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Tales from the field: The Customer Solution for Coal Mining Industry in West of China

Volvo CE Excavator
Volvo CE Excavator

This story is not about a cool graduation trip, but a collaborative research project between Product Development Research Lab ( at BTH and Volvo Construction Equipment after my fresh graduation from the Masters program in Sustainable Product-Service System Innovation (MSPI, at BTH.

In this project, my task is to explore and find new ways of designing the sustainable product-service systems and inherent values for Volvo CE to provide the new customer solutions for coal mining industry in China. For that, my footprints were mapped with 4600KM, 60days, 5 cities, 12 mining sites in west of China, hopefully compensating this with improved sustainability in future product-service solutions and their operation.

Yan Zhang
Yan Zhang

My daily job is like an ”needfinding spy” to act in different roles for capturing the needs from state-owned mining company, project contractors and different equipment operators. Moreover, I need to work closely together with Volvo’s dealer, service staff and maintenance team for understanding how Volvo supports their customer on mining sites. A real life in mining sites is; getting used to live with sandstorm; no water; be a good actor, and; keep out of the way of hundred machines.

Of course, you can find no Internet and mobile signal at sites. Gender wise; at least I haven’t seen a female but stay with thousands of men and construction machines for one month. Ridding, but respecting, this harsh environment, the customer value, needs, problems and the production process are captured and fully analyzed in my pocket. After that, a customer solution design process will take place in collaboration with BTH and VCE to generate more sustainable customer solutions for these customers.

At Inner Mongolia I was completely taken when I first saw the grassland! Not because how beautiful or attractive as it supposed to be, but how odd the current situation came about in my eyes; hundreds of surface mining sites are living there, countless coal mines are excavating from our mother earth in there. The grassland was a place full of holes like a honeycomb and this all has truly happened. The main process of surface mining is firstly removing trees and grass out of grassland, then the construction equipment strips the soil by a vertical way that dig down around 100-200m until the underground coal be exposed. After that the coal were taken out and transported to power plants in different cities. All these processes are working 24 hours nonstop, day to day and, year after year as we speak.

As I know that many environmentalists argue that the coal mining sites should close immediately since the negative environmental impact from this industry is obvious. But why is the current situation still being maintained, and still running? How many people can understand the reason behind this why? In China, the most electrical energy is generated by coal in the local thermal power plant. Although many people have their general ideas like wind power, solar energy and other way which are more environmental friendly than coal energy, still the question is if these green approaches could directly meet the needs from 1.3 billion people and the second largest economy in the world as of now? The answer is “No”. Obviously, people choose coal energy as adaptive solution since there are lacking other available solutions that can be applied to satisfy their needs in a viable way. Follow a logical flow, coal is used to generate energy and most of our social activities are based on energy consumption. So the over-energy consumption is the enemy actually.

As engineers, what we need to do is not enrol in endless complaining on coal mining but try to find the future sustainable solutions. If that works, our society would like to choose this adaptive way and we can happily see coal mining exploration die out  from the fact that better solutions coming into play.

Again, as an engineer, keep calm and carry on, and I try bringing my part of the puzzle towards the future sustainable society!

All the best,

Yan Zhang, MSPI’12

Related information

A note on the project from Jenny Elfsberg, Director of Emerging Technologies at Volvo Construction Equipment.

Jenny Elfsberg
Jenny Elfsberg

“Thanks to our collaboration with BTH we can utilize student projects, thesis works, research projects for PhD students,  and even short term assignments as this case to get very good support in our transformation from product focused sales to total customer solutions focus with sustainability in focus, but also in other areas. To collaborate with individuals knowing methods for product-service system design, but without deep insight in Volvo operations gives us valuable alternative perspectives sometimes and confirm our own reasoning sometimes. It is definitely an effective and interesting way to increase our knowledge. We also get an opportunity to see how well promising potential employees performs. Our collaboration with BTH is a real win/win partnership – our company is in a very exciting transformational phase which gives BTH good examples for their research and since BTH collaborate with other industries that have already done their shifts from products to services, for example, we can gain knowledge about proven methods instead of inventing everything ourselves.

For more information, contact Professor Tobias C. Larssontobias.larsson@bth.seProduct Development Research Lab.