Nav Search

Sunward Intelligent Equipment: An Innovation Success Story

By Guo Feiran and Liu Yong Source: English Edition of Qiushi Journal Updated: 2022-10-28

As a whistle sounded in the warm May breeze, a special China-Europe Railway Express train pulled out of Changsha, Hunan Province, heading for Europe, thousands of kilometers away. It was loaded with nearly 500 pieces of advanced construction machinery and equipment built by the Sunward Intelligent Equipment Group. Just over 20 years since its establishment, how has Sunward grown from a small company into a major global player in construction machinery and equipment? The answer is innovation.

On September 17, 2020, President Xi Jinping braved the rain to tour Sunward Intelligent Equipment Group. He visited the company's workshop, inspected the equipment manufacturing process, and was briefed about the company's research and development projects and production and manufacturing operations. President Xi stressed that independent innovation is the lifeblood of an enterprise and the basis on which enterprises can surmount obstacles and achieve development. Enterprises must firmly hold key core technologies in their own hands. His words provided encouragement to Sunward to keep striving toward its goal of becoming a top global equipment manufacturing outfit.

Resolutely opting for the difficult path of innovation

In 1999, in order to promote the commercialization of scientific research advances, Professor He Qinghua took the plunge into business and set up Sunward Intelligent Equipment, making a pledge to "turn new things on paper into new products that can be used." In the same year, His team unveiled their first independently developed hydraulic static pile driver, marking the start of the company's innovation journey.

Of all the development paths an enterprise can choose, the innovation route poses the greatest difficulty. In 2006, when it had finally gained a firm foothold in the field of construction machinery and equipment and successfully debuted on the Shenzhen Stock Exchange, Sunward did not opt to rest on its laurels or settle for the easy profits that could be made by turning out popular goods with average quality. Instead, it stuck firmly to the difficult path of innovation, continued to break new ground in the f ield of construction machinery and equipment, and advanced into new fields with even higher R&D demands such as special equipment and general aviation equipment.

"Though this path is hard and costly and will not produce quick returns, we enterprises have a responsibility to keep pursuing it no matter the difficulties, because the more developed a country becomes, the more it needs equipment in new fields," said He Qinghua. In September 2020, Hunan was approved as the country's first pilot province for low-altitude airspace management reform. As demand for general aviation equipment in markets in and outside the province surged, Sunward was able to rely on pioneering achievements it had scored in the domestic field of light sport aircraft to seize the vast opportunities on offer. In 2021, it generated an operating income of more than 11.4 billion yuan.


Excavators manufactured by Sunward Intelligent Equipment Group. PHOTO BY HUNAN DAILY REPORTER GUO LILIANG

Scaling new heights and resolutely rejecting imitation

In the first quarter of this year, Sunward released eight pieces of high-end equipment for underground engineering on the global market. Of these, the world's tallest full hydraulic crawler pile frame attracted particular attention.

An indispensable tool for foundation construction, the pile frame is used to help drive piles into the ground. Height is a core indicator for assessing crawler pile frames. The greater the height, the deeper and more forceful each stroke will be, and the more suitable it will be for so-called megaconstruction projects that have a high level of difficulty. However, in terms of manufacturing, each additional meter of height exponentially increases the difficulty of ensuring the stability and thus the safety of the machine. Previously, the tallest crawler pile frame in China had a height of 48 meters.

Chen Zilin's R&D team at the Third Research Institute of the Sunward Basic Equipment Division decided that they would "develop the tallest possible pile frame," setting their sights on a height of 60 meters, which is the benchmark for the world's tallest piling products. Without any experience or ready blueprints to draw on, they experimented continuously and overcame one problem after another.

It was mentioned to Chen Zilin that after fitting the cantilever at the rear of the riga gap appeared, which caused the column to shake. It was proposed that using existing Japanese-made bolted connectors could resolve the problem. Chen and his colleagues dismissed the idea. Independent innovation, they declared, was about resolutely rejecting imitation; otherwise, how could it be said that they had grasped key core technologies? In the end, they designed multiple sets of wedge-shaped compression structures, which not only eliminated the gaps and resolved the shaking, but also simplified installation, disassembly and transport. This world-class kit with a pile mast height of 62 meters went from the development stage to rolling off the production line in only 10 months.

Though the road of independent innovation may be fraught with difficulty, constant efforts will bring results. Today, the company is listed among the top 50 global construction machinery manufacturers. It has developed a world-leading rotary drilling rig and the world's first guided-hole static pile driver. In 2021, the volume of patent applications by Sunward increased by 142% year-on-year.

Making breakthroughs in smart technologies to enable high-quality development

In the endeavor to build China into a manufacturing powerhouse, the development of intelligent manufacturing plays a critical role, as it can consolidate the foundations of the real economy and promote high-quality development.

During his visit to Sunward, President Xi observed a demonstration of the company's intelligent remote-control excavator. "Shortly after President Xi's inspection, a batch of the same products was delivered to buyers," said Liu Changsheng, vice president of the Sunward Special Equipment Research Institute. He added with confidence, "As long as there is a 5G signal, Sunward's intelligent equipment can be remotely controlled from thousands of kilometers away, providing an effective solution to problems in emergency rescue situations and high-risk and harsh environments."

"Intelligence" has increasingly become a shining hallmark of Sunward. At present, the company is pouring its efforts into developing digital twin technology. "In simple terms, this involves developing a lifelike digital prototype of an object in order to conduct virtual tests so that we can obtain various data and apply them to research and development, production, construction, and other links. This will greatly shorten trial production time, which currently takes many years, improve the operational efficiency of equipment, and reduce energy consumption," explained He Songquan, head of the Sunward Intelligent General Purpose Technology Research Institute. Sunward has expanded intelligent upgrades from individual production links to entire production lines in order to promote equipment data interconnectivity and energy management. These and a host of other measures have helped Sunward to boost its maximum monthly production capacity of excavators and rotary drilling rigs by nearly 30%.

(Originally appeared in Qiushi Journal, Chinese edition, No. 13-16, 2022)