‘Good design can lend style to our machines while being functional and cost-effective: David Wilkie
David Wilkie, Industrial Design Director at CNH Industrial, discusses the evolution of modern tractor designs and cutting-edge applications for products made for India.
Design and engineering of agricultural tractors have come a long way since late 1800 when the first ones were introduced for the farming community. Off-highway vehicle manufacturer CNH Industrial which offers a range of products under its New Holland and CASE IH brands, is bringing an element of flair to the agriculture and construction-equipment segment with its contemporary design emphasis that aids functionality as well as safety in these utilitarian vehicles. David Wilkie, Industrial Design Director, CNH Industrial explained how good design can be attractive, yet cost effective, as well as the emerging design possibilities with the increasing electrification of the off-highway segment.
How critical are design and form factor for off-highway segment vehicles?
I think design is critical. Anything that has been made, first needs to be designed, and it is a case of designing it for its function while remaining within the cost constraints. But nevertheless, good design is important to determine the success of machines that we make. I think worldwide, it (design) needs to be linked directly to the use and cost of these machines. In this changing world, design plays a key role, and it has become so important that we leverage design to make our machines better, more pleasurable to use, and much more functional as well.
How has design in the off-highway segment evolved over the years?
There are probably two main things that I see have been changing. One is the importance of industrial design — the inspiration coming also from automotive design — and the linkage of design with ever-changing technology. Today, we live in a world where technology is running fast, and that gives a wonderful opportunity to industrial design because we need to design with the technology to make the most of it. It has never really been better and it is a fantastic time to be a designer in the world of agriculture and construction-equipment vehicles. Having said that, it is also a challenge if one has roots in automotive design, like where I come from. While style is critical in automotive design, industrial design prioritises function over form. But nevertheless, good design can lend style to our machines, while also being functional and cost effective.
What is CNH Industrial’s design philosophy?
Depending on the brands we have, be it New Holland or CASE IH, we have different visions depending on the products of respective brands. While the core values and ethos are slightly different between the companies, our main aim is to work hand in hand with engineering and technology and work as one team. So, the industrial design teams do not go out on their own and just do their own thing, we are really an integral part of the product development team trying to get the best and starting from zero to build up.
- Industrial product design is getting more and more influenced by technology.
- Style is critical in automotive design, but industrial design prioritises function over form in most cases.
- Indian market products are designed to be simple, robust and long-lasting.
- The design factors in global signature cues of the brand and combines the specific functional aspects for the Indian market applications.
What role does design play in a cost-sensitive market like India?
I think we must be very careful about how much it costs to build the machines we make and if there is any extra money involved in the actual design parts. We need to ask if that expense is worth it. Although cost is a sensitive issue, a good design can be cost effective and that is why the new projects that we work on, we start learning about these aspects right from the beginning, and taking those factors into consideration as we design.
How does CNH Industrial ensure cost-effective designs?
The easiest way for us is to understand the product attributes from the engineering team, right at the start of the programme. This allows us to concentrate and focus on certain areas, and not over style the product just for the sake of design. Design must be for function as well, and if we do that, I believe it can be much more cost effective. Good designs can even save money if they are done from the beginning and if there is cohesiveness as a team, from engineering, to brand, as well as design, who all go down the same route and are focused to get things so that they are less expensive to manufacture, less expensive to build and better looking at the end. Therefore, it is possible to make such designs, and our aim is to always give the most-appropriate design to the market and the end user.
What design process do you follow? What tools are being leveraged to execute a new design?
We start with the design vision for each of our brands as they are the guiding principles as to how things should look like. But, depending on the individual product itself, we kick off ideation with our designers and the design teams. Our designers in India collaborate with international teams, and we come up with innovative ideas. We would then, very quickly turn the best and most-promising ones, which have been reviewed together with the brand and engineering teams. So, design is never done in isolation, without all the stakeholders coming together on the same platform.
'The ever-evolving technology, introduction of electrification, hybridisation, and the shift towards cleaner fuels, alongside the continuous improvement in the quality of machines, are the key evolutionary trends that we can expect in the future'
We also leverage 3D data, which allows the team to quickly analyse a design’s functionality – for instance, in case of tractors, we can determine whether a design is creating an overheating issue — are the grills enough, and whether they are in the right place. These assessments are very important early in the design of a new product because it is a very important functional part of what we do. Design assessment also helps us understand whether we are above the cost targets, and if so, we take a step back, think about it and come up with alternative proposals.
What are key design requirements for off-highway vehicles from the Indian market? How are Indian designers contributing to CNH product design?
The main requirements from the Indian market are simplicity, robustness and that the machines should be easy to use and must be solid and long-lasting. Having said that, we also want to give the market the same quality of design that we offer to our global customers. We want to make machines that are easily recognisable worldwide, even though they would be specifically for the Indian market.
It is here when the whole creation of the India Tech Centre comes into the picture, and with Indian designers, helps us keep a sharp focus on the needs of the local market. The India Tech Centre is something unique at CNH Industrial, and with all the design and engineering competencies that it offers, it has become a centre of excellence which is undertaking global projects. Having said that, we do conduct design reviews for local products as well, and there is a lot happening at this facility. It is a great time for design at CNH Industrial. The India Tech Centre is quite special.
How does design enable safety in the off-highway vehicle category?
Safety is a key element in off-highway vehicles, especially agriculture and construction-equipment machines, which are deployed in all sorts of difficult environments. Industrial design is interlinked with many other areas, and therefore, we work closely, for instance, with ergonomics teams, to ensure that with the in-cabin design, the operator’s visibility, and reachability are properly defined to maximise control over the vehicle. So, industrial design considers safety as a key deliverable.
With the transition to electrification and autonomous technology, what design opportunities do you see opening in future?
It is an ever-changing world, and we are at the beginning of electric tractors. We have already previewed the electrified New Holland and CASE IH products, and it is a huge opportunity that comes along with electrification and autonomous driving technology. Having said that, electrification also depends on the size of the vehicle, and it allows the freedom to rethink the entire design of an off-highway product. It opens tremendous possibilities. As we move forward with autonomous driving technology, the conventional design stands at the risk of being questioned for its existence. We could see major revamp in the fundamental design of some of the machines in the future.
This interview was first published in Autocar Professional's May 15, 2023 issue.
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