Product design at DAF gets a digital boost during COVID
Both for 2022 and 2023, DAF Trucks won the prestigious International Truck of the Year award for its new generation of trucks. At the [Advanced Engineering expo], on 24 and 25 May in Antwerp, design director Bart van Lotringen explains how his company accomplished these achievements by adopting an accelerated digital transformation to maneuver through the pandemic.
50 centimeters extra can make a world of difference. DAF Trucks in Eindhoven was the first brand to exploit new European legislation on masses and dimensions to significantly boost the efficiency, safety and driver comfort of a new generation of vehicles. The improvements haven’t gone unnoticed: a jury of editors and journalists from the 24 major European trucking, transport and logistics magazines bestowed the company with the International Truck of the Year award two times in a row, with the DAF XF, XG and XG+ series winning the 2022 title and the DAF XD series claiming the title for 2023.
“We used 16 centimeters to optimize the nose of the truck,” specifies Bart van Lotringen, design director at DAF Trucks. “That improved the aerodynamics by 19 percent and contributed, with other measures, to a total fuel reduction of up to 10 percent. At the same time, we increased the size of the front cabin windows by 33 percent, offering the driver much better direct vision, while smartly placed cameras and well-positioned displays enhance the indirect vision all around. The remaining 34 centimeters we used to improve driver ergonomics and create more space within the cabin, both for the cockpit in the front and the sleeping area in the back.”
Euro Truck Simulator 2
Van Lotringen and his team started to work on the New Generation DAF in 2014, designing eight variants. “We knew there was new legislation coming up in 2020, we didn’t know the exact details, but we were adamant about being the first to adopt it. So our management took the courageous decision to jump in early. It was a calculated risk, but it gave us a head start on the competition. As soon as the details became clear in 2017, we pulled out all the stops and really went for it.”
But then COVID reared its ugly head. “We’d completed the fundamental research into the aerodynamics, finished the design for the truck and were preparing for tooling when the pandemic hit, causing all kinds of disruptions,” Van Lotringen recalls. “We were faced with materials shortages, proto parts and tools made in China that couldn’t be physically inspected by us and, in the end, a public launch event that had to be organized online.”
Despite these and other COVID-related challenges, DAF launched its new generation of trucks on 6 June 2021, steaming ahead of the competition. This was achieved thanks to an accelerated digital transformation. “All the parts that were tooled in China were checked remotely by inspecting them on video,” illustrates Van Lotringen. “The launch was completely virtual as well, combining pre-recorded footage and a live online panel, and we used a green screen to train our sales staff on the new features.”
To increase the exposure to drivers, the new truck was also launched in the computer game Euro Truck Simulator 2, the day after the official public introduction by DAF. “At some point during development, we approached SCS Software, asking if they could incorporate our new truck into their game. We gave them our vehicle dataset and design graphics, which they then used to create a virtual copy. In the weeks prior to the launch, they added a mysteriously camouflaged truck to the game, only to unveil it at a special press event on 7 June. They really did an excellent job. What normally would take a year, they pulled off in only six months.”
The accelerated digital transformation has had lasting effects on the ways of working at DAF. “Shipping parts from China to Europe for inspection and then sending them back to be modified takes weeks; checking them remotely saves us a lot of time,” says Van Lotringen. “The design discussions with our American colleagues have also become much more efficient. We now have a virtual room where we can walk around a 3D model of a truck and look at it from all sides together while being in different parts of the world and seeing each other as avatars.”
The collaboration with SCS has turned into a valued partnership. “When we launch new trucks, they’re the first to have them in their simulator,” explains Van Lotringen. “Conversely, they help us use their game to test our new designs in a realistic environment. With a VR headset, we can drive around in digital twins of our trucks, employing gamification to solve design dilemmas like the placement of cameras.”