Any smart website designer or software company tests its products, not just for things like basic functionality, but for how the end user interacts with it. San Jose-based UserZoom recently published the results of a survey on user experience trends, and the results are fascinating. Survey respondents reported that the top trends impacting the user experience over the next five years will be Artificial Intelligence (80%), Voice Interfaces (64%), Automation (47%), and the Internet of Things (46%).
UserZoom’s study shows that user experience is slowly finding its place in industries beyond software, moving into fields as diverse as healthcare, transportation/automotive, biotech, banking, sports, education, and retail.
Gary Dostal, Manager – Mechanical Engineering, Komatsu Mining Corp. Group, told me that his company recently held customer review meetings for gathering feedback in areas including joystick controls and positioning, and seating options for cab design.
“We have local field service personnel that gather customer and operator input and relay that back to engineering and manufacturing,” he said. “Currently, we have two engineering field rotations at customer copper and oil sands sites. They serve as a direct interface with our customers to voice needs and to work with them on evaluating solutions.”
Dostal explained that they also gain input on new hardware during build of their first machines at the customer sites, along with close field follow to capture items for continuous improvement. Those items are recorded in Komatsu’s SalesForce cases and prioritized for action by the various business groups responsible.
Today, safety and ergonomics are major design focuses. In some countries, there are growing regulations for operator noise and vibration exposure as well as emission regulations that must be met to sell products in those locations.
“There certainly are competitive advantages to gaining early experience related results to make better design and business case decisions,” said Dostal.
Gregory Downs, former Senior Principal Engineer for Zoomlion, another mobile equipment OEM, explained that in today’s highly competitive world, every possible advantage must be pursued in order to rise to the top of the competition and be profitable.
“This is especially true in the world of heavy equipment manufacturing,” he said. “For years, engineers have sought to create powerful and safe machines that can be controlled precisely and autonomously with minimal energy loss and without impacting the environment. We now have the tools to begin to realize these visions. Now with the Internet of Things (IoT), and other technologies, the way we fundamentally design machines is rapidly changing.
Downs feels there are eight critical areas where design has evolved:
1. In almost all cases, it is the cab where the operator interacts with the machine. The more comfortable, ergonomic and enhanced line of sight the operator has, the more productive he or she can be for a full day. Also, the more willing the operator is to want to operate the equipment and recommend it to be purchased.
2. The operator’s seat has become a critical part of the cab design. The seat must be comfortable enough for the operator to stay seated for up to 8-10 hours a day. Often, ergonomic controls are built into the seat. It must be adjustable for the different sizes of operators. Many seats are heated, have lumbar supports, and other creature comforts.
3. Machines can be designed and modeled in a virtual world, using virtual reality (VR) to put the operator in the machine before the first prototype is ever built. The operator can virtually sit in the cab of an excavator, crane, haul truck, or tractor to refine the operator’s spatial environment and ergonomics.
4. Computer simulations allow the new design to be “tested” and the design refined before the first prototype is built. This typically provides better designs that can get to market in less time. Hardware-in-Loop (HiL) is one such tool that is being used today to test complex systems to verify control logic.
5. Line of sight and visibility of the work area from the cab is extremely important, both from a safety standpoint and from a productivity standpoint. Cameras and the proper displays allow the operator to see 360° around the machine from the comfort of the cab. Also, Augmented Reality is being incorporated in the cab design to provide more information of the work area, and to “see” the work area better.
6. Precision electric, hydraulic, and electro-hydraulic controls allow the operator to perform tasks easier, more accurately, and with less rework than before.
7. Semi-Automatic and Fully Automatic controls, using sensors and software, help the operator to be more efficient and more productive. Difficult and repetitive tasks often can be automated. Time is money. Skill is still required to operate heavy equipment, but the learning curve is easier and the stress level is reduced greatly.
8. Big Data and the Cloud are ever more important in design. A vehicle can be monitored, diagnosed, updated and tracked constantly from anywhere in the world instantaneously using Telematics.
And while the whole “user experience” phenomenon may seem like something more relegated to the consumer side of things, it’s clear that industrial OEMs need to be cognizant about their customer’s wants and needs — especially as technology becomes more and more integral to product designs. Sure, it makes sense that safety, usability and durability are important for your end product, but how often do you really study how the end user interacts with it?