The story of Choe: The reality of Human Factors Engineering and Ergonomics in the automotive development process
9:02pm - 20/02/2015
I often get asked from human factors engineers and ergonomists working in other industries what is special about the car industry. Thankfully, I rarely get asked what our contribution to vehicle design and development is by mechanical and electrical engineers with experience in the automotive industry!
Anyway, as I tend to provide a different answer each time I get asked - there are too many areas where ergonomists contribute, I thought I should sum everything up in what I hope makes for an interesting read and send it for publication in the next issue of The Ergonomist, the magazine of the newly Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors.
As there is a chance (I hope) that not everyone who has got that question in mind subscribes to The Ergonomist, I thought it is worth publishing the story here. Ahem! Yes, it is a story.
Hope you enjoy it...
Chloe is a cute old city car. It runs on petrol and still requires a driver who can change gears manually using a left-hand foot pedal called "clutch". Daphne, her current owner, decided to name her "Chloe" soon after she discovered, during a party of the Classics Society at St Andrew's that the name comes from the Greek word for "green grass". She thought that a name with green credentials would be a most suitable oxymoron for a car that still emits poisonous gasses. Chloe's first owner, Daphne's dad, had bought her back in 2014, soon after Oliver, her younger brother was born. Back then, Chloe was one of the most economical and ecological cars one could purchase. Her dad loved how easy it was to drive her and the in-car technology that a small car was equipped with for the first time. By contrast, the innovation Daphne experiences today is limited to the manual gear change and the occasional search for a petrol station on the tiny 7-inch screen of Chloe's satellite navigation system. In fact she avoids the latter whenever possible, as the maps have not been updated for years and most of those petrol stations are now closed.
Daphne's dad has narrated a number of stories that involved Chloe over the years, in addition to the ones that included herself as a passenger in the child-seat at the back. She therefore assumes she knows Chloe batter than anyone else, her dad outstanding. However, what Daphne ignores is that Chloe's story did not begin when her dad bought her in 2014. Chloe was actually born in 2009...
Chloe was actually named "Tulis", as a concept city car designed by stylist Jost Erdehooven for the People's Motor Company (PMC). Tulis was revealed during the Shanghai Motor Show in 2009. From that point onward, an engineering team at PMC was dedicated to turning that concept into a mass produced car for the global market.
Among the first engineers to get involved in the project, Franco, the layout engineer, worked closely with Tina, the lead ergonomist to determine the "hard points" in the body of the new model. Tina and her team were already briefed by the marketing department about the target customers and their spread of demographics and already started plotting the occupant packaging metrics for the model long before her first formal project meeting with Franco. Based on the assumption that the overall platform dimensions would't differ significantly from the already established city car PMC was selling in the European market, she had asked the human engineering CAD (computer aided design) specialist to draw some human packaging plots using the company's most recent anthropometrics database update. Soon after, the meeting with Franco followed and Tina turned up in the office with the new platform specification. "that's it, ladies and gents. Looks like we got a bit more flexibility with this new platform, but we were also given only one week to come up with the final plots" was Tina's introductory statement upon entering the office next day morning.
"What about roominess targets from marketability?" asked Tony, one of the experienced engineers in the team. "There are a few; acceptable rear roominess for best in class luggage space is key. We got Topino, Nanda, Wagan, and Tsingtao in the competitor basket. Crack on!"....
Only a few months later, at the Ephesus car plant of PMC, Thierry received an official briefing about the project. As the only formally trained ergonomist in the factory, he had to review early drafts and discuss with the production engineers how tooling and people will be re-organised around the production line. Without detailed parts-drawings though, there was a ceiling to what was achievable at such an early stage. Therefore, the discussion quickly turned into a risk assessment of the number of changing parts that would require completely new workstations and a lessons learned exercise. Pito, the current model using the line, faced a series of problems during the production trials 6 years before and its official production date had to be delayed for three months. Executive management had made it clear that such delays would not be acceptable this time, as they could render the whole programme unprofitable for the first couple of years.
Back in the Technical Centre, Tina's team had completed the occupant packaging plots by now, although it had proven a lot more complicated than initially envisaged: Topino had just been launched in the market and the team lacked detailed benchmarking data for this competitor. The hire company they normally used could not supply one for at least another month - way out the one-week deadline they were committed to. Without measurements such as H-point, Accelerator Heel Point (AHP), steering wheel reference points, eye-points, eyelipses and visibility angles from Topino, the benchmarking activity would be incomplete. The team had to come up with an alternative; this wasn't the first time they had or would have to do so during a development programme. A few ideas were immediately put on the table and the final compromise they all agreed on was to use "Superleague 1", a widely available benchmarking database and virtual benchmarking tool to extract any measurements they could from the recently published file of Topino. Nevertheless, they knew very well that there was a limit to how far they could go with virtual benchmarking data and how badly that often mapped on PVC's Human Engineering Database; as a result, they would ignore Topino measures that they felt lacked the necessary level of confidence. Tina made sure those limitations were made clear to the executives, when she presented the proposed targets alongside the marketability manager.
