Fruits of high-end R&D filter slowly to construction machinery

Liebherr machinery

Spoiler actuator with 3D printed valve block developed by Liebherr-Aerospace

The construction machinery sector is not really as high tech as we might like to think. Genuine innovation is actually quite rare. Mostly, the new technology that we see inside construction machinery – or in the manufacturing processes for construction machinery – has filtered down from other industrial sectors. The construction industry adopts and adapts much more than it innovates.

Although Caterpillar spends an impressive $2bn a year on research and development, this is dwarfed by the sums spent by the larger automotive manufacturers, whose technology and methods are often adopted by construction machinery producers.

A table compiled by management consultant PwC showing the worldwide Top 20 spenders on R&D in 2016 reveals Volkswagen is top of the list, with a $13.2bn R&D spend. The Top 20 list has five car makers in total (Toyota $8.8bn; General Motors $7.5bn; Ford $6.7bn; Daimler $6.6bn), as well as seven pharmaceutical companies, four software/internet companies and four from computing and electronics.

Of course, even Volkswagen’s R&D budget is dwarfed by the $70bn that the US government allocates to defence R&D. The military-industrial complex and space exploration have historically represented the cutting edge of innovation, particularly with regard to materials science.

Despite all this, however, construction equipment companies can and do play a significant role in the march of progress, and few more so than Liebherr. In an interview for the company’s 2016 annual report, owners Willi and Isolde Liebherr explain that being a family-owned business gives them the benefit of not having to worry about quarterly reports and can instead focus on the genuinely long-term best interest of the company.

“What differentiates us from other companies is our long-term thinking,” says Willi Liebherr.

Liebherr might be best known for cranes and diggers, but crucially it also makes all its own core componentry, which has led the company into some interesting avenues. An offshoot of its mobile crane telescopic boom technology, for example, was the supply of giant parasols to Mecca.

Liebherr also makes components for the aerospace industry and is part of a team that is pioneering 3D printing. It has recently produced the first 3D printed primary flight control hydraulic component flown on an Airbus aircraft. The valve block made from titanium powder is part of Liebherr-Aerospace’s spoiler actuator and provides primary flight control functions on board the A380. Liebherr says that it offers the same performance as the conventional valve block made from titanium forging, but it is 35% lighter and has fewer parts. The manufacturing process is less complex and more material-efficient than the traditional milling process: fine titanium powder is melted and built up layer by layer using a laser, which minimises titanium waste.

Liebherr-Aerospace developed the 3D printed hydraulic component in cooperation with Airbus and the Chemnitz University of Technology, Germany. The project was partly funded by the German Federal Ministry of Economic Affairs and Energy.

Liebherr says that there is still some way to go before it can introduce 3D printing technology on a broad scale in the aerospace industry – there is work to be done to optimise every step in the process, but the potential has been shown.

And once the aerospace sector has funded the further development of the technology, it is inevitable that costs will come down, perhaps to a level that makes it sufficiently cost-effective for the more humble construction machinery sector. It probably will not happen very quickly, but if anyone can do it, Liebherr can.

Steve Rhine

About Steve Rhine

Community Manager at MachineryZone USA - All latest construction news on MachineryZone Mag!