D projects. The company recently debuted it at the world’s largest construction equipment show in Munich, Germany.
“Bosch is turning construction machinery into technology showpieces,” Johannes-Jörg Rüger, president of Bosch’s new Commercial Vehicle & Off-Road unit, said in a press release. “The mega-trends of automation, electrification, and connectivity don’t stop at the gates of construction sites or mines.”
Although that statement and much of the promotion around the firm’s new Genius cab project focus on the construction sector, the cab and its integrated technology will also have applications in farm equipment and other off-road equipment sectors, where it’s likely to be of particular interest to those specialty manufacturers who don’t have the resources to develop their own machine cabs.
“As a systems supplier, we want to offer everyone the solution they need,” Rüger says.
The Genius cab is more than just a run-of-the-mill enclosure. The variety of digital systems carried over from the automotive sector are significant innovations in the ag market. “Modern sensor systems, cameras, and display technology improve the driver’s workplace, as well as increasing safety and, hence, also productivity,” Andrew Allen, head of the unit’s construction business, explained in the same announcement.
To develop the Genius, Bosch put together the cab concept cluster team, including several other systems suppliers as well as the Technical University of Dresden in Germany. “The project’s aim is to demonstrate to manufacturers of construction machinery, agricultural machinery, and industrial forklifts how much potential there is for efficient system integration,” said Bosch’s press release.
Central to integrating all that digital technology into the Genius cab is the body computer. It reduces the number of electrical connections, relays and fuses required for all the system components in a machine. It not only saves on material but also makes electrical circuits less complex, which is something farmers and mechanics can appreciate.
That computer system and all the functions routed through it get fed to the operator’s station and can be monitored and controlled on the Genius’s DI4 mid-display seven-inch terminal. It’s capable of taking input through control buttons or via a touch screen.
As well, for instance, drivers get a digital look over their shoulder via Bosch’s side-view mirror-replacement displays. Integrating these displays into the cab interior means there is actually no need for old-style side-mounted rear-view mirrors. That, claims the company, reduces blind spots and significantly increases safety around any machine equipped with a Genius cab.
Complementing those digital rear-view mirrors is an ultrasonic sensor system, similar to those used in cars to alert a driver to parking lot obstructions. These can monitor the environment around a machine and help the operator identify hazards, especially at night. Such sensors give drivers unobstructed all-round vision, even in those areas close to a machine that an operator might not be able to see from the cab at any time.
Like all the other digital systems, the operator’s joystick control gets integrated with the central computer, so manufacturers who might use a Genius cab can more easily integrate vehicle systems.
As both the ag and auto sectors inch closer to autonomous vehicle operation, the need for those automotive-inspired safety features and operator enhancements grows in both farm machine and on-road vehicles. And with human operators still at the controls, these technologies are also a benefit, given the scale and complexity of today’s ag equipment. GPS guidance helps keep machines on track during operations in the field, but there are many instances where an operator’s skills are key.
“We take a machine that weighs several tons and manoeuvre it with millimetre accuracy, eight hours a day,” one heavy equipment operator said in the Bosch press release. “Even the tiniest detail has to be right.”