Ergonomics: Beyond Interaction
- Human Machine Interface
“Man errs so long as he strives.” — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Human beings will never commit errors provided we put forth no effort, whether it’s work or study. But life requires a certain degree of diligence, meaning that the possibility of mistakes and failures exists as long as we continue to push forward. In order to resolve this, human beings have gone to great lengths and expended considerable creative energy in the development of various tools and machines. The creation of these innovations, developed with the goal of reducing accidents, heightening efficiency, and adapting physical systems to the needs of human beings to optimize the interaction between the two has evolved into a scientific discipline known as “ergonomics.”
Consideration of people in the crafting of things can be traced back several millennia. When Tutankhamun, or King Tut (18th dynasty Egyptian pharaoh who lived in the 14th century B.C.) was a child, the chair he regularly sat in had a footrest that was tilted slightly backward. It enabled him as a child to sit comfortably in a chair that was otherwise too large for him. This happened some 3,000 years ago. In today’s terms, this represented the manifestation of one of the principles of ergonomics.
Now, it can safely be said that ergonomics has factored into the development of essentially everything we encounter in our daily lives. Ergonomic principles have been applied to the design of daily-use desks and chairs, computer keyboards and mice, icons that appear on smartphone displays, spiral staircases, studded blocks for the visually impaired, airplane cockpits, and control centers at various facilities. And through these items and the effect they have on the surrounding environment, ease of understanding, ease of use, and comfort are being achieved.
Ergonomics is defined as “the scientific discipline concerned with the understanding of the interactions among humans and other elements of a system, and the profession that applies theory, principles, data and methods to design in order to optimize human well-being and overall system performance”(*1). In other words, ergonomics is not about people conforming to tools and environments; rather, it is about designing tools and environments to enable those people to use them effectively.
The term “ergonomics” dates back to 1857, coined by a Polish scientist who combined the Greek words “ergos” (to work) and “nomos” (natural law), and defined it as “the science of working.” The reprinting of related documents in 1997 sparked international recognition of the term. The Industrial Revolution, which was born in Britain in the latter half of the 18th century and from there gradually spread across the world, and the transformation to an industrial society took place throughout Europe. The expansion of the factory system spawned a vast working class, and while people’s lifestyles changed as life became more comfortable, the revolution also brought with it societal issues such as the exploitation of workers. In an era of significant transformation of working patterns, scientific research into “the correlation between work and health” began in earnest, primarily in Europe. People perform various types of work—from jobs that require lifting and carrying heavy items and walking or traveling great distances, to occupations where workers maintain the same posture for extended periods, and monotonous, repetitive tasks—and all experience fatigue, regardless of the type of work. And through research into work conditions, methods, and environment with the goal of making optimum work performance possible without fatigue, and by developing tools and facilities based on these findings, we have reduced the burden on the human body and enabled healthier lifestyles, while at the same time contributing significantly to enhanced productivity and safety.
This perspective applies not only to tools, but also to the operation of machinery and the control of systems. Research into human factors, a discipline that focuses on human error and addresses the ensuring of reliability and safety when human beings operate machinery or control systems, began in earnest in the US around the beginning of the 20th century. One particularly impressive subject of early research concerned improvements to the altimeter. At the time, many accidents were occurring due to operational errors on the part of pilots, and an investigative team comprised of specialists such as psychologists and aeronautical engineers found that design had been emphasized in engineering the altimeter, and that it exceeded the reading capabilities of human beings. This led the team to conclude that “accidents are occurring due to operational errors caused by pilots misreading the altimeter.” The consideration of human cognitive characteristics, and the adoption of an interface design that was easier for pilots— the users of the device—to read, contributed to the achievement of flight safety through a reduction in aircraft accidents. In parallel with technological advancement, systems have become increasingly large and complex, and human error is the single leading cause of accidents involving aircraft and factories. Centered on mission-critical areas such as the aerospace, equipment, manufacturing, and medical industries, the capabilities and special characteristics of human beings are analyzed, and design and system construction are performed and managed while incorporating human beings as a key element—the relationships human beings have with each other, as well as the association between human beings and hardware, software, and the environment.
