Collaboration = Innovation @ LEGO + Volvo CE

When a global auto company and a famous toy maker put their heads together the future of innovation becomes clear.

Advances in technology have opened up communication around our world, and better communication should lead to more collaboration, but competitive boundaries between industries, commercial sectors and institutions are still major blockers to cooperation. However, the seemingly unlikely partnership between auto giant Volvo and toy maker Lego demonstrates how collaboration can boost innovation with takeaways from joint development projects that bring change across industries in unexpected and wonderful ways.

For the last few years Lego Technic and Volvo CE (Construction Equipment) have worked together to create Technic sets of Volvo’s actual vehicles, set 42053 the EW160E and set 42030 the L350F Wheel Loader. These sets have been a huge success with both fans of Lego Technic and builders of heavy vehicle models and were reasonably faithful reproductions of existing vehicles, but the newly released Lego set 42081, Concept Wheel Loader ZEUX takes the working relationship between Volvo CE and Lego to another level.

“We wanted to cooperate with a premium toy manufacturer, just as we are a premium player in the construction equipment sector. Volvo CE and the LEGO® Group together create a perfect match, both culturally and in what we try to achieve in our products — exploring together how we can build tomorrow.” Arvid Rinaldo, brand communication and partnerships at Volvo CE told Tech Trends

Released this month and now available online from the Lego Shop, the Zeux is a futuristic concept with real-world potential.

“This model may seem futuristic now, but autonomous, connected and electric construction machines are already starting to be a reality. The Volvo Concept Wheel Loader Zeux is a realistic next step in the exciting evolution of our construction machines.” continued Rinaldo.

As a Lego fanatic myself, I loved the new set, especially the scissor-style counterbalance. It was a joy to build and I found myself crawling around the living room, steering around obstacles and scooping up stray dog toys! The set is great but what really excited Tech Trends was the collaborative design process and what an example it is to other companies. Innovation is the buzzword in many industries these days but the potential for innovation is directly linked to flexible thinking and creative, collaborative processes, these can be difficult to achieve without breaking down walls.

Having travelled around the world and seen behind the scenes inside many small and high profile technology companies I can honestly say that true innovation is thin on the ground and most company’s internal practices only ever cramp up the creative muscles they pay so much to employ. By breaching traditional corporate and creative boundaries Lego and Volvo have achieved something truly special.

“We have enjoyed a truly fun and productive collaboration with the Lego Technic team over the past few years. It has allowed us to test ideas for new types of construction machines for the future, both in terms of functionality, scale, design and interaction.” explained Rinaldo

High-level engineers and designers from Volvo were hosted in Billund at Lego’s HQ and worked on the new model with Lego’s own design teams. The mix of professional skills and expertise at play here was incredible and both teams found the blend of ideas and perspectives on the process invigorating. Eventually, several iterations and concept models were produced and it was at this point that the Volvo team leapt into uncharted territory, child focus groups and playtesting. A totally new step in the design process for Volvo these focus groups are common practice for Lego and boy did those kids throw up some interesting points and suggestions.

The whole concept of an autonomous vehicle inspired the kids to suggest several features that made it into the final set and possibly into vehicles of the future. If there is no driver how does the Loader see? Their solution was a little detachable mapping drone that could scout out the terrain and guide the vehicle, this little drone almost took on a driver’s role in the equation, a little character in their play scenarios.

“As soon as we have a mapping drone sat next to this vehicle, they tell us all the stories about where this machine could go. Because to them of course there’s no one driving [the Zeux], of course it’s autonomous,” said Andrew Woodman, Senior Design Manager for LEGO® Technic.

Another feature that sprung from the kids’ imaginations also turned out to be a psychologically sound feature for an autonomous vehicle that operates around pedestrians. They gave it an eye, in the form of a camera on an extendable arm. At first, the Volvo and Lego engineers didn’t see the point of this.

“And then we kind of realised that, no, the machine doesn’t need it, but maybe we need it. So by having this camera, which can sort of just turn to look at you, it gives you that confidence to know that the machine has seen you.” said Woodman, “When you cross a busy road, you watch out for dangers and try to make eye contact with drivers in your immediate vicinity. It’s an instinctive reaction that lets you evaluate your next move, Should you stay where you are, or is it safe to move? It’s usually an easy assessment. With autonomous vehicles, you don’t have that interaction because you can’t see all the sensors that allow them to navigate around both stationary and moving objects. It’s not intuitive for us to decode what the vehicle’s next move is, where it’s going, or if it has seen us.”

The kids’ input changed the final model and the additions of the drone and the camera eye almost gave the set a personality and vastly improved playability. These suggestions didn’t only add to the quality of the toy but gave the Volvo engineers a new concept feature that they are looking to incorporate into the ongoing development of real future vehicles like this toy Loader.

“While the Volvo Concept Wheel Loader ZEUX will not be driving on roads, it would be interacting with workers at a construction site. So we set out to create features and functions that make the interaction between humans and machines as safe and intuitive as possible.” Woodman concluded.

With all the technological communication solutions at our fingertips, it is vital for companies to pursue partnerships and initiatives like this and engage the power of human collaboration if we are to innovate going forward. Hearing about this collaboration makes the process seem simple, so why aren’t more companies opening up a bit to collaboration, as the result on display here from Volvo and Lego are truly amazing. Tech Trends thinks we are only scratching the surface of our potential and unless we communicate and collaborate, we stagnate.

Tom Atkinson is a Digital Producer & Photographer at R3Digital and Reviews & Dept. Editor at Tech Trends. Connect on LinkedIn and follow him on Twitter @R3Digital

Technology writer for FastCo, Quartz, The Next Web, Ars Technica, Wired + more. Consultant specializing in VR #MixedReality and Strategic Communications

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