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Pro Operators Test Volvo L180H Wheel Loader

By Frank Raczon, Senior Editor | February 21, 2020
Volvo L180H wheel loader hauls a full bucket.
Despite slippery conditions and frozen piles, Local 150 operators had no problem filling the L180H wheel loader's bucket.

The wind-driven snow nearly flew sideways on a frigid 19-degree morning as Construction Equipment editors gathered at the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150 in Wilmington, Illinois, for a Field Test of Volvo Construction Equipment’s L180H wheel loader, a unit full of the latest technology.

Volvo’s main mission with the wheel loader seems to be to help operators be more productive while saving fuel, whether done by honing the skills of experienced operators or developing good habits in novices. Several features are notable, including the payload-weighing-capable Load Assist, Reverse-by-Braking, and Operator Coaching, which is exactly what the name sounds like.

Local 150 operator/instructor Brian Russell, a loader teaching specialist, and Local 150 fourth-year apprentice Matthew Lohmar were tabbed to put the machine through its paces. Eric Yeomans, product manager, was Volvo’s lead for the Test.

The L180H was equipped with a 6.8-cubic-yard standard rehandling bucket (though it can handle a 7.25-cubic-yard bucket) and Volvo’s TP linkage. “The TP Linkage is designed to provide high breakout force throughout the whole lifting range, and it also gives you parallel lift,” Yeomans says. “And because of the design, the bucket linkage is coming back with the bucket, and you get better rollback compared to a Z-bar linkage. That usually gives you better material retention and productivity.”

Both operators noticed that the linkage looks different from the cab in comparison to other wheel loaders they’ve run. “My only concern with visibility is the placement of the cylinder in front,” Russell says. “It seems a little high. It would be nice if it was laid back or down between the loader arms themselves a little more, though I’m not sure what that would do as far as the lifting procedure of the bucket itself.”

Volvo has placed a forward-view mirror in front of the cab ceiling (see image at right), pointed down at the bucket area to maximize visibility to the front of the bucket.

“The forward visibility is great, but I thought I’d like the front bucket-view mirror a little bit more than I did,” Lohmar says.

Mirrors on the Volvo L180H wheel loader as seen from the cab.
An adjustable-from-the-cab front-view mirror (upper left) points downward to aid visibility in front of the wheel loader bucket.

“You usually don’t have a mirror in front of the cab to point down in front of the loader itself for visibility there; you’re usually going by feel,” Russell says. “Having the mirrors placed up in front of the cab is a great idea.” The front mirror, and all mirrors, are controlled by a switch located on the “A” post.

The loader provided for the test also had some nifty options, like LED worklights, electric heated mirrors, and an auto-lube package.

“The central lubrication lubricates all pins and bushings on the machine,” Yeomans says. “The beauty of that on a Volvo wheel loader is that it’s connected to the onboard computer system, so if there’s a pin blocked or a ruptured line, that’s going to send up an error code and you instantly know what’s going on.”

Russell and Lohmar spent most of the time in the loader charging piles and loading a truck, but were also keen to try the machine’s technologies.

How does Volvo Load Assist work?

Volvo Load Assist is standard on the L180H. It provides real-time intelligence to operators through an on-board weighing capability, a factory-fit system that can achieve +/- 1-percent accuracy on bucket loads.

The point is that users can eliminate overloading, and underloading, of trucks, as well as reweighing and waiting times. In conjunction with the Volvo Co-Pilot 10-inch display, end users are able to monitor loading progress, track materials and trucks, and change work orders.

“I can absolutely see where it would help,” Russell says. “Any time you can use anything like Load Assist, it would help you out. The scale part is a great feature; I’ve used scales before on other machines. Myself, I like to tip off at the truck, as it seems like it gets more production, rather than tipping off at the pile. As long as you’re within that 500 pounds, you’re pretty close.

L180H wheel loader loads a truck.
Volvo Load Assist provides real-time weighing and statistics for the wheel loader operator and documentation of work orders for owners and their customers. Much of the information is captured on a 10-inch Volvo Co-Pilot display screen

“I think that’s what Volvo would like, to tip off at the pile,” Russell says. “It just seems like it takes more time. My guess would be they want it that way so that when you’re going and feathering the bucket, you have less of a chance of overloading the truck. When you have an exact amount in the bucket itself at the pile, you have more of an exact amount that’s going to go into that truck.”

How does Volvo Operator Coaching work?

Volvo’s Operator Coaching is a functionality that’s been added to its Load Assist program. Standard on the L150H to L260H wheel loader models, the technology is designed to help operators “use the loader to its full potential.”

The in-cab app is designed to provide real-time guidance to operators on issues such as idling, braking, throttling, and engaging the transmission lock-up, with an eye toward helping them understand how their actions influence machine productivity and efficiency. It also identifies, Volvo says, areas for improvement or necessary changes in their operating technique.

Audible alarms (which can be turned off) alert the operator to readouts on the monitor that let them know the issue and the corrective behavior, whether it’s excessive idling, unnecessary braking, or other parameters.

It’s an intriguing feature, particularly in light of the skilled operator shortage, but would Local 150 veterans find the coaching helpful—or an intrusion?