Automation gradually began to gain momentum from the middle of the 20th century, and we are now facing the significant transformation referred to as the Fourth Industrial Revolution. With connectivity of all things made possible by IoT, massive volumes of data are collected—“big data”—that have become a source of added value. And due to advancements in robots, artificial intelligence (AI) and smart speakers, industry and society are rapidly becoming more digitized and intelligent. Furthermore, aspects such as the aging and internationalization of workers as well as changing and diversifying values are intertwined, and they are effecting widespread change on how we live and work. While unprecedented value is being generated, the volume of information is rapidly growing right before our eyes, and just as rapidly is becoming increasingly complex. The time has come to take another look at the role ergonomics has served, and expectations are high that the discipline will play an active role in fields it has yet to effectively penetrate.
Yokogawa’s design objective, in addition to infusing new value, ease of use, and beauty as industrial tools, is to achieve designs that support the interaction of human beings and systems, thereby supporting our customers as they pursue their goals.
This objective is exemplified by our control room design, which enables centralized management of production facilities and instruments through operation of a control system. Manufacturing industry operational sites require production to be performed steadily and surely at a prescribed level of quality. Looking at Japan’s manufacturing industry, for instance, as competition becomes increasingly intense on a global scale, improving aging production facilities while also achieving world-class efficiency has made it possible for individual operators to monitor facilities on a broader range. However, when an unforeseen event does occur, there is the possibility of a major accident that endangers the lives of workers on site, requiring operators to make crucial decisions such as ceasing plant operations. The existence of this possibility compels operators to have not only experience in operation, but a high degree of technical knowledge and the sensitivity to perceive danger. Despite this, operational environments established to support such decision-making end up being no more than rooms full of computers. And, in many cases, elements that contribute to the stress that leads to human error, such as appropriate lighting and comfort, are simply being overlooked.
Over the past 40-plus years, Yokogawa has produced nearly 600 industrial control room designs, and based on a human-centric design approach, continues to deliver safe, comfortable, functional operator environments. Operators are responsible for monitoring numerous manufacturing facilities and instruments from multiple workstations. Therefore, in addition to a zoning plan that enables productive communication between operators, monitor size and location, and optimum situating of workstations, we propose efficient, stable operator environments that also consider appropriate levels of lighting and positioning of air conditioning to alleviate stress on the body. Our control room designs scrutinize every detail—such as the impression color makes on human beings and the feel of the desk. From the perspective of "kansei," or emotional engineering, Yokogawa puts extensive thought into the people, things, and environment in order to achieve synergy between comfort and functionality on a higher dimension.
Furthermore, with regard to the operational monitoring display and alarms (scheme by which notices are generated concerning operational abnormalities) used in a control room, we offer an intuitive, easy-to-use operational environment based on ergonomics and cognitive engineering theory. From the perspective of ergonomics, there are a number of problems with traditional operational monitoring displays. For instance, the same color is used for an alarm display and a pump outage, which can lead to abnormalities potentially being overlooked. Additionally, massive volumes of data such as temperature are provided to the operator without having been summarized, making it difficult to utilize the data effectively, and to accurately assess the operational situation. In recent years, a full-fledged transition toward IoT has taken root in the manufacturing industry in particular, and this may lead to expansion in the scope of the operator's responsibility due to the increase in the volume of information that must be handled.
Yokogawa has approached this issue by conducting interviews with customers and analyzing their work. Based on the findings of this analysis, information can be switched in accordance with the operational situation, helping protect operators from being inundated with data. And incorporating factors such as the visibility and visual attraction of information based on its importance and urgency into the design allows operators to more naturally be able to access the appropriate information. These innovations have resulted in improved situation awareness—operators more rapidly perceive the current situation and understand it more genuinely, enabling them to predict future occurrences with greater accuracy. There are other improvements as well, such as the optimization of visualization through the application of graphs, and of navigation by facilitating smoother transition from one page of information to another; sounds such as those used for alarms; and interface components like touch panels and keyboards. Yokogawa considers all elements in designing and constructing advanced human machine interfaces to suit the various work requirements of our customers.
This scientific discipline is referred to as “ergonomics” or “human factors,” but just as with innovations in technology and industrial structure, this knowledge is correlated and developing in line with various areas of study including psychology, medicine, science, engineering, and design. These studies are resulting in the conception of safe, comfortable, and functional environments through product design focusing on ease of understanding and use, toward improving human and material environments to enable people to work properly and efficiently. This in turn is serving as an impetus for a comprehensive reexamination of our work and lifestyles. Yokogawa looks beyond the system to the co-innovation of systems and the human beings using them. And in order to continue to realize highly safe and reliable operation, we will endeavor to achieve the optimum balance between comfort and functionality so we can offer safer, low-stress operator environments.
*1 : Definition of ergonomics according to the International Ergonomics Association (IEA)