Joel Lööw

13 October 2018

On influencing designs

Yesterday, I submitted a report for the SIMS project. I thought that some of the reasoning in it could be interesting to post here.

Our role (ie that of Human Work Science at Luleå University of Technology) in the project is to support creating attractive workplaces by deeply interacting with other work packages and influencing their designs. We aim to analyse the technology that the partners of the project develop well as the mining context and work environments in which the technology will be used.

Ensuring attractive workplaces entails working with issues of health, safety and ergonomics – from the “conception” of the technology to its eventual implementation in organisations. Previous research [1] has shown that unlike issues relating to eg technical performance, organisations do not take account of issues of ergonomics in system design or company-strategy decisions. For the mining industry Simpson and colleagues [2] phrased the problem as:

There is a … clear responsibility on the designers, manufacturers and suppliers of mining equipment to ensure that the current lamentably low level of consideration of both the operators and maintainers of their products is significantly improved as quickly as possible.

None of the [current problems] are subtle problems ... [and] no detailed understanding of human psychology, physiology or anatomy is needed to address what are essentially ergonomics limitations of the crudest type. The fact that such fundamental limitations can and do create serious health and safety risks shows clearly that manufactures and suppliers are currently falling lamentable short of their duty of care responsibilities.

To redress this situation requires much more attention to be given to the consideration of human factors and ergonomics during their design processes.

They also recommended that mining companies take more active positions in communicating the importance of these issues; Horberry and colleagues recommended an integrated and participatory approach (eg [3]). Such an approach involves the relevant stakeholders, including operators and researchers, and considers both operator and workplace requirements.

Our aim with our participation in SIMS is to support this integrated and participatory approach, giving special focus to issues of workplace attractiveness. Our activities aim to function in a “facilitating” manner between operators, work system and developers. On this ground our intention is to integrate into the different projects of SIMS.

In planning the project, one of our base assumptions were that the technology can be actively and directly influenced. This we are now realising is not as simple as we originally expected. The heart of the issue is that technologies are either in a too early or too late stages of development to achieve any change in terms health, safety or attractiveness. For example, the design of the battery-powered mining vehicles are based on current generation diesel-powered machines – changing these designs does not fall within the scope of SIMS. Similarly but on the other end of the spectrum, the project for semi-autonomous chargers concerns such an early stage that issues focus is on concerns such as the design of the charging head. In this sense the project has a narrow scope.

This results in three significant effects. First, we do not find it fruitful to hope to influence current design of technology. Instead our focus must be on influencing future designs. This however does not constitute a problem. For example, the company in question already sells battery-powered mining machines. These machines are the first generation of such machines. We could consider the machines they trial in the project a later generation. And the machines they will eventually sell following the project, we could consider an even later generation. Thus we can view the machines of SIMS as prototypes. But any advice that we offer must focus on the generation following the prototypes. For the semi-autonomous chargers, as another example, this means that we must to give advice for the future product and not just what gets developed in the project.

As for the second effect, we cannot base the investigations – and subsequently the advice that these investigations result in – solely on the technologies of the project. With the semi-autonomous chargers it will not be possible to investigate a complete (physical) version of the technology. Instead the focus must be on similar initiatives or the plans for the technology. This implies that we should view the technology of each project as “cases”. That is, the studies use the technology in question to exemplify certain phenomena but tries to generate advice for technology in a more general perspective. This we hope also ensures that the results are relevant to a wider audience.

The third effect of note is that we at this point do not find it relevant to talk of concrete or specific suggestions. Such an ambition assumes readily changeable designs, technology and so on. I would argue that this builds on an approach close to action research, where research activities actively seek to change the area under research. As noted, while representative of the original ambitions, the nature of the technology being developed hinders this approach. Instead, the approach must be interactive. Here we would still investigate questions that have significance for the different project partners. And we investigate the questions in close cooperation with the partners as well. The difference is that we do not seek to actively influence the partners other than presenting our conclusions as we reach these (recognising that this can influence future decisions of the partners). (For more on these topics, particularly the difference between an action-research approach and an interactive approach, see eg [4].)

I do not have a natural conclusion to end with – I just wanted to share some thoughts on this issue.

References

  1. 1. Neumann WP, Ekman M, Winkel J (2009) Integrating Ergonomics into Production System Development - The Volvo Powertrain Case. Applied Ergonomics 40:527–537
  2. 2. Simpson G, Horberry T, Joy J (2009) Understanding Human Error in Mine Safety. Ashgate, Surrey
  3. 3. Horberry T, Burgess-Limerick R, Steiner L (2018) Human-Centered Design for Mining Equipment and New Technology. CRC Press, Boca Raton, FL
  4. 4. Ellström P-E (2008) Knowledge Creation Through Interactive Research: A Learning Perspective. The European Conference on Educational Research (ECER), Gothenburg, September 10-12, 2008. doi: 10.1.1.525.3250

Notes

This post was updated on 29 December 2018.