“Yeah, there were alarms going off, but as far as what it really said, I didn’t pay much attention to it; I was working,” Russell says. “I think it’s going to be an intrusion, myself, because each one of us operators have our way we like to operate. Now the younger generation, in my opinion, it might help them. But we have our way we like to use the loader and it’s just hard to teach an old dog new tricks.”

Lohmar, the fourth-year apprentice, also heard the alerts.

“It chirped at me a couple of times as I was trying to use the brakes to stop the machine while I was dumping,” he says. “To be honest, until you’ve got something screaming at you, you don’t realize how often you do something that could be detrimental to the machine or productivity,” Lohmar says. He sees where the feature may help both younger and more experienced operators.

“I wouldn’t be surprised at all if some of the experienced guys out there picked up on something they’ve been doing for years and just didn’t know they were doing it,” Lohmar says. “With everything going electro-hydraulic now, [the technology] is going to be able to pick up a lot more subtle inputs as opposed to putting down your leg or pulling a lever.”

Lohmar also pointed to fuel savings. “If a contractor can make more money by being taught to use less fuel in the machine, then it’s better for everyone involved.”

Each operator can also set up goals and be scored both immediately and over time in the categories of utilization (idling), brake use, throttle use, and engaging the lock-up torque converter. In essence, Volvo has taken a concept from training simulators and introduced it to real-life operation.

Volvo L180H wheel loader breaks into a pile of material.

How does Volvo Reverse-by-Braking work?

Of all the technology available on the L180H, the Local 150 operators found Reverse-by-Braking the most unusual—and perhaps the feature that would take the most getting used to.

“Reverse-by-Braking gives you the ability to go between forward to reverse and reverse to forward without having to put your foot on the brake; you keep your foot on the accelerator,” Yeomans says. “Because during that forward to reverse or reverse to forward, the throttle functions change to a braking function. The computer recognizes when you’re changing direction and it changes function, so your braking is now controlled by the throttle.”

Full throttle gives the opeator full braking, and partial throttle partial braking. The benefit, Yeomans says, is much shorter cycle times. “Also, you’re not risking any damage to the drivetrain from people who don’t apply the brakes, so you’re taking that stress away from the transmission, the axles, and your driveshafts.”

Russell recognizes the productivity benefit. “I’m old school, so it’s definitely something I had to get used to, but once I got into it, I liked it,” he says. “All you do is when you’re going in forward gear, you keep constant pressure on the accelerator, put it in reverse without letting off the accelerator, and there’s very minimal slippage, and it didn’t seem hard on the machine at all.

“I can see it resulting in more productivity, because even if you’re slowing down [to apply the brakes] for 2 or 3 seconds, that 2 or 3 seconds on every movement is going to add up and be huge over a day,” Russell says.

“I had to keep reminding myself not to let off the throttle, because you get it beat into your head that you get off the throttle to put the machine in reverse,” Lohmar says. “I can see a lot of guys having problems with that and maybe not getting the most benefit out of it, but it did seem like it stopped the machine as good, if not better, than the regular brakes.

“It’s definitely very unusual,” Lohmar says “I can see it saving time, and I can see it saving the brakes. It’s a new piece of technology—you’ve just got to get used to it.”

How do the pros evaluate the L180H wheel loader?

Both operators were impressed with the performance aspects of the loader, particularly in the day’s snowy conditions. “The amount of traction that thing had today was astounding,” Lohmar says. “You’ve got snow and ice, and even going into frozen piles, it just dug in full, like a freight train.”

Russell also felt the power. “We were in frozen conditions, material in the piles needed to be broken up, snow was on the ground, and it was slippery, but the loader handled it great. It was very easy to get a bucketful. The controls are very well placed. It was a little touchy at times as far as going from second to first gear, but other than that, it was great,” Russell says.

“I felt the hydraulics were a bit on the touchy side, when I touched them, the machine bounced a little bit, but that’s easy to get used to because it’s a new machine to me,” Lohmar says. “The machine’s tight as a drum right now, so that’s to be expected.” Lohmar also tested the ride control and roading speed of the machine.

“It goes a little faster than I wanted to go, to be honest,” he says. “You know you have very good brakes and you’ve got to stop, but still, [the machine’s] a lot of mass to stop. But that speed is going to help with productivity. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if this loader was very popular in sewer and water work—any job when it has to move fast and carry dirt back and forth.”

A ride control feature is standard. “The ride control felt great,” Lohmar says. “I didn’t look down to see how fast I was going when I had it on, but it was stable, it wasn’t bouncing me around. I always felt like I was in control of the machine. When you hit a bump, it didn’t feel like the back of the machine was up and swinging around.”

Russell also felt the speed. “Speed-wise, against other competitors, there was a definite difference going forward in third gear, and going in reverse in third gear with the Volvo,” he says. “It’s consistent, where others might lag a little. You want it fast, believe it or not.” The L180H has a top speed of 24 mph in forward and reverse (17 mph in third gear).The operator’s station also got high marks from the Local 150 operators, particularly Russell.

“It’s definitely better than competitors as far as comfort and features, and the way they’ve placed the controls in the cab, the ergonomics,” Russell says. “Having the option of either steering it with the joystick or the steering wheel is a great option. I’m used to joystick steering, and I think it’s more productive because you’re making fewer movements throughout the day, with less repetition on your elbows.”

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