The executive meeting went well in the end and although some initial grilling by the executives to the product planning manager, the project took the green light to proceed to virtual prototyping. As the design engineers started drafting parts for the virtual build, Thierry and the production engineers at the plant started reviewing drawings as they would come in, with the aim of identifying any parts that could be problematic in building or fitting to the car on the production line. This was viewed as an (important) risk management activity, as although some parts will be redesigned as we approach the physical build and test stages later in the programme, with the cost of changes increasing geometrically close to production, most parts will see few changes if any at all. It was crucial to get it "first time right".
In parallel, the Infotainment (Information and Entertainment Systems) team at the Technical Centre was developing the latest version of the PVC system which included a dozen new functions, such as TV, email/Internet facility, area speed limit and link to cruise control/speed limiter capability, and Eco route planning and support. Considering that even most pre-existing functions were boasted with additional features, Gianluca, the project HMI engineer had a lot on his plate. The interface had to be suitably adjusted to accommodate those changes, that was easier said than done. With an array of complexity, cost, and marketing requirements to juggle alongside the core technical HMI, Gianluca had to work long hours and hold regular levelling meetings with the other stakeholders in order to deliver the HMI design on time.
A year had passed since the concept approval meeting, and the first round of virtual prototyping was ready. While Gianluca was busy working on a new HMI concept for future models with a team at George Mason University, Tina's team was full-on testing the virtual models against the ergonomics targets, and Thierry had a lengthy least of past clearance and access issues he wanted to confirm were dealt with at this early stage. As often, not all test results came back positive, so both Tina and Thierry had to flag the areas of concern up and ask for design changes to take place. Any agreed changes were again confirmed through a confirmation activity with the updated virtual model of the vehicle.
Fast forward another year, and the project was now in the physical build phase. Hand-built prototypes were being built and those would be used by the test and evaluation engineers to confirm quality and target achievement. Among those, Tina's team, Thierry and Gianluca had to revisit the technical targets in their respective area of responsibility, confirm achievement and concerns, and level the appropriate countermeasure for any outstanding concerns. The latter proved a major challenge for Tina during the first build trial; she could immediately tell from the technician's grimace: "I've filled up the trunk to the tonneau board, Tina.... And I still got 25 bricks left." This was really bad news; being short of 25 litres of luggage space at this stage could warrant a costly countermeasure. "Any indication on what might have caused the disparity with the virtual data?", asked Tina. "The side covers in the trunk appear a bit loose, maybe a few millimetres here and there, but definitely this cannot explain 25 litres difference!", said the technician. Tina immediately rang the responsible design engineer and asked for a design assessment with the test team. That included a root-cause analysis team activity which was common practice within PVC before any significant issues are raised to the executive management. The result, suggested an (incorrect) assumption about the thickness of the rear seat backrest during the previous virtual build. "Looks like we gonna have to work alongside the seat supplier for the rest of the programme", said Tina while navigating her gaze around the room.
Although the support from the marketing department, convincing the chief engineer to authorise the design work to achieve same level backrest comfort while reducing the thickness of it was almost impossible. From his point of view, the design team or the ergonomics test team had made a severe mistake and it was up to them to sort it out at their level and make sure there are no repercussions to any other technical functions and their respective targets. It was only at the end of the meeting, when the programme manager raised concerns over profitability of the programme if targets are missed, that the chief engineer agreed to a countermeasure study with the supplier. In the end, this activity had no impact on achieving the programme milestones, however a significant amount of Tina's time and the ergonomics team time was spent on supporting this activity, distracting them from other areas that could have gone wrong in the meantime.
The study was completed just in time to feed to the design of seats for the first production trial. With start of production approaching fast, the series of production trials and their respective testing and evaluation were the last opportunity to trace any subtle shortcomings in the design or the production of the vehicle. This is a period full of contrasts,as the lengthy, painstaking scrutinising of pre-production vehicles comes against an underlying desire to have got everything perfect first time - even the slightest change could result in millions of euros cost in development or production start delays. The three lead ergonomists we're no exception: development should be mature enough by now to satisfy the stringent quality criteria of PVC.
It was Spring 2014. Tina could smell the blossomed wild flowers through the open windows in the meeting room. It was another day she would remember with details for the rest of her life. The final progress meeting had started from 8am GMT, in order to accommodate the time difference with business centres in China and Russia. The meeting was chaired by a company vice-president, in the presence of a board member, so everyone seemed to be putting the extra effort to underline their successful contribution to the program, live or through the video conference. It was closing on midday, when Tina was invited to provide detail of the ergonomic attributes confirmation and readiness for production. Tina went went through the couple of sloes within the 3 minutes she was allocated and then asked if there were any questions. "Thank you Mrs Alfredi", promptly said the vice president. "I was wondering what was the result to the countermeasure for the luggage space discrepancy during the first production trial. I remember reading the issue report and the study proposal, and I expected a slide on the progress status today". " It was complete in time to feed in design data for the last production trial. It was tested and confirmed acceptable by both the ergonomics and the marketability team. The "OK" status for luggage space and rear seat comfort I presented reflected that". "Excellent; thank you Mrs Alfredi. Next on the agenda is ride comfort; Mr Almeida..." the vice president turned his sight to the Spanish manager of the ride comfort department.
A few months later, Daphne's dad picked up Chloe from the PVC dealership in Chester....
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