In 2020, construction equipment will still be needed to build the world's airports, bridges, buildings, dams, roads, seaports and tunnels. But, future machines may be radically different than today's breed.

Volvo Construction Equipment (Sodermanland, Sweden) recently unveiled its vision of the not-too-distant future in the guise of an excavator. The SfinX is equipped with advanced technology that is expected to be readily available in 16 years.

"While still recognizable as an excavator, almost every component has been radically altered," says Lorenzo Terreno, vice president of product portfolio and advanced engineering. The machine has the familiar shape of an excavator, but features a futuristic boom, cab, superstructure and tracks.

For instance, the SfinX is powered by a small fuel cell instead of a traditional diesel engine. The fuel cell, which is approximately the size of two suitcases, produces electric energy, but emits only heat and water. "This frees up space in the superstructure and allows the engine to perform as an active counterweight, which moves in and out to compensate for the forces on the bottom," explains Terreno.

The use of electricity will eliminate the need for bulky hydraulics, which will allow engineers to create cleaner-looking machine. Terreno claims that many control systems that are currently hydraulic could be converted to electric motors. That would eliminate the need for bulky, unsightly hydraulic cylinders, pipes and tubes.

Among the SfinX's innovative ideas is the main swing bearing (between the undercarriage and the superstructure), which is replaced by an electromagnetic field. "This would have zero friction and make braking extremely smooth, while allowing high-speed turning of the superstructure," says Terreno.

Instead of using two parallel tracks like traditional excavators, the SfinX features four independent units. Terreno claims that the four tracks would have a much high contact area, aided by independent suspension to each track that is suspended via a swing arm from a central pivot. Each track has a separate wheel motor, which can brake, accelerate and allow the track to steer the excavator. The tracks use a nonmetal, rubber-like material that can operate on high-abrasion surfaces.

The cab of the SfinX is cantilevered to improve all-around visibility for the operator. It can be tilted and moved away from the machine to allow a good view of the work area. "The cab being the operator's workplace, we put no limits to our imagination," says Terreno. Under one futuristic scenario, the cab would automatically lower to the ground every morning to greet the operator. In addition to remote-control technology, the cab is equipped with drive-by-wire systems that improve braking, steering and boom operation.

According to Terreno, the traditional cast-iron and heavy metal parts used in construction equipment will increasingly be replaced by plastics and composites. He says those materials are more resistant to harsh operating environments and can be more easily repaired. In addition, they can be molded into more unique shapes. The lightweight materials also allow construction equipment to be more maneuverable.